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Bernhardt/Hamlet, Machine de Cirque  

Posted 10/3/18

Berhardt/Hamlet, Machine de Cirque reviewed  by Fern Siegel for


“The Divine Sarah” as the indomitable actress Sarah Bernhardt was known, remained a beloved figure throughout her life. It’s 1897 — and at 55, she is a sexy, vibrant, passionate performer scandalizing the pompous critics by daring to play Hamlet.

Now at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater, Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet, starring Janet McTeer in all her imposing glory, is the backstory to the real-life event.

Rebeck’s play is twofold — it examines the challenges and responses of Parisian society to a woman playing the brooding Dane. And it’s never less than smart, as Bernhardt argues why a woman is better suited to the role. 

“A young actor of, what, 20, cannot understand the philosophy of Hamlet. An older actor no longer looks the boy,” she reasons. “The woman more readily looks the part and feels the part, yet has the subtleness of mind to grasp it.”

Later, she adds a witty aside: “A woman who cannot do anything is nothing. A man who does nothing is Hamlet.”

So consumed is the ever-charming Bernhardt by the text and the challenge, she boldly asks her younger lover, playwright Edmond Rostand (Jason Butler Harner) to rewrite history’s great drama. She wants naturalism and accessibility; he’s stunned by the audacity of the request. A trusted colleague  (Dylan Baker) fears it’s too great a task to undertake, while Czech artist Alphonse Mucha (Matthew Saldivar) struggles to capture the right image on the vivid production poster

How Bernhardt defends her female Hamlet is compelling. Rebeck artfully looks at theatrical tradition and progress, as well as Bernhardt’s implicit understanding of her own legacy. (She was the first woman to own a theater, Theatre de la Renaissance, and was its artistic director and lead actress from 1893 to 1899.)

And while the defense is compelling, and McTeer is never less than captivating, striding the stage in black boots like a general preparing the troops for battle, the dramatic tension is negligible. Indeed, we never see her play Hamlet. For all its wit and sensibility, Bernhardt/Hamlet is more recitation than revelation.

Still, Beowulf Boritt’s set design beautifully divides Bernhardt’s life — the sensualist and the actress. Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s direction is precise, but unlike the Divine Sarah, who kept a pet tiger and was known to sleep in a satin-lined coffin, the sharply-written play never kicks into high gear.

Cirque de Soleil meets post-apocalyptic steampunk in 60 dazzling minutes from Canadian-based Machine de Cirque at the New Victory Theater.

Mixing high-flying acrobatics, a loose narrative of men lost in a bunker surrounded by odd machines they cannot understand, and set to hard-driving percussion, there is much to delight and thrill. The set, feel and lighting is distinctly on the dark side, however, which gives the show the feel of a black-and-white film from a young Stanley Kubrick. Younger viewers may find this a bit intimidating.

But the overall effect is gripping, charming and at times, even touching.

Underscoring the incredible feats of traditional circus fare, like juggling, leaping and riding unicycles, there is the sense that these five performers need each other to survive their strange world. That lesson is not lost on the audience.

We are all in this together, even if we’re playing improvised drums with juggling pins flying over our heads.

Kudos to mechanical engineer David St-Onge and scenography advisors Josee Bergeron-Proulx and Julie Levesque for fashioning an intriguing metallic landscape. —Fern Siegel