BWW Review: BERNHARDT/HAMLET at Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre Exemplifies Excellent Acting
Cathy Kurz, founder of Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre, has a reputation for choosing and directing works that are not those you commonly find in most community theaters. She selects carefully, searching for plays that have significance, and after researching the background, she looks for the right actors to play the parts. She has found those actors to perform Theresa Rebeck's BERNHARDT/HAMLET.
BERNHARDT/HAMLET is historical fiction. It is based on the actual life of theatre legend, Sarah Bernhardt. Even I, without a drama background, have known that name since childhood. What I didn't know was her story. In this interpretive retelling, Bernhardt defies convention and undertakes the role of Hamlet in Shakespeare's classic play. Women did not play "breeches" roles in the 1800s. It was unheard of and vigorously protested. But Bernhardt was not one to let the critics stop her. As Kurz puts it, "She was the prototype of anomaly, and she doesn't appear to have cared." Because of her controversial attitudes and her lack of caring, which she always followed through with actions despite the consequences, people either venerated her or were annoyed. However, no one ignored her.
Likewise, no one can ignore this cast. They are so good! Delaney Driscoll (Sarah Bernhardt) does a commendable job of transitioning between Olde English and contemporary speech. Even her character changes noticeably between acting as Hamlet and acting as Sarah Bernhardt. Because she embodies the qualities of Bernhardt so well, I found myself in the "annoyed" camp. Kurz writes, "It is easy to confuse the passionate actress with the persona." That is the case for me here. Delaney IS Bernhardt.
The consequences of Bernhardt's choices spill onto those around her. Edmond Rostand (Matthew R. Olsen) is manipulated into no win choices. Reputed to have been Bernhardt's lover, he is torn between her and his wife in Rebeck's version. He is forced to choose between pleasing Bernhardt by forsaking his own project to re-write a literary masterpiece for her or continuing to write what would become one of the most well-known comedic plays in history, "Cyrano de Bergerac." (Rostand did, indeed, pen Cyrano.) Both Driscoll and Olsen play out this relationship so well that I end up not liking either of them. Bernhardt's aggressive nature juxtaposed with Rostand's weakness irritate my sense of fair play.
Jack Zerbe stays steady as Constant Coquelin, Sarah's constant companion and fellow actor. He plays both the stable friend and the clownish Cyrano who originated the role in the play that ran for 300 performances in 1897-98. It has been said that people flocked to see Coquelin because of his extraordinary ability to play comedy and tragedy equally well. Zerbe fits that description. He exudes a sense of balance.
Jeremy Earl as the artist Alphonse Mucha plays it laid back and real. Always with paper and pen, you feel the passion of an artist. Mucha, known for his Art Nouveau style, is a suitable companion for the woman who chooses to be different. It didn't hurt that Bernhardt was an attractive woman. Mucha painted beautiful women almost exclusively.
Melissa King (Rosamund Gerard, Edmund's wife) exhibits in a short time on stage what a subtle, yet nuanced performance can be. She is sympathetic as a wife who understands that her husband wants someone else, but she loves him enough to get past the hurt long enough to do whatever it takes to build him up.
Brent Spencer (Louis Lamercier) is always solid. A writer and actor in real life, his experience translates to the writer/critic who finds the idea of women playing men's parts grotesque.
Katt Walsh (Lysette), Eric Grant-Leanna (Raoul), and Matt Cummins (Francois) fill out the cast as fictional members of the company that surrounded Bernhardt, adding dimension and interest.
Michael Juarez (Maurice Bernhardt) is obvious in his affection for his mother. Although she supposedly reciprocated that love, it feels more one-sided in this play. Except for the scene where she rests her head on his shoulder, I don't feel it. History records that Maurice was born out of wedlock, which is ironic since Bernhardt apparently had emotional baggage from being born out of wedlock and semi-abandoned by her own father. Now she leaves her son to face that same father abandonment. History repeats itself.
Whatever Bernhardt may have been in real life, BERNHARDT/HAMLET puts her in a bad light for me. It is only in reading the extensive background material that Kurz supplied in the playbill that I can appreciate the life of this remarkable woman. She was an incredibly unique person who kept a pet panther and a python, wore a hat with a stuffed bat, and at times slept in a coffin. She had amazing qualities in addition to the quirky ones. She was nearly killed in a mob because she was Jewish, yet she maintained pride in her heritage. The theatre named after herself was renamed in later years by the Nazis because it was Jewish. She supported herself and her son and she left her mark on history.
Bill Van Deest's set is simple, but appears to have an abundance of furniture pieces. It feels like someone's attic. Perhaps that's a good thing as many treasures are found in attics. And this is treasured history being pulled out and examined under the spotlight with the background dimmed.
Charlene J. B. Willoughby excels in her costuming choices. Maurice's coat is designed with beautiful lines. Bernhardt's gown is fabulously embellished with lace and sparkle. Rosamund's dress is richly detailed and fitted. And the Cyrano costumes catch the eye with bold color.
Bold colors. Dim lighting. History. Fiction. There are many contrasts which makes this a compelling piece. If you enjoy Shakespeare, this show is for you. If you love historical fiction, this show is for you. If you want a story about a woman who refuses to give in until she gets what she wants, this is for you. But if you're looking for a light-hearted story with mounting tension, a climax, and a satisfying resolution, this may not be the one for you. Come and learn why Sarah Bernhardt is a name that remains throughout history.
Runs Friday, Saturday, Sunday through October 20.
Photo Credit: Analisa Peyton