CoHo Productions brings the exalted actress to life with the play 'Memoir'
Sarah Bernhardt was a hard act to follow. Imagine Madonna with talent.
Born in 1844, the first superstar of stage and screen performed around the world and wrote two plays, a guide to acting and her memoirs. She owned theaters, made movies late in her career, had a leg amputated at age 71 and continued to act for eight years after that until her death.
Best known for her role as Dumas' 'Lady of the Camellias,' Bernhardt also played Hamlet as a woman in London in 1896. At that time, it was calculated that she had performed 112 roles, 38 of which were written for her. Her fans were legion and her lovers numerous; she was truly larger than life.
Eighty years after her death, Bernhardt remains hard to duplicate, but CoHo Productions is taking a crack at it with 'Memoir,' a two-act, two-person play written by Canadian actor-playwright John Murrell in 1975.
'Memoir' examines the relationship between Bernhardt (JoAnn Johnson) and her longtime secretary, Georges Pitou (David Meyers), in the course of an evening, as she dictates her memoirs and insists that Pitou re-enact scenes from her life.
James Cox directs 'Memoir' and brought the play to CoHo's attention. Cox, Johnson and Meyers sat down before a rehearsal last week and discussed what they try to capture in the piece.
'It gives a peek into her personality, breathes a bit of life into her,' Cox says ebulliently. 'She was the most extroverted person, and Pitou was the most introverted, living vicariously through Madame.'
Cox is intrigued by the attributes that make people mythic in the public's mind.
'Sarah was an extraordinary human being,' he says. 'She became famous without film or television, without anything but newspapers. She was the most celebrated actress of her time. They say if photos of her were stacked end to end, they'd reach the moon.'
Bernhardt rarely slept, Johnson observes.
'That's right,' Cox says. 'She would take 20-minute naps. She once told an English teacher he could have her from 1 until 2 in the morning, because that's when she had time. She'd be up at 6, have breakfast, read scripts, rehearse, have lunch, take a nap in the afternoon, have dinner, perform, hold court and start all over again.'
Her travel was legendary for the time and would be a backbreaking schedule today, says Cox, who's used to managing such details in his opera work.
'When she was in her mid-40s,' he says, 'she and promoter William Edward Jarrett did two years starting in America, East Coast to West Coast, hopped a boat to Hawaii, did a few things in the Philippines. Came back to the West Coast, across to the East Coast, to Europe Ñ then back to America for a second time, to South America and then back to Europe. And this was in two years!
'My God, with no faxes or anything. Five to six venues every month, flipping nine plays Ñ one of which had to be 'The Lady of the Camellias.' Seventy-five crates of costumes É And she traveled with a full entourage. She had her own train in North America, with a car to hold court and one for all her exotic animals. Think of what this woman accomplished Ñ and we're to cram this into two hours!'
Meyers says the play has a more serious subtext to it because it deals with Bernhardt at 77, at the end of her life:
'She's dealing with how to face death. She can't believe it's all going to end. I think everybody can relate to that emotional connection.'
In Pitou, Meyers says he's playing someone who's been with Bernhardt for decades but as a subordinate.
'He loves her, but he had an awful experience, which has cost him probably any relationship with anybody else,' he says. 'He's a cloistered man.'
Bernhardt bullies Pitou into taking the parts of many other characters in her life as she improvises with them.
'He's her mother; her husband, Jacques; William Edward Jarrett, her old road manager; the doctor who amputated her leg Ñ and ultimately Oscar Wilde Ñ to his horror,' Meyers says.
Johnson says: 'This is a play about two people who get to chew up scenery. That's one of the most delicious things about working on this. You get to do everything that's been beaten out of you with a club!'
Sounding like Gloria Swanson in 'Sunset Boulevard,' she emotes: 'No! No! you're acting, darling! Don't go there in small, intimate places!'
She's referring to a style of overacting that dates from the days when there were no microphones, big houses and bad acoustics. As Swanson showed in the movie, it's too much for a small room.
Johnson has just come from playing one of the witches in 'the Scottish play' for the Tacoma Actors Guild (actors never refer to 'Macbeth' directly Ñ it's bad luck). Before that she starred locally with Tobias Anderson in the Profile Theatre Project production of Edward Albee's 'Seascape.'
Meyers was last seen in 'Sideman' for Artists Repertory Theatre and 'The Diary of Anne Frank' for Northwest Childrens Theater, 'and then I spent a year running up and down the coast looking for work,' he says cheerfully.
Cox has been working as a stage manager for opera companies elsewhere, and when this play ends he's off to Germany for three months with a touring 'Porgy and Bess.'
'Portland is home, but I don't work here often,' he says. 'If you're going to work Ñ as opposed to wait tables Ñ you travel. This is a treat.'
Johnson says the hardest part of being Bernhardt is having her sense of confidence and audacity.
'I don't think diva is in my nature,' she says, to grins from the others. 'It's hard to just demand things, to expect them to be done. That's a step for me. And the role is complex. She's struggling to remember all these different things, she has painful uremia, a wooden leg and at the core Ñ deep down Ñ is this enormous fear of death. It's complicated and it overwhelms me still.'
Meyers summarizes Sarah's issues:
'Sarah lives in the present in her painful physical condition, she's striving to accomplish something by connecting with her past, and intermittently she goes in a direction where she loses track of both.'