Theatre enthusiasts interested in stage history might be drawn to a new one-woman show about the life of infamous celebrity actress Sarah Bernhardt, I, Sarah, but they might as well check out a biography from the Library of the Performing Arts. This is the problem with the one-person show about a celebrity -- how do you show the audience the real person behind the myth (and Bernhardt is most certainly now a mythical figure) without simply performing the subject’s resume? Unfortunately, I, Sarah is little more than a resume production, coming off as a reading of selected passages from an autobiography.
The production originated with the Actors Cabaret of Eugene, Oregon, and has toured to small venues in a few cities. It was directed efficiently by the company’s artistic director, Joe Zingo. Sarah Bernhardt was played solidly by Mindy Beth Nirenstein. Lucky for Nirenstein that no one living knows what Bernhardt was like without researching the details. Even then, save for a few silent-movie examples, no one living has seen Bernhardt perform. Nirenstein does not have to exactly live up to Bernhardt’s looks or talents, whatever they may have been. Still, we know a few things that must be true about Bernhardt. To be as internationally successful as she was, acting primarily in French regardless of the country in which she was playing and before the age of microphones, she must have had a huge voice. If they could hear you in the back row, then stardom was around the corner. This huge voice is referenced a few times in Cabell’s play, but it draws attention to Nirenstein’s thin voice, which was at war with the theater’s air-conditioner. In the tiny space of the Where Eagles Dare Theatre, the actress could not resonate as Bernhardt describes that she could, supposedly still sure of voice in her ’70s.
On the other hand, the performance was at its best when Nirenstein reenacted performances from roles once played by Bernhardt. She added a costume piece to suggest each new character, the lights irised down, music came in, and Nirenstein became transformed. This was not an actress without skill, but she could not bring the same conviction to the character of Bernhardt that she could bring to the roles of Bernhardt. Part of it is the writing, with its listing of accomplishments, quoting of reviews, and determination for the audience to understand Bernhardt’s brilliance. The audience already knows she was great, for her name endures to this day. It is the one thing the audience understands walking in, and they don’t need that fact reiterated throughout the performance. It might have been better off getting a smaller section of Bernhardt’s life so as to really gain an understanding of the human being, rather than a 90-minute program biography.
Robert Cabell created a wonderful environment for the actress, draped in jewel tones, old photographs, and period details. The costumes, which were given no credit, were evocative and lovely. A 90-minute living lesson on Sarah Bernhardt’s history may be an appropriate way of learning about this historic figure of the 19th-century stage, and Nirenstein was a dedicated and hard worker, but in the end she could not transcend a tedious script.