In 2019, “to wear the pants” is a common idiom signifying relational dominance. In 1899, when actress Sarah Bernhardt decided to don trousers and play Hamlet, such a phrase could be applied only to men. Theresa Rebeck’s dramedy Bernhardt/Hamlet begins in this “scandalous” moment, as Berhardt prepares to take center stage in the britches of the Bard’s most famous character, but its cultural significance extends well past its setting. Witty, poignant, and dynamic, Goodman Theatre’s Bernhardt/Hamlet is a thought-provoking show that reminds us not only how far we’ve come, but also how much further we have to go.
Rebeck’s fictionalized account of Bernhardt’s history opens in rehearsal, as Bernhardt struggles to recall lines from one of Hamlet’s many lengthy soliloquies. Decisive and fearless, Bernhardt detests Hamlet’s hesitancy and does not have the same reverence for the character as her male counterparts: ““A woman who cannot do anything is nothing,” Bernhardt jibes. “A man who does nothing is Hamlet.” Such conviction, to do something, has served Bernhardt well her entire career and made her a household name, but crossing gender norms proves more challenging than she expected, and as the play develops, she uncovers further troubling truths about gender politics and how the men in her life perceive her.
It’s a timely subject, one which questions why we pretend to be accepting of women in power until women actually have it. And Rebeck’s script, filled with Shakespearean allusions, snippets of Bernhardt’s eccentric life, and snappy one liners, is a clever tour de force. Yet if “brevity is the soul of wit,” the show needs a bit more work, coming in around 2.5 hours. The script also suffers from discrepancy between its two acts. Act I raises questions about the supposed sanctity of Shakespeare and who, if anyone, can challenge that, whereas Act II shifts fully toward an exploration of women’s roles, both onstage and off. Though these themes intersect in interesting ways, the balance feels a bit askew.
Narelle Sissons’ set design works to restore equilibrium, however, by constantly re-emphasizing the ideas about transformation from Act I. Some of the most quotable lines in the show revolve around an actors’ role in interpreting the script and imbuing it with life (and therefore, of how different perspectives and approaches should be welcomed rather than rebuffed). And Sissons’ design, which fluidly shifts along with the scenes, highlights this idea in a way the Broadway production did not.
Memorable too is Terri McMahon’s performance, one equal to the legendary leading lady she’s playing. McMahon’s familiarity and comfort with Shakespeare is clear, and she perfectly captures the confidence of Bernhardt while still revealing glimpses of vulnerability. Standing out alongside her are Larry Yando as a fellow renowned actor, Constant Coquelin, and Jennifer Latimore, whose sole scene as the wife of Bernhardt’s lover makes quite an impact.
Imperfect though it may be, Bernhardt/Hamlet’s strengths far overshadow its flaws. Rebeck’s sharp, clever dialogue and McMahon’s tremendous performance make it well-worth seeing, but the play’s greatest asset is its relevance. Leaving my seat, I couldn’t help but return to the question of how theatre, how society, has changed since Bernhardt’s bold move. She attempted to pave a new path for women, but was she successful? How far have we really come since Bernhardt “wore the pants?”
Bernhardt/Hamlet continues at Goodman Theatre through Oct. 20. Info here.
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