by Ron Cohen · October 6, 2015
Is there a more perfect subject for a one-woman show than Sarah Bernhardt, the legendary actress who captivated both European and American audiences in the 19th and early 20th Centuries and whose life and reputation was one of high drama? I’m not sure that Oh, Sarah! does Bernhardt anywhere near full justice, but it provides an attention-holding, entertaining fifty minutes.
Toronto-based actress Edith Acker portrays Bernhardt writing her memoirs, seated behind a draped table and often taking a plumed pen to paper. The script, written originally in Spanish by Uruguayan playwright Ariel Mastandrea and translated by Acker, gallops nimbly over encyclopedic high points, as it takes Bernhardt from her birth in 1844 to 1915, the year which saw her right leg amputated after gangrene set in from an injury on stage. (She continued to perform, though, almost until her death in 1923.)
As embodied by Acker and directed by Mario Tenorio, Bernhardt is a woman of mature charm and humor. At the very beginning, she enjoys a long, long fit of laughter over a turn of phrase, as she recalls that she was so thin she didn’t get wet when it rained: the raindrops fell around her. But the gaiety can quickly switch to pain or anger as she turns to something unpleasant or unhappy. She speaks in an American accent, except when she describes the chaotic but exhilarating ambience of the Paris of her early years; then she uses a scene-enhancing French accent. She expresses both the love and impatience she feels for her financially-inept son, whose father was a Belgian prince, and her late husband, who was a drug-addicted charmer of an actor. She tells how she earned her living early on as a model and didn’t achieve success as an actress until she was in her thirties, how she converted a theater to a hospital for wounded soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War, and how she enhanced her reputation with a knack for getting publicity, with a stunt such as sleeping in a coffin. .
What I didn’t get from the show was a sense of the grandeur and artistry that earned Bernhardt the nickname “The Divine Sarah.” This particular Bernhardt might well be called “the highly likeable Sarah.”