â€œThe papers can be very unkindâ€? is one of the many inventive epigrammatic declarations uttered in playwright Otho Eskinâ€™s Duet, an exhibitionistic representation of two lives deprived and depraved from a life in theater. The papers will not be unkind.***image1***
Duet is divinely directed by Francesca Ursone and stars Rima Miller as the late, great, grandiose first lady of classical theater, Sarah Bernhardt.
Bernhardtâ€™s stage counterpart is Eleonora Duse, a melancholic, untrained Italian wonder of naturalistic inner simplification, portrayed by Cynthia Straus. Duet combines the inharmonious synchronicity of the two women with dutiful splashes by supporting actor Paul Blott, who plays one of the three men in the background amidst prowess, presence and delightful misery.
On the eve of her final performance in Pittsburgh in 1923, approximately one year after Bernhardtâ€™s death, Duse is visited by Bernhardtâ€™s ghost. Before Duseâ€™s final call, the actresses engage in a bratty, bitter tit-for-tat regarding who has more clout and holds the final say in an existence of near misses and disconcerted rivalry. Reminiscences, recollection and storytelling take us through the short version of each womanâ€™s life where they try to comprehend the meaning of life in a world where audience members are nothing more than insincere flattering shadows. The men in their lives turn out to be nothing more than immature mother lovers. Each woman discovers how alone she feels in a business in which men take center stage. They discover strength in the art they love and loath.
Bernhardt hails from the late 19th century school of French conservatory elegance, where composure, traditionalism and artifice create a flamboyant, melodramatic style where every move is premeditated. Duse had no academic or professional training and learned the art from her parents as they traveled from town to town and performed for pittances.
One of Duseâ€™s fonder childhood memories is of being cold and hungry. Her art became her world, and suffering transformed her soul into a medium for the everyman who had no hope in a society divided by class and conceit. Duse is the reason for the later development of â€œmethodâ€? acting and was hailed by Lee Strasberg as a mesmerizing, intense acrobat of indecipherable enigma.
â€œEvery heart has its silent hour,â€? Duse says in a poignant assertion that cannot begin to describe what it means to walk the stage and have nothing to say as to what the heart knows. It is easy to lose oneself in someone else, but difficult to find self in your own interpretation of what someone else thinks of you.
Itâ€™s a womanâ€™s world when it comes to passion. Itâ€™s a womanâ€™s world when it comes to sincerity. The two women of the evening make for remarkable contrasts. Miller takes control from her haunting entrance to her inauspicious exit. She captures every nuance, every idiosyncrasy and eccentricity. It is difficult to keep your eyes off her even as she sits in the background reading a review or writing a letter to the father of her fatherless child.
Her acting is acting but not the kind of acting one may think is supposed to be acting. She is not acting. She is being. Being in the becoming of a self only to lose herself in herself. Bernhardtâ€™s ghost takes possession. Though her character displays artifice through most of the production, Miller reveals moments of real-life drama that retain composure that is seldom seen.
She shows that a true professional is not a professional at all, but a living child lost in a wonderful fantasy, eternally illuminated with playfulness, awareness and a constant meditation that Buddhist monks could envy. When the two characters finally meet each other in real life in Paris, it is a moment where the climax rests on Millerâ€™s shoulders as she brings every detail of drama to center stage.