Sunday, October 1, 2023

"Berhardt/Hamlet" by Theatre Pro Rata at the Crane Theater

These days, it's pretty common to see women playing traditionally male roles, especially in Shakespeare, in which most of the good roles, and roles in general, are male. This is partly due to the fact that women weren't allowed on stage in Shakespeare's time, and they are now (hooray!). But even though it's common, but people still sometimes put up a stink about it. French actor Sarah Bernhardt was doing it over a hundred years ago, so one can imagine the controversy and drama surrounding that. In the new play Bernhardt/Hamlet, currently receiving it's regional premiere by Theatre Pro Rata, playwright Theresa Rebeck imagines just that, telling the story of Bernhardt rehearsing to play Hamlet, and how her friends and colleagues reacted to it. As I said in this week's episode of the Twin Cities Theater Chat podcast, Theatre Pro Rata always brings us interesting choices of plays that we probably wouldn't otherwise see, and this is a prime example. Also as always, it's well-cast and well done, for an entertaining and thought-provoking evening of theater. This funny, dramatic, historical, romantic, and relevant play continues at the Crane Theater through October 13 only.

Nicole Goeden as Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet with the ensemble
(photo by Alex Wohlhueter)
It's the late 19th Century, and Sarah Bernhardt, who at this time is one of the most popular and well-known actors in the world, who even has her own theater, has decided to take on one of the greatest roles in theater - Hamlet. She's pretty much played every female role in theater, and wants a new challenge. And why shouldn't she play Hamlet? We see her in rehearsal with her fellow actors (mostly) supporting her, including real-life actor Constant Coquelin, who repeatedly reminds her that he's played the role four times. We meet her lover, the married playwright Edmond Rostand (who hasn't yet written his most famous play, Cyrano de Bergerac), her adult son Maurice, and the artist Alphonse Mucha, who created iconic posters for many of her plays (three of which have been beautifully recreated for the set and are being auctioned off in a silent auction now open). Sarah meets some resistance along the way, mostly couched as concern for her, but she's determined. She even asks Edmond to rewrite the play to her specifications, at which he's aghast, but no one can resist her charm and determination.

Sarah and Edmond (Nicole Goeden and Em Rosenberg)
(photo by Alex Wohlhueter)
Theatre Pro Rata's Artistic Director Carin Bratlie Wethern directs the piece, imbuing it with humor and lightness, but also allowing for some deeper moments of reflection. Leading the strong ensemble cast, Nicole Goeden is convincing both as Sarah and as Hamlet (and makes me want to see her play the role). She has great chemistry with Em Rosenberg's Edmond, who brings depth to the role of Sarah's romantic interest with complications. Other highlights include Sean Dillon as the experienced-and-doesn't-let-you-forget-it actor Constant, and Duck Washington as Sarah's friend, supporter, and portrait-maker Alphonse.

The story takes place primarily on a theater stage where Sarah is rehearsing, so not much is needed to make the stage of the Crane Theater stage look like a stage. Before the show set pieces are covered in tarps, like a theater set not in use. There are sounds coming from backstage of muffled conversations and musicians warming up, so realistic I checked the program to see if there's a live band (there's not). Once the show begins we're easily transported into a 19th century theater, with a chaise lounge, table and chairs creating other locations. Characters are dressed in period costumes, including Sarah’s Hamlet costume as seen in the poster (set design by Sadie Ward, sound design by Jacob M. Davis, costume design by Raphael Ferreira).

Quite a few well-known scenes from Hamlet are included in the play, as well as some scenes from Cyrano, including the insult scene (with Sean Dillon as Constant making a great Cyrano). This makes Bernhardt/Hamlet a good choice for fans of Shakespeare, or theater, or history, or historical fiction, or women's stories, or smartly written comedies. See it at the Crane Theater in Northeast Minneapolis through October 14.