Cyrano is one of the great male leading roles. Yet the dominant character in the Folger Theatre production of Edmond Rostand’s classic tragic swashbuckler is not Cyrano De Bergerac, but the world premiere adaptation itself, translated by Michael Hollinger (Opus, Red Herring) and co-adapted by Hollinger and director Aaron Posner. This version of Cyrano de Bergerac is interesting and entertaining, but ultimately is diminished in impact.
Rostand’s classic Cyrano de Bergerac, set in 17th century France, tells the story of a great swordsman with a beautiful soul, who is handicapped by a huge nose that makes him feel incapable of being loved by the beautiful Roxane. When he learns that Roxane and a handsome young soldier named Christian are infatuated with each other, he writes beautiful love letters for her suitor that lead to a tragic love triangle.
This new adaptation is a thoughtful piece of work which makes many bold choices. Several changes enhance the play. For example, Cyrano’s battle with a hundred men in Act I (described after the fact but never seen) is presented as a shadowy interlude between the first two scenes. The frequently cut introduction of Cyrano’s fellow soldiers in the second scene is turned into an amusing song for Cyrano to sing about the Guards of Gascony.
The play’s most distinguishing feature is the amped up humor. This is by far the funniest Cyrano you will ever see (and that includes Steve Martin’s contemporary retelling in the 1987 movie “Roxanne”.) An entirely new set of “nose jokes” have been written for the scene where Cyrano instructs an opposing swordsman how he might have insulted Cyrano properly had he the wit to do so.
Yet the humor is so omnipresent that it washes over the play. Christian’s anguished revelation to Cyrano in Act II that because of Cyrano’s letters Roxane said she would love him even if he were ugly draws laughs from the audience. The villain de Guiche, who seeks to force Roxane to become his mistress, becomes less formidable when he turns into a lovesick Antoine. Overall, the humor causes the play to lose some of it poignancy and power.
Another distinguishing characteristic of this adaptation is how its authors have streamlined the play, both in its action scenes and in reducing the cast down to a group of nine busy actors. The first and the final scenes are both introduced with a summary that reduces the exposition needed. On the other hand, the streamlining leads to some changed plot points (Roxane and Christian only become engaged, for example, not married) that weaken the bonds between the lead characters and, finally, the tragic impact of the story.
Every actor imbues a distinctive character to his portrayal of Cyrano. On Broadway, Derek Jacobi gave us a dark and angry Cyrano; Kevin Kline played him as world-weary. Here, Eric Hissom fills his Cyrano with passion, which wins over the audience and makes his uncompromising choices more understandable. It’s an original and convincing performance from a talented performer.
The two young lovers are both appealing. As Christian, Bobby Moreno is wonderfully inarticulate yet capable of the puppy-dog eyes of love that earn sympathy. Brenda Withers is a strikingly beautiful Roxane. Unfortunately, the production makes her too likeable and approachable. As she is repeatedly hugging on Cyrano during the scene where she reveals her love for Christian and asks Cyrano to protect him, it is hard to understand why he would have been too intimidated to speak to her openly.
The supporting cast contributes some fine work. Todd Scofield brings some of the best comic moments to life as the lamentable actor Montfleury in the opening scene and as Roxane’s chaperone in drag. Steve Hendrickson’s work as Le Bret and the Captain of the Gascony Guards offers the most believable portrayals based upon the soul of the work.
The Folger Theatre production of Cyrano offers much to enjoy. The interesting new approaches succeed more often than not. While the writing discards the full-time use of rhymed couplets, it is often very poetic. Yet, overall, the work lacks a certain gravitas. It is the type of production that you will enjoy while in the theatre, but whose impact will fade as you head for home.
By Edmond Rostand
Translated by Michael Hollinger
Adapted by Michael Hollinger and Aaron Posner
Directed by Aaron Posner
Produced by The Folger Theatre
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes with 1 intermission
Peter Marks . Washington PostSophie Gilbert . WashingtonianJenn Larsen . WeLoveDCAlan Zilberman . BrightestYoungThingsBob Ashby ShowBizRadio
- Chris Klimek . Washington City Paper
- Barbara MacKay . Washington Examiner
- Bob Anthony . AllArtsReview4You