“Always the prompter, never the star.”
You know the story: The larger than life Cyrano (Douglas Hodge) is a Renaissance man – author, iconoclast, and soldier whose wit and dueling prowess are as famous as the huge, bulbous nose only its owner is allowed to ridicule. “This nose which everywhere I go precedes me crying Cyrano is on his way. He’ll be here in 15 minutes.” Secretly in love with his worthy cousin, Roxanne (Clémence Poésy), he’s unwittingly put into the position of protecting Christian (Kyle Soller), a young cadet with whom she’s fallen in love at first sight.
When the lady requires letters, Cyrano sees an opportunity to replace the dull, inarticulate admiration of the boy with his own unspoken feelings. He also keeps powerful suitor, Comte de Guiche (Patrick Page), at bay. Noble to the core, the poet sacrifices any possibility of his own happiness in order to give the lovers what they most desire. Fate has other plans.
Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play was based partially on the life and character of Hercule-Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, a French dramatist and swordsman with an enormous nose. Many facts are accurate, though the story is romantic fiction. Like Romeo and Juliet, it’s a universally comprehensible tale told in many forms since first appreciated by the public. In a season of excellent contemporary translations, Ranjit Bolt’s work with this iconic, classical piece ranks high in accessibility without losing a jot of its poetry. Cyrano is a lively play filled with both extremely clever, verbal and physical comedy to balance its final tragedy. This production blows in like a tornado and flows so well, 2 ¾ hours pass in a blink – astonishing in light of modern theater’s having acclimated us to 60/90 minute performances. Rhymed verse sounds oddly natural, most often conversational.
Energy level is robust to boisterous. I’d love to have the tea and honey concession back stage. Every actor is completely focused. Scenes are aesthetically formulated so that when the stage is filled with people, it looks as composed as artwork, though never stiff. Movement by Chris Bailey is fluent and captivating. Watching the bakers appear for morning labor is a rough ballet replete with flying flour. Encamped cadets, starved and debilitated, each are attributed character or stage business. Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum (Fight Director) creates one of the most effective duels I’ve seen – forceful, realistic and punctuated by both horseplay and derision.
Director Jamie Lloyd has done a splendid job. Cyrano’s tendency towards burlesque is seamlessly integrated with the evocation of his naked soul. We laugh at and admire, cheer for, and agonize with him. Physical comedy shines in every bound and tussle with his cape.
His entrance is ingenious. The entire stage is gracefully utilized creating a feeling of sweeping circumstances. Sensitive moments reflect on actor’s faces and in speech. Specific attributes characterize Christan, de Guiche, and Roxanne. With the expert help of Japhy Weideman (Lighting) whose dawn, dusk, and marvelous commenting shadows seem real and Dan Moses Schreier (Sound Design) battle is cinematically illustrated.
There are choices with which I take issue, however. I find having characters speak while facing the audience, disconcerting. These are folk living their lives and, with the exception of Cyrano’s occasionally pointedly theatrical turns, not performing. Only when our hero speaks to Roxanne on her balcony with his back to her, is this organic. Most scene changes are effectively enmeshed in the action of the play, but during transition to the convent we see a row of footlights emitting a startling glare. Like waking a sleepwalker, the blatant stagecraft is jarring. And, lastly, it’s difficult to imagine that Roxanne, realizing the truth, even declaring her love, would not be consumed by feeling and go to Cyrano instead of standing stiffly apart as he dies.
Douglas Hodge (Cyrano) plays his role with blazing conviction. He seems to have found the perfect median between weighty, classical gravitas and the ever-popular caricature creating a man whose life is ruled by steadfast principles, inner struggle, and all encompassing emotions. The raising and dashing of expectation, repressing of reflex reactions (through which the actor vibrates) and delight in any warm scrap of contact is evident. Finding actual voice for his love is a revelation shared with the audience. Pain is visceral. Buffoonery is grand. I had a bit of trouble with the strength of his speeches during the death scene.
Clémence Poésy’s Roxanne is refined, patrician, and like Jane Austen’s Emma, selfishly obtuse. Speech is modulated and pronounced like a lady. We believe the character’s naïve ability to break through battle lines despite danger and odds. Charm and single-mindedness would’ve gotten this girl through. Poésy behaves as if she’s offering a picnic on a sunny day. She throws herself at Christian with the abandon of a young girl accustomed to getting what she wants. Lack of reaction when the truth is realized is, to me, a major omission, but I suspect it’s a directorial decision.
Kyle Soller (Christian, above, left) is a weak link. I couldn’t figure out why she’d be attracted to this wispy boy. Portrayal is without masculinity, earnest feeling, or any sign of rambunctious objection when he tries unsuccessfully to take his life back. There’s no spirit.
Patrick Page (above, left) gives us a smooth, multifaceted Comte de Guiche, at first as dark, impending evil, then humanly enamored and abashed. Scenes with the soldiers are particularly satisfying. Bill Buell embodies an appealing, low key Ragueneau (baker/poet) – sweet, generous, adaptive; credible.
Soutra Gilmour (Set & Costume Design) offers a dark, spare palette against which the action occupies our full attention. Vines have few leaves and no flowers. Multi-leveled (well used) arches are clearly weathered. The sudden drop of a curtain from above works beautifully as emphasis. I find it interesting that at no time does Cyrano affect the attire of the nobleman he is in the original play. Except for de Guiche and a slight shimmer in Roxanne’s gowns, all is equalized. Again, perhaps so that we won’t be distracted?
Photos by Joan Marcus
Roundabout Theatre Company presents
Cyrano De Bergerac by Edmund Rostand
Translation by Ranjit Bolt
With Douglas Hodge, Clémence Poésy, Patrick Page
Directed by Jamie Lloyd
American Airlines Theater
227 West 42nd Street
Through November 25, 2012