“A woman who cannot do anything is nothing. A man who does nothing is Hamlet,” Janet McTeer (Les Liaisons Dangereuses, The Taming of the Shrew) boldly declaims as Sarah Bernhardt, the world-renowned actress of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who’s the focus of Theresa Rebeck’s latest play. Bernhardt, during the course of the action, is doing something dramatic indeed – she, a middle-aged woman, is gearing up to play Shakespeare’s most indecisive hero, against the advice of some of her closest friends and admirers. As the diva works to transform herself into the prince of Denmark, the drama touches on issues of gender, performance, aging and art – and gives the inimitable McTeer a few choice lines, if not a rounded character, to deliver – but in the end leaves us wondering, what is a play that ultimately does nothing?
To be fair, Bernhardt/Hamlet does do a number of things – some of them quite well. It resurrects a fascinating historical moment, as the aging Bernhardt seeks to expand the repertoire of roles for women (or at least herself) by taking on one of the world’s most famous male roles – even coming up with justifications for why it makes sense for a woman of a certain age, who combines a young man’s softness of feature with an older, wiser perspective, to play the prince (whom, she insists, is 19, not 30). Of course, Bernhardt’s motives are not purely artistic. She’s broke, sick of playing her signature role in La Dame aux Camelias, and aging out of the best women’s roles – and, as a provocatrice who’s slept in a coffin and kept wild animals as pets, she’s ready to get jazzed up by the controversy her decision is sure to create.
That’s a lot of juice to work with, but the play’s first act, despite giving McTeer ample opportunity to display Bernhardt’s charisma, charm and utter egotism, drags and meanders. It’s not until just before intermission that the trajectory emerges. The mesmerizing Bernhardt, who’s involved in a passionate love affair with Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner, The Crucible, The Coast of Utopia), a very-married, younger playwright, pulls him away from what he feels will be his masterpiece to rope him into rewriting the Bard’s greatest work – to remove the poetry. It’s a job that’s dispiriting at best, soul-killing at worst, and while it’s historically true, without any indication of how it played out, it casts serious doubt on Bernhardt’s motives – and judgment as an artist.
Unearthing this moment of dramatic history lets Rebeck create a choice vehicle for the McTeer, who shifts from a posturing diva to the prince of Denmark to a dedicated artist to a demanding mistress with a deftness and delight that makes acting seem as effortless as breathing. She’s supported by an uneven cast, but standouts include Dylan Baker (The Front Page, The Audience) as Bernhardt’s loyal leading man, Constant Coquelin; Matthew Saldivar (Saint Joan, JUNK) as Bernhardt’s phlegmatic friend and poster-artist, illustrator Alphonse Mucha; and Ito Agahayere (JUNK, Mlima’s Tale) as Rostand’s wife Rosamond, who actually manages to steal the stage from Bernhardt and McTeer as she confounds her husband’s mistress with the one thing that can undercut the couple’s illicit love.
But despite the many advantages this production starts off with, including the lush, thoughtful direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Present Laughter, Hand to God), who lets McTeer have her head, and the detailed, evocative set created by the blessedly ubiquitous Beowulf Boritt, Rebeck doesn’t seem to know what to do with the rich vein of ore she’s struck. As the actors puzzle through Hamlet, her Bernhardt seems strikingly naïve about the famous role – arguing that she’s always played Ophelia – and her discussions with the rest of the cast feel surprisingly sophomoric. And even for a self-obsessed actor, she makes decisions that feel random and unmotivated – like rewriting Shakespeare to take out the ba-BAH, ba-BAH, ba-BAH – not least of all in how they relate to the perpetually recurring concerns with gender and power.
What works best (perhaps unsurprisingly) and is the strongest argument for Bernhardt’s daring decision is how beautifully Hamlet appears in the all-too-few moments when McTeer, who managed to be stunning in the far less rewarding Shakespearean role of Petruchio at the Delacorte, is allowed to play him unimpeded. But when the play devolves into biopic, it’s disappointing even given its source material, as the shafts of brilliance we see when McTeer plays Bernhardt understanding and giving life to Hamlet give way to backstage arguments that lead not to a final Hamlet but, oddly, to a cheesy rendition of Rostand’s most famous play, Cyrano de Bergerac. Not to give anything away, but there is nothing to give away. The hurried ending explains neither what historical impact Bernhardt’s performance had, nor where her life and relationships went, nor anything about Hamlet or, for that matter, women. Apparently, a woman who plays Hamlet gets nothing.