For actors, taking on the role of a legendary thespian might be the chance of a lifetime. Or paralyzing. Or both.
“Bernhardt/Hamlet” offers that role in the form of Sarah Bernhardt. The new play by playwright Theresa Rebeck recently had its regional premiere at Omaha’s Brigit St. Brigit Theatre, less than a year after it closed on Broadway.
Dubbed “The Divine Sarah,” Bernhardt was an acclaimed French theater actress in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She was known for a number of roles, notably the ill-fated Camille from Alexander Dumas’ “La Dame aux Camélias,” a character she played numerous times.
She also played male roles, including the title character in William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Rebeck built on that particular slice of time for her funny, intellectual and somewhat complex script.
Delaney Driscoll, a veteran of Brigit St. Brigit plays and a Shakespeare devotee, plays Bernhardt. In an interview leading up to the show, she expressed both joy and trepidation about playing a woman who many consider to be one of the finest actresses in history, if not the best ever.
She said she had a hard time liking Bernhardt, given her affair with a married man in the script. Bernhardt also had a great ego to go with her great talent and could be mercurial, traits that Rebeck emphasized.
Driscoll needn’t have been apprehensive. She plays Bernhardt with a natural ease that belies any nerves she may have. The character’s humanity — a strong will, abundant confidence in her abilities, vulnerability born of a difficult childhood — shines in Driscoll’s deft hands.
After a recent performance, Driscoll gave all the credit to guidance from director Cathy Kurz, whose inspired direction didn’t stop there. She surrounded her lead with an excellent ensemble of actors and a set, by Bill Van Deest, that transformed a room at First Central Congregational Church into several locales — a cafe, a French street, Bernhardt’s home and the cavernous theater the actress purchased.
As an aside, I have to say that Kurz and BSB also create the most engaging programs ever — full of academic commentary and history about each play they produce. The programs are fascinating to read before the show or during intermission and for studying after you get home.
Rebeck’s script, serious and humorous, focuses on Bernhardt’s plan to stage and star in “Hamlet” at her new theater. She needs to lure lots of patrons — she claims she has little money after her last play was a commercial failure. She has mixed feelings about Shakespeare’s longest work; to paraphrase, “it has too many words.”
She frequently works with French playwright Edmond Rostand (Matthew R. Olsen), and Rebeck writes that they’re having an affair (never proven in real life). She prevails on him to rewrite “Hamlet,” causing him more than a little angst and affecting his other works. All the while, she’s getting roasted by critics and others for thinking a woman can be the Danish king.
I’ve seen Olsen in a number of shows (“The Woodsman” at the Blue Barn may have been the most recent), and he never disappoints. The other cast members — Jack Zerbe, Katt Walsh, Matt Cummins and Eric Grant-Leanna as Bernhardt’s comical fellow thespians; Brent Spencer as a benign critic; Jeremy Earl as an artist who creates playbills for the Divine Sarah; Michael Juarez as Bernhardt’s son; and Melissa King as Rostand’s steely wife — are equally as accomplished.
Kurz was surprised when she got the rights to “Bernhardt/Hamlet” before most theaters in the country, given how rare that is for a small, fairly low-budget theater in the Midwest.
But after seeing the show, I’m convinced that the folks at Samuel French Inc. (the play’s distributor and rights-holder) knew what they were doing. Omaha has a rare gem in BSB, which specializes in classic plays and literary works. It’s a worthy home for a new script that’s about two classics: a brilliant and fearless actress and Shakespeare’s masterpiece.
This is its last weekend. You’ll be sorry if you miss it.