To “thee” or not to “thee.” That is the question for the renowned French actress Sarah Bernhardt in Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet, a terrifically theatrical and entertaining but not quite airtight new Broadway comedy at the American Airlines Theatre.
It’s 1897, while preparing to play Shakespeare’s doleful Danish prince, Sarah (Janet McTeer) is at a professional and personal crossroad. Just rehearsing the role has raised critics’ hackles. She’s in love with playwright Edmond Rostand (an invaluable Jason Butler Harner), who’s married. And she’s broke.
Still, the Divine Sarah, as she was known, expects to get what she wants – her way, her man, her role. And that includes getting Rostand to rewrite Hamlet to suit her needs.
So it goes in Rebeck’s clever fact- and fiction-fueled work, which makes you laugh and think about gender, power and theater. The play speaks to today, but, happily, never hammers its relevance. Rebeck (Seminar, Mauritius) is a smart writer. She trusts the intelligence of her audience.
The play gets a lift each time Sarah goes through scenes of Hamlet with fellow actors including the real-life Constant Coquelin (a deft Dylan Baker). A terrible Prince Valiant-like wig is another great laugh.
But at times things go slack. A subplot about Alphonse Mucha (Matthew Saldivar) creating a signature Art Nouveau poster for Hamlet brings a minor payoff about missing fathers – Hamlet’s and Sarah’s.
And for all the talking about rewriting the Bard’s text, Rebeck never creates that scene. Too bad, since it could have been hilarious and instructive. Instead, the plot veers to Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. As Rebeck relates it, lovely but empty-headed Roxanne was written for her. After getting a taste of Hamlet, Sarah, who was famous for death scenes, chafed at the notion of playing a “moron.” Who needs a death scene – settling to play an idiot is suicide.
Directed for the Roundabout by Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Hand to God, Present Laughter), the production is a looker. Rotating sets by Beowulf Boritt reveal two sides of Sarah. Costumes by Toni-Leslie James capture the period and character. Lighting by Bradley King lends shadows and glow as needed. Sound design by Fitz Patton ensures every stage whisper and outburst ring clearly.
Tony Carlin, as a snooty critic, Nick Westrate in the role of Sarah’s son and Ito Aghayere as Rostand’s sly wife lend fine support. Brittany Bradford, Aaron Costa Ganis and Triney Sandoval round out the cast as Hamlet players.
A play about Sarah Bernhardt, of course, rises and falls on who’s playing the legendary star. McTeer, a Tony winner for A Doll’s House, elevates everything with her stirring voice and striking physicality. She’s funny, fierce and altogether magnetic. Simply put, Divine Janet.