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Entertainment Review: What's a woman's role? All of 'em, 'Bernhardt/Hamlet' argues

Either way, Theresa Rebeck’s new play, which opened Tuesday at the American Airlines Theater, is so clever it uplifts, so timely it hurts.

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Is it chance or synchronicity that brings “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” a muscular comedy about a woman unbound, to Broadway at this grim transitional moment in gender politics?

Either way, Theresa Rebeck’s new play, which opened Tuesday at the American Airlines Theater, is so clever it uplifts, so timely it hurts.

That’s a depressing thing to say about a story set in 1899 in that temple of chauvinism, the French popular theater. Janet McTeer stars as Sarah Bernhardt, then in her mid-50s and aging out of the dying courtesan roles that made her world-famous. As far as Shakespeare is concerned, she is caught in the gap between Ophelia and Gertrude.

So why not try Hamlet?

Enter the men: Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner), one of France’s greatest young dramatists; Alphonse Mucha (Matthew Saldivar), the art nouveau illustrator of Bernhardt’s gorgeous posters; and Louis (Tony Carlin), a critic so parsimonious with praise I suppose it’s only fair that he’s given no surname.

“A woman with power,” he says of Bernhardt, and right to her face, “is a freak.”

It is not just the assumption of male opportunities and prerogatives that bothers these men; to be fair, Rostand, whom Rebeck posits as Bernhardt’s lover, is actually turned on by her Hamlet boots.

“It is delightful to undress a man and find a woman inside,” he says, undoing her drag after rehearsal.

To which Bernhardt responds, with the hungry air of the often disappointed, “It is equally delightful to undress a man and find a man.”

Though Rebeck sees herself as a storyteller and not a polemicist, this exchange typifies her knack for jokes that score points. The gender crisis even then, “Bernhardt/Hamlet” suggests, was not about femaleness but maleness. What’s wrong with men that they can’t tolerate strong women?

From there it’s barely a step to an even more taboo question: What’s wrong with Shakespeare? In letting Bernhardt dissect Hamlet in rehearsal — to ask why, undressing him, she never finds a man — the play locates a marvelous side door to its subject.

Hamlet, after all, is all words. Beautiful ones, yes: But untethered to meaningful action, what is the value of beauty?

That’s precisely the box that Bernhardt — who knew from boxes because she sometimes slept in a coffin — feels trapped in by her gender. And so she hits upon the brilliantly perverse idea of having Rostand rewrite Shakespeare to eliminate the poetry.

Until that point, “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” a deluxe Roundabout Theater Company production, is breakneck backstage comedy, swiveling like its Lazy Susan of a set (by Beowulf Boritt) among scenes of romance, Rialto gossip, rehearsal drollery and literary exploration. (Thesis topic: How old is Hamlet?) Bernhardt makes the persuasive case that men who are youthful enough to play the role are too inexperienced and men who are experienced enough are too unyouthful. A boyish woman is the only sensible solution.

In these scenes, McTeer, best known on Broadway for playing Nora Helmer and Mary Stuart, turns her tragic intensity inside out. Trying on emotions as if they were samples at a perfume counter, she flits through moods both pungent and evanescent. Dudgeon quickly melts to delight and narcissism to apology. She hardly needs Rostand, Louis or Mucha to define her; she is author, critic and self-portraitist in one.

But it’s also worth noting that in Harner, excellent as Rostand, the play supplies her with a worthy backboard and erotic partner.

That’s rare enough in plays about strong women. Rarer yet, as Bernhardt locates the heart of Hamlet McTeer the comedian becomes a riveting Shakespearean, exploring new pathways through scenes with the ghost and with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Suddenly you want to see Bernhardt — or McTeer — as everyone in the canon.

But in the second act, after the big decision, the play loses some of its internal logic. Not because it departs from history; Bernhardt did commission and eventually triumph in an adaptation of “Hamlet,” if not by Rostand. And Rebeck’s confidence as a storyteller in any case moots the historical infidelities that mar so many period pieces. Her tale has its own inevitability and that is enough.

Instead, the problem with the second half of the play is that it fritters its focus on a new set of concerns, including Rostand’s wife, Rosamond (Ito Aghayere); his new play “Cyrano de Bergerac” (which actually had its premiere in 1897); and Bernhardt’s adult son, Maurice (Nick Westrate). Rebeck writes about all these with her usual verve, and her analysis of “Cyrano” is devastating. It’s just that we cannot now invest ourselves in developments that seem to lead away from, instead of toward, the character we care most about.

But with great effort Rebeck does eventually bend this all back to Bernhardt. (She has devised one of the most thrilling endings I’ve seen in years.) And perhaps the time away was useful to the extent that we now see the character less in the context of her own personal quest and more in the context of the play’s central question: “Is the female self exposed the same as the male self exposed?”

We still don’t know the answer to that, but if we’re going to find out, the stage is a good place to start. And the exceptional thing about Rebeck’s no-excuses attack on the matter is that she models this as a question in which men, too, must be vividly involved.

In that sense, “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” directed with wit and verve by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, is a deep-inside love letter to the theater as a kind of laboratory in which experiments in both art and equality are possible. Among all her supposed fans and supporters, it is only Bernhardt’s company of actors, led by the old-school Constant Coqueline (Dylan Baker, great), who fully support her gender daring. Even the ingénue (Brittany Bradford) quite happily experiments with full-on Hamlet-Ophelia frottage.

That’s more than a wicked valentine: It’s a vision.

PRODUCTION NOTES:

‘Bernhardt/Hamlet’

TICKETS: Through Nov. 11 at American Airlines Theater, Manhattan; 212-719-1300, roundabouttheatre.org. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.

CREDITS: By Theresa Rebeck; directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel; sets by Beowulf Boritt; costumes by Toni-Leslie James; lighting Bradley King; music and sound by Fitz Patton; hair and wigs by Matthew B. Armentrout; dialect consultant, Stephen Gabis; fight consultant, Robert Westley; production stage manager, James FitzSimmons; associate artistic director, Scott Ellis. Presented by Roundabout Theater Co., Todd Haimes, artistic director and CEO, Julia C. Levy, executive director, Sydney Beers, general manager, Steve Dow, chief administrative officer.

CAST: Janet McTeer (Sarah Bernhardt), Dylan Baker (Constant Coquelin), Brittany Bradford (Lysette), Triney Sandoval (François, worker), Aaron Costa Ganis (Raoul), Jason Butler Harner (Edmond Rostand), Tony Carlin (Louis), Matthew Saldivar (Alphonse Mucha), Nick Westrate (Maurice) and Ito Aghayere (Rosamond).

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Jesse Green © 2018 The New York Times

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