When Hamlet, the eponymous character in William Shakespeare’s play, asks: “To be or not to be?” many of us learned in high school English he is contemplating life or death.
Yet, in the production of “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” which opened this week at the Goodman Theatre, the question seems more about the gender of the lead actor, as in whether Hamlet should be or not be a woman.
The answer is easy to give in 2019 because there already have been a number of women in the role, (such as Asta Nielsen, Teresa Parr, Ruth Negga, Michelle Terry, Maxine Peake and Ruth Mitchell).
But in 1899? Hardly any woman could and few would, so we need to also look at whether one such as Sarah Bernhardt should.
So, that is where we go in this play directed by Donna Fiore. We go back in time to the scandal and the imagined angst. All of which is lovely for many reasons, one being we get to revisit the amazing Sarah, woman-before-her-time, Bernhardt and watch her come alive where she belongs — on the stage. And another being we get a Shakespearean lesson — not a ponderous lecture but a lighthearted discussion that has a delightful bounce to it. (A nice way to revisit or learn about Shakespeare.)
Much of the first act is Bernhardt and her cast rehearsing before the Paris opening. One of whom is played by the talented veteran actor Larry Yando, who stands out on any stage. But here, as Constant Coquelin, his character also is one of the few men supporting Bernhardt in taking on Hamlet.
This play asks many questions and postures on our possibilities — are they endless, are they limited, and should conventions be shattered, or are the constraints there for a reason? At age 55, Bernhardt is past the lighter roles of female flowers. She is ready for meat. So, she sets out to perform Shakespeare’s greatest role ever.
Written by Theresa Rebeck, this delightful play premiered on Broadway in 2018. It is witty and fast paced and dips into not only the Bard but a bit of “Cyrano de Bergerac” as well — a role that, thankfully, Yando takes on in the second act, making it a scene you cannot do without.
The cast is strong, and I particularly loved the Terri McMahon as Bernhardt. She, similar to the character, is not an ingenue but is a great beauty with power and presence. She delivers a strong performance as does Bernhardt’s friend and the artist who designs all her theatrical posters, Alphonse Mucha, played by Gregory Linington.
While this is essentially a one-woman play, I enjoyed Jennifer Latimore’s performance, which comes in well into the second act. She gives a strong performance as the wife of Bernhard’s latest lover, playwright Edmond Rostand (playwright of Cyrano).
Should you take the time to come to Chicago and see this? Perhaps you should ask yourself: Do I like smart theater? Do I enjoy Shakespeare and his brand of literary humor? Or do I want to understand the Bard better? And finally, do I love good acting and a fun story?