Theresa Rebeck’s Downstairs is a hybrid drama-mystery, a thriller with sly, humorous overtones. As usual the playwright’s particular and complex characterizations startle with their humanity and angst. And the myriad themes that Rebeck tackles in Downstairs reverberate with currency.
Directed with acute precision and depth by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, and starring siblings Tyne Daly and Tim Daly as well as John Procaccino, Downstairs is a tour-de-force about relationships, wickedness masking as truth, second chances, hope, and the interior and unseen ebb and flow that happens in all evolving souls.
Written especially for the Daly siblings, the play exudes cleverness and wry import. She opens the intriguing story on the trash-heap of an unfinished basement, a workshop cellar with a couch and a few tables. Teddy (Tim Daly’s strikingly alive portrayal uplifts with power) emerges from the bathroom. As he carries on with the morning ritual of waking up, making coffee, and brushing his teeth, we understand that he has slept in the basement and is perhaps living there. Then Irene (the exquisitely versatile Tyne Daly, who is just extraordinary in this portrayal of the mousey, oppressed wife) comes down the basement steps and confronts him. She attempts to understand why he needs to be staying in their cellar.
From their conversation Rebeck reveals their prior estrangement and background circumstances since their mother died some years before. Notably, the forthright Teddy reveals his upset that their mother left Irene with the inheritance, which he deems unfair. They fill their discussion with questions that neither quite answers. Irene refuses to discuss how Teddy became disinherited. This exchange unsettles us. Their tense interplay appears shows us siblings who at this juncture cannot be described as showing good will toward each other.
Nevertheless, as they continue Teddy discloses that he has been poisoned by malevolent people at work. His truthful admission, though bizarre, opens Irene’s heart. She shifts from being defensive to accepting her brother’s plight and wanting to help him.
Throughout these initial exchanges, we make assumptions about Teddy’s mental and emotional condition and life’s circumstances. Evasive and scattered, he appears to have suffered a breakdown. Surely, he faces a crossroads in his life, especially if his sanity remains in question. But the brilliance of Downstairs is that nothing is what it appears to be. Neither the situation, the characters, nor the development of the conflicts play out the way we anticipate. Rebeck takes us for a dangerous ride fraught with suspense which remains far from the mundane family story we thought we had signed up for.
For example, the reconciliation between Irene and Teddy after their mother died is anything but mundane. Irene’s marriage and financial situation, which initially appear comfortable, normal, and steady, are a deception for numerous reasons that Rebeck reveals with adroit, painstaking details of characterization. We become enlightened about Teddy’s erratic “craziness” and quirky genius. And the estranged relationship between the siblings has little to do with each of them. Indeed, as the present veneers slip away and they connect with their deeper emotions, we discover the real culprit of their alienation.
Their inner emotions drive the energy and action. The actors craft their portrayals so carefully and sensitively, we identify and hope for Irene and Teddy. As they confess their truths to each other, Teddy listens and supports Irene’s confrontation of the lies within herself so she may heal. In her evolution, enlightenment, self-deception, and growth, Tyne Daly’s Irene soars. Her gradual empowerment with Teddy’s help thrills and engages us. Tim Daly’s Teddy displays individuality, bravery, and truth that can call down deception, corruption, and evil, uplifting us. Together, they beautifully manifest their eventual understanding that the ties that once bound them can be reconstituted. And this is so even though the world and the wicked have worked overtime to break their spirits and wreck their souls.
John Procaccino’s amazing portrayal of Gerry, Irene’s husband, creates the perfect foil for Irene and Teddy. He inhabits Gerry with sensitivity, finding the character’s motivation without going for result. Procaccino’s mastery of Gerry’s sinister presence is authentic and believable. This is not a spoiler. You will just have to see Downstairs to marvel at how these superlative actors work together to breathe life into Irene, Teddy, and Gerry.
In this wonderful production, the unexpected peeks around the corner of every scene. By degrees the story goes through many turns and twists. The more the truth of Irene’s marriage is revealed to her by Teddy, the more open she becomes with her brother and he with her. Rebeck gradually unfolds the mysteries. In the last scenes we finally understand what has separated them from the love they once held for each other.
Throughout this tautly suspenseful work, the playwright captures seminal themes. These include women’s empowerment, familial love, the vitality of childhood bonds, and the saving grace of compassion and goodness. There are numerous messages that echo for us today in the cultural morass between reality and fabrication, truth and lies, visibility and invisibility. I especially enjoyed the moment-to-moment, slow reveal of the struggle between good and evil, enlightenment and cover-up, and the extent to which we betray ourselves with self-deception. The title symbolizes and brings together many of these rich them
Downstairs is a must-see for the sterling performances and for Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s directorial craft. Each of these sends you to the edge of your seat and equally touches your heart. Look for the profundities that will wash over you long after you have left the Cherry Lane Theatre. Kudos also go to Narelle Sissons (Set Design), Sarah Laux (Costume Design), Michael Giannitti (Lighting Design), M.L. Dogg (Sound Design), and Leah Loukas (Wig Design).
