Blast From the Past: Unicorn’s “Bernhardt/Hamlet” Bristles with Good Performances

My regular readers know that my tolerance for plays about the theater is extremely low, but every now and then I run across a happy exception. 

The Unicorn Theatre (in collaboration with UMKC Theatre) offers up a well-acted production of Theresa Rebeck’s ambitious “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” in which the playwright toys with the historical fact that French actress Sarah Bernhardt made history by playing Shakespeare’s brooding prince of Denmark. (She was not the first female actor to play the role on stage, but she was the first to play him on film.) The play is longish, and Rebeck stitches together a fairly complex plot, but it succeeds as a brainy comedy peppered with social commentary relevant to the here and now. The Unicorn production, directed by Cynthia Levin, is a lively affair that gives you plenty to think about on the drive home. 

The piece opens in 1897 on the stage of a theater as Bernhardt (Carla Noack) is struggling with Shakespeare’s text — not the memorization so much as the meaning behind the language. With her are her company of actors — Constant (Robert Gibby Brand), the senior member of the troupe, as well as Francois (Todd Lanker), Raoul (Keenan Ramos) and Lysette (Shannon Mastel). 

Soon other characters are mixed into the narrative — Alphonse Mucha (Justin Barron), the artist who created stunning lithographic posters for Bernhardt’s productions, and playwright Edmond Rostand (Doogin Brown), most famous as the author of “Cyrano de Bergerac). And there is, of course, a hanger-on — a fictional critic named Louis (Khalif J. Gillett), who dispenses unsolicited opinions and insights while enthusiastically consuming wine and food offered by Bernhardt. 

In Act 2, we meet two additional characters — Bernhardt’s judgemental son Maurice (JT Nagle, who also plays two other small roles) and Rostand’s wife Rosamond (Mastel again).

In Rebeck’s retelling of the events leading up to “Hamlet,” Bernhardt and Rostand are lovers, although the playwright is tortured by his divided affections. He finds the charismatic Bernhardt irresistible but is tormented by his duty as a father and husband. And although he’s in the midst of writing “Cyrano,” which he recognizes as his potential masterpiece, Bernhardt convinces him to write a prose adaptation of “Hamlet.” He hates the assignment but doggedly puts pen to paper. 

Rebeck easily grasps the thematic low-hanging fruit as she celebrates Berhardt as a pioneering woman who took charge of her career and showed a shrewd instinct for self-promotion. And, she implies, box-office returns might have been an important motive, inasmuch as Bernhardt as Hamlet followed the tradition of “breeches parts” — masculine roles played by women, which allowed audiences a rare chance to admire the female form in public.

So while Rebeck’s version of Bernhardt is not exactly a feminist icon (women in France wouldn’t get the vote until 1945), she is definitely someone who seeks control of her destiny. And Rebeck allows Bernhardt an acerbic analysis of “Cyrano,” which she reads in unfinished form. The play, she says, is all about Cyrano and his elephantine nose, not the beautiful, vague Roxanne, who is virtually a non-entity.

From there Rebeck enters more complicated territory as she examines ideas about sexuality, how men perceive women and, conversely, how women perceive men. There are no easy answers for the questions posed by the playwright. But she makes a point of underscoring the contrast between a woman controversially playing an iconic male role on the brink of the 20th century with the fact that in Shakespeare’s day all female roles were played by men and boys.

Some of the most thought-provoking material occurs in scenes that don’t include Bernhardt — a meeting between Rostand and Louis, the critic, in which they banter about the logic of Bernhardt taking on a famous male role, and a drunken conversation between Rostand and Alphonse about femininity and Bernhardt’s status as a virtual goddess. Indeed, Brown as Rostand and Barron as Alphonse put on a comic-timing workshop in the show’s best scene. 

Noack is appropriately expansive as the ego-driven Bernhardt, but also precise in her scenes with individual actors. Her second-act conversation with her son requires a daunting emotional range. So do her scenes with Rostand. And in one of the most absorbing moments for theater hounds, Bernhardt convinces Constant to play the ghost of Hamlet’s father in a conversational, rather than presentational manner. As others have observed, it’s as if Bernhardt was inventing method acting. Brand, as usual, is impeccable — seeming to do little while conveying a lot.

Gillett paints an engaging portrait of a critic who is articulate, flip and clever while contemplating substantive ideas about life and art. Lanker and Ramos achieve richly comic moments as two supporting actors in the company who are required to play, among other roles, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Nagle shows himself as an adept young actor as Maurice. And Mastel impressively switches gears between the starry-eyed Lysette and the smart, controlling Rosamond. 

Kate Winegarden’s scenic design makes good use of the Unicorn’s turntable, which allows fairly quick transitions between locations. (Kudos to the stage hands who have to shove a revolve loaded with furniture and adult actors into position.) Zoe Spangler’s lighting is effective — and requires precision for those actors who occasionally enter from the audience. 

Bottom line: This is good stuff, smart and imaginative.

“Bernhardt/Hamlet” runs through Dec. 29 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. Call 816-531-7529 or go to unicorntheatre.org. 

About The Author: Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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