An argument for women playing Shakespearean male leads

 

John Tufts (Edmond Rostand) and Terri McMahon (Sarah Bernhardt) in Bernhardt/Hamlet at Goodman theatre. (Liz Loren photo)
John Tufts (Edmond Rostand) and Terri McMahon (Sarah Bernhardt) in Bernhardt/Hamlet at Goodman Theatre. (Liz Loren photo)

3 stars

In “Bernhardt/Hamlet” now playing at Goodman Theatre, prolific playwright, screenwriter and novelist, Theresa Rebeck has pulled back the curtain on a real happening,  populated by real people. She colors it with witty, fictionalized dialogue in the first act.

Rebeck’s heroine, the incomparable French actress, Sarah Bernhardt, born Henriette-Rosine Bernard in 1844, had played Dumas’ “La Dame Aux Camelias,” which is repeatedly mentioned in the play as no longer a suitable role for an aging actress.

And she was in “L’Aiglon,” written by her lover, Edmond Rostand, a main character in “Bernhardt/Hamlet” played by John Tufts.

Just as important, is that Bernhard really did play male parts including Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which she preferred to Ophelia and Gertrude, and she did have to argue about those choices with the critics. But, after all, she was Bernhardt. By the way, her “L’Aiglon” role was as the Duc.

 

Volen Iliev (Ensemble), Amira Danan (Ensemble), Amanda Drinkall (Lysette), Larry Yando (Constant Coquelin), Park Krausen (Ensemble) and Travis Turner (Francois) in Bernhardt/Hamlet at Goodman Theatre. (Liz Lauren photo)
Volen Iliev (Ensemble), Amira Danan (Ensemble), Amanda Drinkall (Lysette), Larry Yando (Constant Coquelin), Park Krausen (Ensemble) and Travis Turner (Francois) in Bernhardt/Hamlet at Goodman Theatre. (Liz Lauren photo)

She did play Hamlet in 1899 in the venue she built, Théâtre Sarah Bernhard, the play’s nicely-done backdrop designed by set designer Narelle Sissons.

However, the “Hamlet” she played was an adaptation she commissioned from Eugène Morand and Marcel Schwob.

The first act is a fascinating dissection of “Hamlet.”

She raises questions about how old he is, what did his lines indicate, why his dead father, brilliantly portrayed by Goodman veteran Larry Yando (who is also Constant Conquelin,), speaks too long, why some people object to women playing men’s roles, but not the opposite, and could she do a rewrite.

Act I ends with Bernhardt asking Rostand to rewrite “Hamlet.” There just is  not enough clever observations and relevant action in Act II to justify the play’s length.

Under the direction of Donna Feore, Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran Terri McMahon, presents a somewhat understated Bernhardt which works well for Rebeck’s backstage scenario. An over-the-top diva performance would turn this look behind the curtain into a farce.

I also liked that famed Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, portrayed by Gregory Linington, was included in the play. His popular, highly-stylized  Art Nouveau poster set the era’s tone as does Dana Osborne’s costumes.

“Bernhardt/Hamlet” is informative and presents some interesting background on an actress not looked at often enough, given her stature. But the play goes on too long. I wonder what Bernhardt would have thought about it. It would be great to see her perform.

DETAILS: “Bernhardt/Hamlet” is at the Goodman Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago through Oct. 20, 2019. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with one intermission.  For tickets and other information call (312)443 3800 or visit Goodman Theatre/Bernhardt.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

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