In 1899, Sarah Bernhardt decided to take on the role of Hamlet. The most famous actress of her—perhaps of any — time was no longer comfortable playing ingenues, and the parts written for women in their 50s held no interest for her. Her daring gender crossing is considered a seminal moment in the history of performing arts. She could keep a pet tiger and a fleet of lovers, and even sleep in a coffin, but her decision to play a man was treated by critics at the time as one “eccentricity” too far. The event should have made for a compelling play, at least for theater buffs and cultural historians. Unfortunately in Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet, the excitement is smothered by too much talk and upstaged by scenes written by the Bard himself.
Bernhardt/Hamlet is the first commissioned original work that Roundabout has brought to Broadway. Despite a lengthy development process, the piece still feels like it was created by committee and at the very least could do with another round of editing. There are a number of enlightening themes explored in Rebeck’s script including the inner life of Shakespeare’s famed Danish Prince. It becomes obvious that Hamlet and Bernhardt share an almost crushing doubt about their purpose. Strongest of all are Bernhardt’s observation about gender issues that persist to this day, especially the challenges facing talented women who are too old to play 20 something convincingly and too fierce to take a tiny supporting role. Bernhardt had successfully portrayed Cleopatra, Cordelia, Desdemona and Ophelia, all of which had become inappropriate. What was left for an actress of her range to play except Shakespeare’s most defining role? Sadly, too much of the banter sounds like it’s coming from the head instead of the heart, robbing the exchanges of any emotion that could move and inspire the audience. The production comes across like someone sharing the love of ballet by drawing it on a chalkboard.
The characters’ nattering is made worse by the static direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Even the more crackling stretches of Rebeck’s dialogue are choked off by the lack of movement. The enclosed feeling is made worse by Beowulf Boritt’s suffocating set. Never has Paris seemed less lively. This lack of energy becomes is most noticeable during fast paced scene changes, which are accompanied by dramatic original music by Fitz Patton. At least costumes by Toni-Leslie James and hair and wigs by Matthew B. Armentrout are appropriately jazzy.
What’s happening front and center is worthy of the Divine Sarah. Like the one-of-a-kind star she is portraying, Janet McTeer dominates the stage with her honeyed voice, graceful stature and sheer presence. Slightly more exaggerated is Dylan Baker’s performance as Constant Coquelin, Bernhardt’s frequent leading man. Though he can’t match her vigor, he injects wit into their banter. Jason Butler Harner as her lover Edmond Rostand embodies a realistic combination of lust and haplessness. As his wife, Ito Aghayere who sparkled in Junk last season, is disappointing and flat in a significant scene.
At nearly 2 1/2 hours, Bernhardt/Hamlet will likely be a slog for all but the most dedicated lovers of “straight” theater. It’s a missed opportunity to share a shining moment when a talented actress took charge of her own career. Bernhard, Hamlet, and Ms. McTeer all deserve better. Tickets are on sale through November 11 at https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Shows-Events/Bernhardt-Hamlet.aspx.
The Lifespan of a Fact
In this age of high anxiety and bitter divide, it didn’t seem possible that anyone could write a play that was both timely and hilarious. Amazingly The Lifespan of a Fact — based on true events surrounding the development of an article about a Las Vegas teen’s suicide — achieves this blissful combination. Written in vivid detail by nonconformist writer John D’Agata, the original 2005 article was assigned for fact-checking to an ambitious magazine intern, Jim Fingal. D’Agata and Fingal’s conflict over the nature and role of facts spanned seven years and resulted in an essay and a book which in turn inspired Lifespan’s script by Jeremy Kareken & David Murrell and Gordon Farrell. With so many fingers on keyboards, this production could have been a cacophonous mess, but the logic and story are sound. Fingal’s on stage persona makes a strong case for journalistic integrity and thorough research. Equally persuasive is D’Agata’s viewpoint that the right words, however poetic, are needed to attract and hold readers’ attention. Perhaps most importantly for Lifespan’s audience, their 90 minute argument elicits many cathartic chuckles.
The well crafted material hits the intended target in large part because of the wise direction of Leigh Silverman. She has a keen instinct for when to punch up the humor without going too broad. Rather, she peels back the layers of each of the three characters in slowly building rhythm. She has the great advantage of being blessed with a magnificent cast, each of whom has an incredible sense of pace and timing. Charmingly obsessive in his role of fact checker Jim Fingal, Daniel Radcliffe is physically taut and verbally cranked to 11. He prepared for the role by actually working as a fact checker for New Yorker magazine, which clearly gave him a strong foundation on which to draw character details. His opponent in the battle of wits, writer John D’Agata, is bought to irritated life by a blustery and brilliant Bobby Cannavale. That the two actors are nearly a foot apart in height adds a shiny layer of physical humor on top of their perfectly orchestrated banter. Standing between them with a commanding hand and a touch of grace is the charismatic Cherry Jones as the magazine’s editor, Emily.
Many hands add their own magical touch to bringing out the best in the piece. Mimi Lien’s scenic design includes some smile-inducing details. Linda Cho’s costumes give good visual cues. The playwrights have raised the stakes by putting their characters on a four day deadline. Projections by Lucy Mackinnon and music and sound by Palmer Hefferan keep us on edge as the clock ticks stressfully onwards towards publication day.
Suitable for teens and up, The Lifespan of a Fact brings much needed smart laughter to Broadway’s fall season. Though the ending may be unsatisfying to some, the overall experience is everything you want from an afternoon or evening at the theater. It is playing at Studio 54, which has particularly good sight lines. Tickets for performances through January 13, 2019 are for sale at https://www.lifespanofafact.com and on most entertainment apps. A limited number of affordable $40 seats are available for purchase in-person at the Studio 54 box office for same-day sale.