A famous French actress wears the pants onstage in Bernhardt/Hamlet | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » Theater Review

A famous French actress wears the pants onstage in Bernhardt/Hamlet

Theresa Rebeck's comedy of sexual politics tests the limits of women in power.

by

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

comment

Back in 2007, New Yorker theater critic John Lahr dismissed Theresa Rebeck's play Mauritius, about a woman getting involved with petty thieves, as "Mamet for girls." I remembered that while watching Rebeck's 2018 Broadway comedy, Bernhardt/Hamlet, now in its local premiere under Donna Feore's direction at the Goodman—and not just because a sexist critic plays a supporting role and decries an actress's ambition with "You are a freak."

Though Rebeck has written many essays on sexual discrimination in theater, she's now put those thoughts in a play about theater. Set in Paris in the late 1890s, the story revolves around Sarah Bernhardt (Terri McMahon), the glorious (but aging) doyenne of the stage who, having outgrown ingenue roles, decides to play Hamlet. Only this woman of both sexual allure and seemingly indomitable self-assurance can't work her mind around the indecisiveness of the Danish prince, so she enlists her lover, pre-Cyrano de Bergerac Edmond Rostand (John Tufts), to rewrite it for her own strengths. "A woman who cannot do anything is nothing. A man who does nothing is Hamlet" she points out—an acidic reminder that women are often judged on resumés and men praised for "potential."

Rebeck's play, at least in this production, tends to work better taken in parts, but those good parts are pretty glorious. A scene between McMahon's Hamlet and Larry Yando's Ghost is as transcendent as the brilliant moment in the TV series Slings & Arrows where a director dissects the psychology of Ophelia. At nearly three hours, Rebeck takes a little too long to make her points, but it's overall a delightful and thought-provoking theatrical exercise.  v

Add a comment