By Ariel Mastandrea
Directed by Bernardo Galli
Presented by Teatro de Uruguay
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
What better way to transcend language barriers than to present a one-woman play about Sarah Bernhardt. This famous 19th century actress never spoke or reportedly never understood a word of English but did ten extensive tours in America and charmed audiences with her stage presence and sheer acting power.
Sarah Bernhardt was a legend. Larger than life. The equivalent of a 20th century rock star with the talent of a Katharine Hepburn, she created riots at backstage doors. She was a tabloid headline-maker, an activist, whose off-stage gestures, hairstyle, and style of dressing were imitated. A bundle of contradictions, she reinvented herself offstage and on in memorable French melodramas, in the role of Joan of Arc, and in Shakespearean roles, both male and female, such as Ophelia and Hamlet.
Playing to a packed house on opening night, Oh, Sarah by playwright Ariel Mastandrea, pays tribute to the down-to-earth woman behind the legend and, at the same time, reminds us of the strong ties between European theater, Uruguay and other Latin American countries.
Mastandrea humanizes Bernhardt by taking us back to the steamy streets of late-1800’s Paris, teeming with syphilis and tuberculosis, when the risks for a woman who was born an illegitimate child were great. “I could be either a whore or an actress. I chose the theatre.” The child of a courtesan, Bernhardt became a courtesan herself to royalty.
Uruguayan actress Susana Groisman, costumed in white, her hair unruly, plays Bernhardt, as an embittered, sensitive soul who searches for identity like a frenzied moth; who then heals herself through her stage performances and her patriotic wartime efforts for France during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and W.W. I. Abandoned by the great love of her life, the Belgian aristocrat who fathered her son, Maurice, her only child, Bernhardt could have been playing her own life on stage. And Groisman in her performance lets Bernhardt’s vulnerable side come across as a disappointed but never embittered survivor.
Playwright Mastandrea doesn’t skip the madcap prankster Bernhardt, known for making deliberately scandalous public comments: “There is nothing closer to death than sex.” And “nighttime is the better half of life,” indirect reasons for her purchase of the famous coffin, lined with “black-satin and gold trim” that she slept in as a bed for photographers. But the reasons for her leg amputation are not really made clear, although Bernhardt talks about her phantom limb with Sigmund Freud. She lost her leg in 1915 as a result of a fall on stage. The injury became infected and gangrened.
Also, there’s Bernhardt’s desire for immortality that magnetized her to the fledgling silent film industry starting up in the early 1900s. No mention of Bernhardt, the pioneer who allowed some of her performances to be preserved, not just in stills but in moving pictures.
But let’s get back to what her biographers say that’s mentioned in this monologue play. Bernhardt’s secret to portraying infamous courtesans like Marguerite Gauthier, better known as Camille, in Dumas’ La Dame aux Camelias, was her underplayed simplicity, poetic pathos and directness in melodramatic roles, although the critics made fun of her gestures and theatrical style. Bernhardt deliberately shunned Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, and naturalistic dramas. She wanted a transcendental style on stage and off. Her style. She was both of her time and out of her time.
Simultaneous English translation of the Spanish by Marcela Ferlito through headsets is excellent and makes the text clear. But you need to bring some knowledge of the actress’s life and impact on theater history to fully appreciate this performance.
Next week’s Festival offering is Women of 50 from Buenos Aires, Argentina.
- Running time: 1 hour
- When: Ends Saturday, Oct 20 . 3 pm and 8 pm
- Where: Gunston Arts Center, Theatre 2, 2700 South Lang St, Arlington, VA
- Tickets: $30, $25 students and seniors
- Info: Call 703 548-3092 or visit Teatro De La Luna