Thursday, September 13, 2018

Not One-Woman Shows

I recently saw back-to-back two plays whose marketing makes them look like one-woman shows. Fortunately, both actually provide a diverse cast telling a story far more interesting than the one I had originally anticipated.

Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Theresa Rebeck's new play Bernhardt/Hamlet plays up the star power of actress Janet McTeer, who portrays the divine Sarah Bernhardt. See one of the great actors living play one of the greatest performers ever in what is probably the greatest role of all time! What more could you need?

Well, whether the play needs anything more, it gives us so very, very much more than that. For one thing, the supporting cast of Bernhardt's production of Hamlet is led by the great actor Constant Coquelin, played by Dylan Baker. Coquelin is more than willing to allow Berhardt to take center stage, despite the fact that he himself has played the role of Hamlet numerous times in the provinces.

Today, Coquelin is most famous for originating the title role in Edmond Rostand's play Cyrano de Bergerac, and Rostand himself appears in Bernhardt/Hamlet, played by Jason Butler Harner. Rostand is working on a new play, but Bernhardt's antics keep interrupting his writing. The audience can probably guess that the interrupted masterpiece is Cyrano, and Rebeck gives us a duel between two great artists, Berhardt trying to give a great performance, and Rostand trying to write a great play, both of them in the shadow of the great Shakespeare, who looms in the background like the ghost of Hamlet's father.

As if that weren't enough artists for one play, Rebeck also introduces us to the Czech painter and theatre poster designer Alphonse Mucha, played by Matthew Saldivar. Mucha is deservedly famous for his Art Nouveau posters featuring Bernhardt, and his poster for Hamlet was one of his most iconic creations. Perhaps the most memorable performance in the play, however, is by Ito Aghayere, who plays Rostand's wife Rosamond. The historical Rosemonde GĂ©rard has come to be known as a rather second-rate poet in spite of her fame in her own lifetime, and Rebeck turns her into a portrait of a woman determined to make sure others create great art even if she cannot create it herself.

After being delighted by Bernhardt/Hamlet, I went with a little bit of trepidation to New York Theatre Workshop to see Heidi Schreck's new play What the Constitution Means to Me. I loved Schreck's Creature and There Are No More Big Secrets, but the last play I saw at NYTW was an unimaginative piece of garbage, so I was rather afraid I would be disappointed. Fortunately, I was not. Though Schreck's latest work doesn't have the supernatural elements of some of her earlier pieces, it is filled with a magical theatricality that gives it a similar air of the uncanny.

What the Constitution Means to Me is inspired by Schreck's experience as a teenager traveling to various towns to enter contests by the Veterans of Foreign Wars in which high school students gave speeches about the U.S. Constitution. Schreck's mother was a debate coach, and she created a bit of a racket for her daughter, driving large distances so she could enter what were supposed to be regional competitions for scholarship money. It worked, and Schreck was able to pay for her college education with her winnings.

This all sounds like a set-up for a one-woman show, but again, the play provides us with something much more unexpected, and altogether delightful. Schreck is accompanied onstage by actor Mike Iveson, who plays a VFW moderator giving her warning signs when she approaches her time limit and ringing a bell at the end of sections of her speech. Later, Iveson speaks directly to the audience not as a character, but as himself, as Schreck does throughout the piece. Both speak from the heart about not just the troubled history of our nation, but their own troubled personal histories, emphasizing how the personal and the political intersect.

The third performer in the show is a high-school debater, played on alternate nights by Rosdely Ciprain and Thursday Williams. I saw Williams, who charmingly won over the audience, and not surprisingly beat Schreck hands-down in the debate at the end of the show. Get your tickets now. Both Bernhardt/Hamlet and What the Constitution Means to Me are well worth seeing.