A fading starlet recalls her life’s work and memories for the pen of her caring secretary — that’s the crux of “Memoir,” the upcoming production by Williamston Theatre.
Written by John Murrell, “Memoir” spins a fictionalized tale of the late Sarah Bernhardt, the French stage actress who was an early example of a female tourde-force celebrity.
She was influential not only for her “divine” acting and enchanting voice, but for the command she had over her career.
“She made and lost fortunes and she did it all on her own efforts,” director Mary Job said. “This was a woman who took her life into her own hands and controlled her life in an era when women did not control much of anything.”
Bernhardt was also popular for performing as a male character, most notably taking the stage as Hamlet. And she knocked audiences dead on a consistent basis — there are several documented accounts and reviews during her prime that recall spellbinding and intoxicatingly impressive exhibitions.
She wasn’t just an excellent actress, but also savvy enough to manage her own international tours while maintaining control of her public image. Bernhardt wasn’t strung along or taken advantage of, as was common for women at the time.
“She did world tours, which she organized. She did have a business manager, but a lot of those decisions were made by her,” Job said. “She was very much a part of modernizing, of creating the superstar. She took on the big theater owners when they tried to lock her out. She basically said, ‘Well, screw you, I’m performing in a tent.’” Williamston Theatre’s “Memoir” employs the talents of only two actors, Karen Sheridan as Bernhardt and John Lepard as George Pitou. Job previously mounted another work of Murrell’s for Williamston, “Taking Shakespeare.”
Job was amazed by the transgressive nature of Bernhardt and was naturally drawn to the prospects offered by “Memoir.”
“Here’s this woman of enormous vitality and determination facing something she can’t control,” Job said. “I think the play is enriched by who Sarah is, but it also talks about something that’s very universal.”
Job has no qualms with only having two actors to work with. She anticipates the consequentially subdued directorial role of traffic cop will enrich the energy among her, Sheridan and Lepard.
“It’s very different. When you work with two people, particularly two professional actors, it’s much more of a collaborative give and take kind of atmosphere right from the get go,” Job said.
Lepard’s role gets a little meta because Pitou often performed caricatures for the bedridden Bernhardt. He’ll play Pitou, but he’ll also play Pitou playing other people.
“Throughout the play she keeps asking him to portray people in her life. So I have to figure out how to become her mother, her manager, her husband and all these different people so she can remember things that happened,” Lepard said.
Pitou’s relationship with Bernhardt was platonic, with Pitou acting as more of a caretaker than a lover.
“He was never married; he didn’t have a love life. Everything he does is to help Sarah,” Job said.
Sheridan has spent the past few weeks researching the life of Bernhardt and is excited to portray the starlet.
“There’s a sense of responsibility that comes up when you’re playing somebody who actually lived,” Sheridan said. “You don’t want to portray them in a way that you imagined is true about them.”
Now she must find the line between portraying Bernhardt historically accurate to a T, versus inserting her own interpretation.
“At the same time we know that I’m not going to become her and that’s the beauty of the play. We have to embody her as much as we can, and Pitou was also a real person. They were together for many years and, so, so we both have big shoes to fill.”
“Memoir’s” scenic design by Bartley H. Bauer will employ the stylistic influences of Art Nouveau, one of the most prominent art trends during Bernhardt’s reign as “Sarah the Divine.”
Art Nouveau is perhaps best remembered for its depiction of women, who were shown with soft pale features that were inked with curvaceous outlines and seemed to exude a mythic, goddess-like presence. It’s a perfect fit for “Memoir,” considering that Sarah Bernhardt got the Art Nouveau treatment per the Czech painter Alphonse Mucha.
“I don’t want this to be heavily realistic in the sense that the set is so realistic that it can’t be transformative,” Job said. “There’s got to be that moment where the audience gets pulled into the memories as well.”
“Memoir” Tickets on sale now Performances run July 12—Aug. 19 Williamston Theatre 122 S. Putnam St., Williamston www.williamstontheatre.org (517) 655-7469