Ladies, Please!

Generally regarded as two of the greatest performers of their day, French stage diva Sarah Bernhardt and English actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell played opposite each other in a 1904 London production of Maurice Maeterlinck's Pelleas and Melisande. Although they weren't ideally cast as the pair of young lovers -- Mrs. Pat, as she was known, was pushing forty when she reprised the part of Princess Melisande, and Bernhardt, who liked to take on male roles (such as Hamlet), was sixty when she played Pelleas -- each woman still possessed the ability to mesmerize an audience.

That's much more than can be said for Bernard Da Costa's Pat and Sarah, a long-winded account of their rivalry being presented at the Bug Theatre by Conundrum State Productions. Billed as the play's North American premiere, the two-hour production starts with a whimper and never manages to rise any higher on the excitement scale. Fraught with more droning than C-SPAN and painfully lacking in polish and flair, the show seems more like a hastily staged reading of the play than a carefully rehearsed final product.

Part of the problem is that director Christopher Wink fails to elicit the kind of performances that are required to transform Da Costa's admittedly chatty docudrama into a vibrant, immediate experience. The leading characters come off more like a couple of wayward hams instead of two charismatic souls capable of lighting up a stage with their mere presence. Their hangers-on, which include a doomed actress, a stage manager and each woman's ne'er-do-well son, seem more like superfluous props than fully realized human beings. And Wink's less-than-imaginative staging doesn't lend the show any style or panache. When they're not clumsily clawing at the curtains that cover some of the doorways and the entire back wall, the actors spend much of their time slouching about as though they're attending a contemporary costume party.

They should be proud, turn-of-the-century performers wholly intent on seizing the limelight and commanding the stage. But that never happens. Robin Freeman's portrait of Mrs. Pat is devoid of the sort of vivaciousness that prompted George Bernard Shaw to engage Campbell in a years-long epistolary romance and to insist that she play the part of Eliza Doolittle -- at the ripe age of fifty, no less -- in the premiere production of his Pygmalion. And Freeman doesn't even attempt to adopt an English accent for the part, a wrongheaded choice that's the linguistic equivalent of deciding to perform a Strauss waltz as though it were a Sousa march.

Kathryn Peterson fares no better as Bernhardt. Saddled with an unsympathetic fright wig that makes her look like a dotty librarian, Peterson encounters several difficulties with her lines and runs out of steam before her tiffs with Freeman can make it out of the station. And Bernhardt, who went on acting right up until her death -- even going so far as to prop herself up on various pieces of furniture after one of her legs was amputated -- could hardly be considered the feeble or retiring type. But when the narrator/stage manager turns to the audience and says, "Their fight went on feverishly, furiously! Tension mounted until there was no turning back!" his description seems vastly more hopeful than accurate.

By the time a character referred to as "The Walk-On" finally tires of Freeman and Peterson's monotonous -- and charmless -- shenanigans and decides to shoot herself in the head, one doesn't know whether to pity or envy her. To add insult to injury, Geraldine Byrne, who does her best with the bit part, isn't given the chance to take a curtain call for her efforts. All things considered, though, that might be the kindest compliment that director Wink could pay her.

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Jim Lillie

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