Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

Memoir: The Ravings of a Theatre Genius
Desert Rose Playhouse
Review by Rob Spiegel

Also see Stephanie's review of A Chorus Line


Georgia Athearn and John Baca-Saavedra
Photo by Shiela Freed
Sarah Bernhardt had a long career on the stage stretching from the mid-1800s to 1922 when she was 79. Hers was one of the first voices recorded on a gramophone, and she was one of few women who actually played Hamlet. Memoir by John Murrell looks at her last days as she was working on her second autobiography. Her first memoir, "My Double Life" was published in 1907.

The Desert Rose Playhouse offers a new twist on this 1977 play. When the artistic director contacted the playwright to license Memoir, Murrell asked that Desert Rose use his revised script. While the original version of the play has been performed widely in France—where Bernhardt is considered a national treasure—the Desert Rose Playhouse can claim the privilege of presenting the world premier of Murrell's revised version.

Murrell's play depicts Bernhardt reliving the various dramas of her life while her assistant, Georges Pitou, takes notes. In many ways, Memoir resembles a one-person show. This form typically presents an historical character who rehearses dramatic autobiographical material. In the case of Memoir, the character of Bernhardt has a foil in the form of Georges Pitou. The play takes some liberties with fact. Pitou was an actual assistant to Bernhardt, but he was no longer in her employ by 1922.

The Pitou character gives life to the play. He counters Bernhardt's dramatic ramblings with comedic dialog. In order to prompt her failing memory, Bernhardt asks Pitou to play characters from her past, primarily her mother and sister. John Baca-Saavedra's portrayal of the women in Bernhardt's life is laughably funny. He's terrific throughout.

Georgia Athearn as Bernhardt is gloriously effusive in displaying the actress's self-involvement and old-age mental deterioration. Depicted in Murrell's play, Bernhardt is clearly an impossible personality, especially in her dementia. Yet it's also clear she is very likely the greatest actress of her generation. So she's not easily dismissed even in her dotage. Athearn is tireless in delivering Bernhardt in full storm.

Throughout, Pitou teases her, like a kid poking a caged ferret with a stick. When Bernhardt notices his passive aggressive taunts and neglects—which isn't often, given her self-centeredness—he feigns a sly, "Who, me?" Both actors handle this demented sparring beautifully.

There is nice direction by Garland in his first Desert Rose production. He is new to Albuquerque after years of directing and designing shows from Maine to Alaska. We're seeing more and more theater pros bringing strong resumes to Albuquerque. I don't know what's drawing them to our city, but they're keeping things lively. Garland certainly does here.

Memoir makes three wins in a row at the Desert Rose by my observation. Rabbit Hole and Proof were both wonderful. Let's hope the word gets out and the seats get filled.

Memoir by John Murrell, directed by Douglas Garland, will run at the Desert Rose Playhouse through December 20, 2015. Performances are on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00. Tickets are $15 for general admission and $12 for students, seniors and Albuquerque Theatre Guild members. For reservations, call 505-881-0503 or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.net.


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