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By John Quinn
Once again I am struck by the flexibility of the English language. It’s a given that “character” is a fundamental concept in theater. It’s also no secret that theater is full of “characters.” Actor and playwright Carol Dunitz, Ph.D., introduces us to a one-of-a- kind character in “Bernhardt on Broadway,” her one-woman musical inspired by fin de siecle actress and bon vivant Sarah Bernhardt. In the grand tradition of touring theater, Dunitz is performing this spring in venues throughout southeast Michigan.
“Bernhardt on Broadway” is a tough sell. Although a legendary icon of the theater, “The Divine Sarah” is not known to the average American. Yet over a century before performers like Madonna and Lady Gaga, Bernhardt was breaking new ground in self-promotion – as well as breaking the rules of “polite” society.
An actor’s art is ephemeral. Unlike authors and poets like Mark Twain and Emily Dickenson, both subjects of solo rebirths on stage, there are only a couple of silent film appearances to document Bernhardt’s work. We must rely on her biography to know the actress, a difficult prospect considering how carefully crafted her public persona was. Dunitz’s careful, loving research helps winnow fact from fiction.
It’s Paris, it’s the 1890s, and we’ve been invited to a “salon” at the residence of Sarah Bernhardt, arguably the most famous woman in the world. In anecdote and song, she recounts her rise from humble beginnings to international success. She is driven by an addiction stronger than opium – the need for attention. Adopting as her motto, “quand meme” (“against all odds),” she succeeds in her goal to become the greatest actress in the world. But if that’s not enough to hold public attention, then one can live a lifestyle that keeps one in the headlines. Bernhardt seems to have been an early practitioner of the marketing principle, “the medium is the message.” Thus she took numerous lovers but only one husband. She carefully crafted outre rumors to be later denied – “Mme. Bernhardt does NOT play croquet with human skulls!” She was the first celebrity to make product endorsements – make-up and perfume and soaps and Vaseline and more. But above all, she lived an extravagant life that cost her several fortunes. She was quite a character, indeed.
“Bernhardt on Broadway” is an interesting work, but there are some puzzles about it. We can accept the convention in musical theater that, when the emotions are too powerful to act out, we break into song; when singing isn’t enough, we dance. Any of you who have attended a cast party know thespians will break into song at the drop of a straw hat. One would have expected Mme. Bernhardt, though, might be moved to recite a line or two of her famous roles – even though she only performed in French. While the engaging score and lyrics illustrate the book, they don’t necessarily rise from the emotional content of the scene.
Mark Twain categorized actresses as “bad, fair, good, great – and then there is Sarah Bernhardt.” Her achievements are undeniable. After two hours in the presence of the Divine One we know much “about” Bernhardt but we don’t “know” Sarah. So ingenious was her character study she remains a riddle, wrapped in a mystery.
‘Bernhardt on Broadway’
Performed at multiple venues throughout Southeast Michigan and elsewhere through June. For group sales call 734-864-3244. Tickets are available at http://www.BrownPaperTickets.com