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Janet McTeer in “Bernhardt/Hamlet”

Review: McTeer shines in Rebeck’s ‘Hamlet/Bernhardt’

NEW YORK — Sarah Bernhardt was the biggest theatrical sensation of her time. In the late 1800s, Bernhardt was the toast of fin-de-siécle Paris. In Theresa Rebeck’s play “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” the actress, played here by Janet McTeer, having played and mastered all the great female roles is about to tackle theater’s greatest male role — Hamlet.

Bernhardt argues that a male actor of the right age cannot understand the character. But an actor mature enough to understand the role is too old. Therefore, it makes sense for a woman to play the part. McTeer’s Bernhardt is athletic and boyish, and she certainly possesses the craft to play the part.

But the question is, for all her ability, can Bernhardt truly understand the part. She is seeking to play a masculine role, yet Hamlet is not a typically masculine role. He is poetic, the opposite of the typically masculine. Bernhardt wants to play a man, yet it could be argued that Shakespeare’s brilliance is that he has given us a character that is a rejection of the typical male — Hamlet wants to be a man of action but is stalled by his indecision and over-intellectualization.

So what Rebeck gives us is a philosophical question about gender and roles. Bernhardt wants her playwright lover, Edmond Rostand (played by Jason Butler Harner), to rewrite the role and remove the poetry, as the poetry is too feminine. Yet it is precisely Hamlet’s poetry that draws actors to the role — not because he is a man with inherent “masculine” directness — but because he is flawed and seeks to find his way through his indecision. It is this flaw that makes him supremely human.

So when Bernhardt seeks to masculinize the role, she is effectively destroying the very thing that makes Hamlet such a compelling figure.

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Jason Butler Harner and janet McTeer in “Bernhardt/Hamlet”

McTeer, who won a Tony for “A Doll’s House” in 1997, is superb, using her tall, athletic body to dominate the stage. Her Bernhardt dominates every interaction through sheer force of nature. Harner holds his own as Rostand tries to adapt Shakespeare’s text to his lover’s demands, while also trying to keep the original’s intentions — which is at odds with what she wants. The pair spar as lovers and artists, and it is in their interactions that the play sparkles.

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Alphonse Mucha’s poster for Sarah Bernhardt’s “Hamlet”

The gender question is explored further by the struggles of Czech artist Alphonse Mucha (Matthew Saldivar) to create a poster for the show. He cannot capture the woman and the man at the same time. When he and Rostand discuss their particular Bernhardt issues over drinks, they expand upon the play’s central question.

The men, aided by an excellent performance by Dylan Baker as the celebrated actor Constant Coquelin, are the sounding boards for Bernhardt to bounce her ideas off, and it is in these scenes, with the constant probing and parry, where the play is at its best.

The set is superb and although act 2 tends to lose its way as Rostand’s wife and Bernhardt’s son join the fray which distracts from the focus, “Berhardt/Hamlet” is a wonderful piece of meta-theater.

Rostand, in foreplay following a rehearsal, says “It is delightful to undress a man and find a woman inside,” to which Bernhardt replies, “It is equally delightful to undress a man and find a man.”

When it comes to Hamlet, clothes do not maketh the man. What does? Ah, that’s the question.

“Bernhardt/Hamlet” was presented by the Roundabout Theater Company at the American Airlines Theater, Sept. 25 through Nov. 18.

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