Downstairs, a Primary Stages presentation, runs through 22 December at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Tickets are available online
Theater scholars, dramatists, and actors are familiar with the legend of French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), referred to as “The Divine Sarah.” Renowned for her indomitable theatrical greatness, she lived and breathed drama, melding her life and her art so that each informed the other. Alluding to this synergy of living artistry, Theresa Rebeck’s play Bernhardt/Hamlet explores the French actress’s acclaimed reinterpretation of the role of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which she imbued with her own maverick genius and courage. Examining the actress’s work, the play, thrillingly directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, shows us thematic parallels to our times.
As Sarah Bernhardt circa 1897, confronting Shakespeare’s best-known character, Janet McTeer’s dynamism astounds. Her Bernhardt is a whirlwind of delight and shimmering brilliance. She propels the light and dark of human ethos with a range that bounds and swirls and captivates. In short, McTeer infuses her Bernhardt with an infinite variety of emotional hues so that we believe how and why Oscar Wilde referred to her as “the Incomparable One.” Additionally, we appreciate that Bernhardt was not only a visionary in enforcing her will to create opportunities for herself. For women who witnessed her heroism, she drove the platform of freedom, despite and because of a culture and society expressly controlled by men.
Rebeck intimates that Bernhardt accomplished what every female actress covets. The actress intrepidly portrayed the complexity and angst of Hamlet’s human spirit with the realism of the mysterious feminine gone rogue, as only an exotic like Bernhardt could do. From her affairs with some of the crowned heads of Europe, to her re-imagining herself through her relationships with authors and playwrights, Bernhardt proved her exceptionalism. Continually, as she gained power and fame, she pushed the envelope of female propriety. And amazingly, the public adored her for it.
However, when she takes on the role of Hamlet to bring it to a larger, more profitable theater, her closest allies sound warnings. Edmond Rostand is one such ally. Jason Butler Harner skillfully portrays the poetic, conflicted author of Cyrano de Bergerac, who worked with and wrote for Bernhardt. Her lover in the play (a relationship that was rumor in real life), he must choose between his career and hers. Of course this is an irony. Rarely did women have the opportunity to have choices as Bernhardt did. In this instance, the hard choice becomes Rostand’s with regard to their work on Hamlet.
We see that the two consume each other in their relationship, which is a blessing and a curse. Harner’s potent by-play with McTeer when he challenges her “demented idea” of rewriting the iambic poetry in Hamlet’s speeches is particularly striking. His forcefulness stands against McTeer’s indomitable will in Rebeck’s exceptional characterizations. Their equivalent passion reveals the high stakes for each. Thus we appreciate the inevitability of their partnership taking a turn after he becomes famous with Cyrano and she moves on with an interpretation of Hamlet sans poetic rhythm and written by others.
The other ally who opposes Bernhardt’s endeavor is critic Louis, played by the stalwart and stentorian Tony Carlin. He argues with and attempts to influence Rostand in an important scene. Here we see the dangerous, shifting ground Bernhardt must negotiate as Louis questions her Hamlet choice. Perhaps the scene could be less expositional, but it is a necessary one for advancing the stakes and presenting the seeds of themes.
For example, women’s stage roles traditionally remained weak asides to fascinating, dominant male protagonists. Male roles, complex and intelligent, provided the driving dynamic that women’s roles did not. To take on a man’s role, a woman must have the power and even greater acumen and ambition to accomplish it well. Unsurprisingly, both men question whether Bernhardt has the chops to meet the Hamlet challenge.
Through the real-life characters of Rostand and Louis, the playwright highlights the conflicts and problems McTeer’s Bernhardt faces. Additionally, Rebeck shows us how the staging, costuming, and promotion of this new, interpretative Hamlet must be conquered.
Wonderful in supporting roles are Dylan Baker, Matthew Saldivar, and the fine Brittany Bradford as actress Lysette. Baker portrays Constant Coquelin, Bernhardt’s acting contemporary and friend. Notably, Baker gets to have fun playing Hamlet’s father in a hysterical rehearsal scene. Experienced in the role himself, Coquelin guides Bernhardt as a quasi acting coach. Coquelin’s wisdom and sound judgment reflect his greatness as an actor. Eventually, Coquelin took on the role of Cyrano with great success. Baker’s versatility shines in his speeches as Cyrano, Hamlet’s father, and various roles including the great Coquelin himself.
Saldivar portrays Alphonse Mucha, whose artistic skills must beautify Bernhardt’s poster productions. Humorously, he expresses his upset with the task at hand. Indeed, Bernhardt’s hair, her clothing, her stature as Hamlet must enthrall and entice paying customers, a novel feat even for one of his skill. He cannot easily produce advertising artwork that will please Bernhardt, himself, and his public. Thus, as Bernhardt navigates new ground with her incredible decision to play Hamlet, so must Mucha and the others in her circle deal with the “dire” consequences. What a delicious conundrum her “simple” need to play Hamlet creates for these men whom she frustrates yet enthralls!
