That’s rare enough in plays about strong women. Rarer yet, as Bernhardt locates the heart of Hamlet Ms. McTeer the comedian becomes a riveting Shakespearean, exploring new pathways through scenes with the ghost and with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Suddenly you want to see Bernhardt — or Ms. McTeer — as everyone in the canon.
But in the second act, after the big decision, the play loses some of its internal logic. Not because it departs from history; Bernhardt did commission and eventually triumph in an adaptation of “Hamlet,” if not by Rostand. And Ms. Rebeck’s confidence as a storyteller in any case moots the historical infidelities that mar so many period pieces. Her tale has its own inevitability and that is enough.
Instead, the problem with the second half of the play is that it fritters its focus on a new set of concerns, including Rostand’s wife, Rosamond (Ito Aghayere); his new play “Cyrano de Bergerac” (which actually had its premiere in 1897); and Bernhardt’s adult son, Maurice (Nick Westrate). Ms. Rebeck writes about all of these with her usual verve, and her analysis of “Cyrano” is devastating. It’s just that we cannot now invest ourselves in developments that seem to lead away from, instead of toward, the character we care most about.
But with great effort Ms. Rebeck does eventually bend this all back to Bernhardt. (She has devised one of the most thrilling endings I’ve seen in years.) And perhaps the time away was useful to the extent that we now see the character less in the context of her own personal quest and more in the context of the play’s central question: “Is the female self exposed the same as the male self exposed?”
We still don’t know the answer to that, but if we’re going to find out, the stage is a good place to start. And the exceptional thing about Ms. Rebeck’s no-excuses attack on the matter is that she models this as a question in which men, too, must be vividly involved.
In that sense, “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” directed with wit and verve by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, is a deep-inside love letter to the theater as a kind of laboratory in which experiments in both art and equality are possible. Among all her supposed fans and supporters, it is only Bernhardt’s company of actors, led by the old-school Constant Coqueline (Dylan Baker, great), who fully support her gender daring. Even the ingénue (Brittany Bradford) quite happily experiments with full-on Hamlet-Ophelia frottage.
That’s more than a wicked valentine: It’s a vision.