Learning from History in “Divining Bernhardt”

Lead Article, Reviews

By Christopher Popple
 
Ms. Kelly plays Phoebe Wainwright, a graduate student who enters her studio apartment at Camford College, escaping the heavy rain. The deadline for her dissertation on stage diva Sarah Bernhardt and modern feminism is fast approaching, so she opens her laptop and brainstorms new arguments for her paper. However, her attention is divided by her tutoring job, an unpaid electricity bill, and notifications that take up a comically large portion of her laptop screen. Several mood swings later, Phoebe is overwhelmed by stress, to the point where she almost gives up. The only one capable of pulling her out of her funk is the very subject of her essay, Sarah Bernhardt, who speaks to her through a desktop background.
 
Ms. Kelly gives a wonderful performance as both Phoebe and Bernhardt. Phoebe’s outwardly confident yet deeply insecure routine contrasts well with Bernhardt’s stern, motherly mentor role. Their approach to female empowerment is perhaps the most compelling component of their dynamic. Phoebe’s version of feminism feels ill‑defined and self‑serving, acting more as a shield protecting her from the world than a sword pointed defiantly at it. She believes that the modern woman needs to be less emotional to avoid being viewed as unstable. Her confidence is defined by what her peers think of her. Bernhardt knows exactly where her confidence and empowerment come from, and she teaches Phoebe how a woman truly finds her strength.
 
The multimedia angle of the show was conceived to “reach a younger and broader theater audience,” and this demographic appeal is reflected in the writing just as much as the presentation. Phoebe’s repartee and spiritual journey with Bernhardt feel lifted from a family sitcom. There are many cheesy attempts at relating to youth culture that read as condescending at certain points, like when Phoebe jeers at one of the students she tutors for replying to her with an emoticon. “Divining Bernhardt” does have several clever lines and instances of funny wordplay that get a laugh, but the humor is unmistakably juvenile.
 
Much of the performance is Phoebe bantering with a prerecorded video of Bernhardt on a screen projector. As is unavoidable in a live performance, there are often awkward pauses and interruptions between the two. Many of the graphics on screen look very cheap, which only serves to bolster the “school assembly” vibe that is seeped into the show’s DNA. I don’t mean to imply the overall presentation is unprofessional, however. The costume work and set design, by Jaime Pardo and Beth Edleman respectively, is very well done, especially on the video of Bernhardt.
 
“Divining Bernhardt” is meant for the next generation. Ms. Kelly says she found her own confidence thanks to the powerful women who preceded her, and hopes to act as a mentor to her own students. Though the show sometimes falls flat when trying to appeal to contemporary culture, it is not without heart and sincerity.

 
Divining Bernhardt
Written and Performed by Bridget Kelly
November 9 at 2 PM
Photo credit: courtesy of the production
2019 United Solo Theater Festival
Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
 
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CHRISTOPHER POPPLE is an aspiring writer living in New Jersey. He graduated Monmouth University with a degree in English with a Concentration in Creative Writing. Alongside his career and collaboration with All About Solo, he works on various writing projects in his free time.
 

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