Volume 76, Number 46 | April 11 - 17, 2007

Anthony Collins

Elizabeth Ruelas, Lawrence Merritt, and Tobias Burns in “The Confession,” a play by storied actress Sarah Bernhardt, revived by Shela Xoregos, opening at the Wings Theater on Christopher Street, April 12.

The nouveaux Sarah Bernhardt

By Jerry Tallmer

The situation is this:

 Marthe, Countess De Roca, is on the verge of revealing all to her husband the Count. “Do you love me?” he has asked. “Yes, oh yes, I love you!” she cries. “I love you. I wish I could die.”

 In a crib in the next room lies the stricken infant he thinks is his son. The tiny baby’s temperature is raging, his little heart is fading, reviving, fading.

 “Oh God!” cries the Countess. “Have pity on me. Let me die. Send me to the place where lost souls are tormented. Do not leave me to fight alone under the burden of this horrible crime which is suffocating me. What a miserable coward; all I can do is cry and lie … lie incessantly. But I am good at that … ”

 What she is lying about — that is to say, not telling her husband about — is that in his absence in North Africa as a general in the French army, she was raped by her husband’s own cherished nephew, the Dr. Robert whom the Count raised from boyhood; the very physician attending the little creature in the next room … a near-death little creature who is not the Count’s but his, Dr. Robert’s, actual biologic son. Wow!

 “So what do you think of the play?” said Shela Xoregos to the journalist who had read it.

 The journalist hunted for a word. “Fraught,” he said after a bit.

 “Melodramatic,” said Shela Xoregos with a smile.

 The play is “The Confession” (“L’aveu”). An 1888 paperbound version of it, in the original French, carries the byline of “Mme. Sarah Bernhardt,” and Shela Xoregos, who is very fond of the Art Nouveau period (1890-1914) in France, is producing and directing this one-act work (in English) as the centerpiece of her Arts Nouveaux celebration at the Wings Theater in the old Archives Building on Christopher Street.

 Bernhardt, who more or less invented the entire theatrical celebrity-star system more than a quarter-century before Hollywood existed, was actor, producer, director, publicity person, theater owner, courtesan, everything — but, says Ms. Xoregos, “you could go through that whole great Sarah Bernhardt show last year at the Jewish Museum, right down to her gloves and jewelry, and never know she was also a writer.”

 The cast listing in the paperbound copy of “The Confession” has the Countess played, not by Bernhardt, but by a Mme. R. Sisos. The play is set on the eve of the Countess’s 29th birthday. The Divine Sarah (1844-1923) was 44 in 1888, but 29 to 44 wasn’t much of an age gap for an actress who at 66 created the role of the 17-year old son of Napoleon in Edmond Rostand’s “L’Aiglon,” or who at 54, playing Joan of Arc, when asked by the Inquisitor: “How old are you?,” bluntly replied: “Nineteen!” Or an actress who kept right on acting, touring, and zapping audiences on several continents after having a leg amputated in her 70s.

 There was evidently only one performance, ever, of “The Confession,” one single evening in that same 1888 at Theatre l’Odeon in Paris. “I don’t understand the one performance only,” says Ms. Xoregos. She’s going to try to repair the damage with nine performances on Christopher Street, April 12-21.

 The Countess there is Elizabeth Ruelas, the Count is Lawrence Merritt, Tobias Burns is Dr. Robert, Andrea Darcy Mead is a nun, Nicola Barber is the maid.

 The Arts Nouveaux celebration surrounding each evening’s Bernhardt drama contains a second short play, “Basking,” by Dave DeChristopher, described by Ms. Xoregos as a phosphorescent dinner-party comedy in the period when Mme. Curie (Elizabeth Ruelas) discovers radium.

 Sexuality of sorts is supplied to the proceedings by the poetry of Pierre Louÿs.

 Two other famous ladies of that era were the dancer Isadora Duncan and the Folies Bergere dancer-turned-revolutionary-stage-technician Loïe Fuller, born plain Marie Louise Fuller of Fullersville, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, in 1862. Isadora and Loïe are both danced by Kimberly Lantz (choreography by Rael Lamb). Isadora is spoken by Andrea Darcy Mead (via excerpts from a Rick Foster play). Music by Debussy and others is arranged through all this by Eugene Abrams.

 It is he who a couple of years ago told Ms. Xoregos about an evening he’d been invited to in Paris, where Sarah Bernhardt’s “The Confession” headed the entertainment. “Would you stake your life that it was by her?” Ms. Xoregos asked. Yes, Mr. Abrams said. She then set out on a hunt of her own, finally obtaining an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) from Alliance Francaise headquarters “in some God-forsaken place like Wisconsin or Iowa.”

 When a copy finally arrived from Paris, she had it translated by her friend Paul Saindon, then put into a theater version by the David Ostwald with whom she’d worked two years ago on an East Village Ionesco Festival production of “Maid to Marry” at the Connelly.

 Shela Xoregos, which is not her born name whatever it is — “Xoregos means ‘leader of the Chorus’ ” — is originally from, guess where, Mississippi. “Don’t hold it against me.” Was sent to ballet school “like every other little [white] girl,” and then to elocution lessons. In San Francisco, founded the non-profit Xoregos Performance Company. Came to New York in the early 1980s to establish herself as a freelance director/choreographer. Re-established the company here, and when she had the Bernhardt text in hand, set out to find her Countess.

 “I said to the actress: ‘Do you know you overact?’ She said: ‘I know, but I count on you to pull me back down.’ I said: ‘But I want you to overact.’ ”

 After all, it’s Bernhardt — with or without Bernhardt.

THE CONFESSION (L’aveu). By Sarah Bernhardt. Directed by Shela Xoregos. A Xoregos Performance Company production, April 12-21 at the Wings Theatre, 154 Christopher Street, (212) 352-3101 or (212) 239-8405.

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