The symbolism presented by Bernhardt’s desire to enforce her will upon the culture electrifies. Subtly, when she donned the pants in Hamlet, Bernhardt symbolically freed all women from fashion folkways. Her pants-wearing signals a needed change. Women’s mores were held fast by paternalism and manifested subtly in binding corsets, bustles, and long sleeved-high collared blouses. Worn even in heat waves, these sometimes smothered the wearers, who died of heat prostration. Fashion trends, as painful as they were, laid subservient female stereotypes at women’s feet. And they dared not transgress them. Do such trends abide even today? Sometimes.
In Rebeck’s characterization of Bernhardt, the more restrictive the “thou shalt not,” the more the actress embraced it, conquering fear. In her revolutionary behavior she dismantled the “double standard.” And because she did this with aplomb, sophistication, joie de vivre, and the audacity of wit and whimsy, who could censure her? As she developed her dramatic art, she empowered herself. Memorably, McTeer takes this characterization and with precision lives it in two acts. She evokes the marvelous “Divine Sarah” and makes her a heroine because she can. How McTeer creates her Bernhardt with adroit skill, subtle intelligence and determination is a Bernhardt-like feat.
What a breathtaking reminder of magnificent women in this twisted, political tide of times. Assuredly, Rebeck’s work (McTeer’s speech to this effect rings out beautifully) remains vital and insistent. With commanding power, McTeer’s Bernhardt corrects the historical record, striking forever at the literary and dramatic canon with a tight phrase. She proclaims to Rostand that she will not play the “flower.” The night I saw the production, the women in the audience applauded these words. “I was never a flower, and no matter how much you loved how beautifully I played the ingenue, it was always beneath me. It is beneath all women.”
This moment electrifies. For though women may be compared to flowers, they are not flowers. And Bernhardt, like all women, understands. For women are power brokers, however hidden, however “passive.” Regardless of how much men nullify this truth, “woke” women grew and grow to learn and champion it. And many achieved and achieve momentous feats even from the position of “second.”
Bernhardt captured opportunity and molded destiny so it served her, not the other way around. Strengthening and illuminating her own identity, she wrote her own history, not the one the culture intended to write for her and but couldn’t. McTeer’s inspiring depiction proclaims this with every card in the deck. Indeed, when Bernhardt says about Hamlet, “I do not play him as a woman! I play him as MYSELF,” we glean the full truth of her meaning.
Rebeck wisely selects the most vital of Hamlet’s speeches. Their themes meld aptly with Bernhardt’s conundrums. Indeed, Bernhardt is “a rogue and peasant slave.” At the time she rehearses that speech, she, like Hamlet, divines how an actor uses his skills to portray a character. The double meanings are ironic. But unlike Hamlet, Bernhardt is active, assertive. As Hamlet struggles with acting crazy to hide the knowledge of the truth of his father’s murder, she struggles with a Hamlet too passive to kill. Indeed, the humor comes in watching Bernhardt’s frustration at portraying an “inactive” Hamlet who comes up with philosophical obstacles to delay killing Claudius.
Rebeck interweaves in a complex way Hamlet’s speeches to emphasize Bernhardt’s conflict in deciding how to approach and interpret the role. One must work to catch all the ironies. So revisiting the play to enjoy this profound rendering is worthwhile.
Through active dialogue, we learn of Bernhardt’s promotional savvy and ability to reinvent herself for every decade. Naturally, this excites comparisons to today’s long-lasting actresses and others who could learn a thing or two from Bernhardt. Without fear, she capitalizes on rumor, innuendo, and extraordinary behavior that’s verboten for women. Cleverly, she makes critics her friends and generously remembers those who might have turned enemies.
Never an invisible woman, she will play men’s roles. In an affirmation about playing Hamlet and being a woman, she states to Rostand: “Where is his greatness? Where? Is it not in his mind, his soul, his essence? Where is mine? What is it about me you love? Because if in our essence we are the same, why am I otherwise less?”
Thus, Rebeck’s choice of this pivotal, “make or break” moment in Bernhardt’s career is an inspired, complicated one. The turning point reveals the grist, bravery, and revolutionary fervor Bernhardt required of herself to overturn centuries of dramatic tradition. Bernardt’s choice to conquer the greatest role written for men propels her to theatrical heaven. It is sheer artistic genius in a time when women were the “incapable,” “inferior” ones mastered by man’s sham invincibility. Bernardt/Hamlet through the seminal performances of McTeer and the ensemble informs and encourages us to realize that Shakespeare also speaks of women when Hamlet says, “What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason…”
Assuredly, kudos go to the spectacular artistic team. I particularly loved the sets (Beowulf Boritt), costumes (Toni-Leslie James), and hair (wig design by Matthew B. Armentrout). Lighting is by Bradley King and original music and sound design by Fitz Patton.
Bernhardt/Hamlet will be a multiple award winner. It is a must-see TWICE! This Roundabout Theatre Company production runs at the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street. The show until 11 November. Visit the Roundabout website for schedule and tickets.