Sarah Bernhardt, greatest actress of her day, asks a favor from her lover Edmond Rostand. He’s busy writing Cyrano de Bergerac, but wonders, “What do you want me to do?”
The divine Sarah replies, “I want you to rewrite Hamlet,” and Act One of Bernhardt/Hamlet ends with the audience sharing the playwright’s plight and in awe both of Sarah’s chutzpah and Delaney Driscoll’s performance.
Before the play is over, there’s enough shock and awe to share with Theresa Rebeck, the woman who wrote this “love letter to the theater,” as one critic called it. And there’s some admiration for audacity left over to praise Cathy Kurz of the Brigit St. Brigit Theatre for winning the rights to direct the regional premiere at a midtown church.
The title and the call for a rewrite are clues that the brassy star of the 19th century stage was planning to cross gender lines and play the melancholy Dane. But not as the usual contemplative fellow who vacillates about whether “To be or not to be.” No, she wants Rostand to delete all the poetry and make Hamlet a “man of action.”
We first see Driscoll as a swashbuckling Hamlet delivering an angry, unequivocal soliloquy, and a later rehearsal has hilarious fun with the visit of the ghost of his father. Jack Zerbe’s treatment of Constant Coquelin, the character who appears as the ghost revealing the father’s fate, is first among many highlights provided by supporting players.
Yet another rehearsal has Sarah’s Hamlet playfully making provocative advances on Ophelia (Katt Walsh) and joking, “That would certainly get their attention.”
There’s nary a weakness in the cast, from Matthew Olsen’s Rostand to Melissa King as his wife.
If Jeremy Earl as Alphonse the artist working on a poster for Sarah’s Hamlet seems a more striking and mature player perhaps it’s because he first performed for Brigit almost two decades ago.
You might suspect that Sarah met some resistance to her idea of a woman playing “the greatest role ever written.” If a defender reminded that Bernhardt was, after all, “the greatest actress,” that didn’t stop the critic (Brent Spencer) from declaring the very concept “grotesque.”
Alphonse the artist added this perspective, “They don’t come to see Hamlet. They come to see you as Hamlet.”
When both her son and her lover add their warnings, Sarah, now 53 in 1897 and fresh from a recent failure, asks, “What was I supposed to do? Take a final bow as Camille and exit stage left?”
Not Sarah Bernhardt or Delaney Driscoll, as masterful as ever with this larger-than-life leading lady. Last year she starred in another demanding role as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Crossroads. In her brief but memorable appearance as Rostand’s wife, Melissa King gives Rebeck’s drama its most intriguing twist by throwing hubby’s Cyrano script at Bernhardt and forcing her to contemplate her impact on his playwriting. Ever the slave of her ego, Bernhardt declares its heroine Roxanne “a moron” and labels Cyrano an idiot for letting his legendary nose intimidate him.
It’s delicious stuff that arguably turns Rostand’s play from a hot mess into a great classic. At least that’s the way this playgoer sees it, joining playwright Rebeck in her delightful sport with this 19th century reimagination. Bravo Brigit for again proving it doesn’t take a big budget to stage one of the best shows Omaha is likely to see this season.
Bernhardt/Hamlet runs through Oct. 20 at First Central Congregational United Church, 421 S. 36th St., with performances at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 4, 5, 18 and 19, and 2 p.m. Oct. 6 and 20. Tickets are $30, $25 for seniors, students and military. Call 402.502.4910 or visit bsbtheatre.com.