Cyrano is the last vivid flourish of grand romantic drama. It premiered in 1897—some fifty years after the peak of the Romantic movement and when the powerful plays of Ibsen, Tolstoy and others had already launched the Realism that was to dominate the stage for decades.
Like other Romantic dramatists Rostand sets his play in the historic past—in this case in 1640. (You know the time—a time of swashbuckling musketeers, evil counts, noble maidens and their duennas, wars of empire, and—hovering in the background—the great Cardinal Richelieu,) Like other Romantic dramatists Rostand peoples the play with a virtual army of dramatis personae—some fifty or so. Like those other dramatists he spreads the action out over five acts with five different and elaborate scenes, and, in this case, over a period of more than fifteen years. So even when written Cyrano was a very old-fashioned piece.
But by God, the old gem still gleams! It’s been turned into a film at least ten times and it’s often revived on stage; most theatre-goers could experience it live at least once. Here in St. Louis we’ve had three good productions in the past couple decades. (And what modern theatre-goer has ever even heard of those other Romantic masterpieces—Hugo’s Hernani or Dumas’ Henry III?)
Aquila Theatre is famous for its ability to effectively mount large classic pieces with its very small company. I was eager to see what they would do with Cyrano.
What they do with it is eccentric, to say the least. First the play is transposed from 1640 to 1881—the battle of Tunis standing in for the siege of Arras. I was quite ready to embrace this; wars of empire are, after all, just wars of empire. The cadets’ uniforms are reminiscent of those of the French Foreign Legion—belted blue tunics, white breeches, white kepis—and these carry a distinct romance of their own. And of course, at that time, officers still carried swords—an absolute necessity for any production of Cyrano.
But, on second thought, why do we need to time-shift Cyrano? With Shakespeare some directors who don’t trust the playwright think they can make the play more “relevant” by doing a Jamaican Tempest, a Harlem Macbeth, a 1960’s Taming of the Shrewor a lesbian Hamlet on Mars. This impulse is supported by the fact that nowadays, let’s face it, some of Shakespeare’s text is a little obscure. But with Cyrano the play, as it stands, is immediately accessible. It is, after all, despite its style, a modern work. It’s wonderfully structured, weepingly romantic, beautifully poetic, and its hero—balancing delicately between humility and pride—is possessed of the greatest, most generous and heroic romantic heart in all of literature. The play resonates with a beloved fairy-tale motif—the love of a grotesque but noble-hearted mortal for an unattainable beauty; we see it in Beauty and the Beast, in The Hunchback of Notre Dame—even in King Kong. The play also has an inspired variant on the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet: if Christian can hide his inarticulateness behind Cyrano’s eloquence, and Cyrano can hide his ugliness behind Christian’s handsome face—well, surely together they can make up a man worthy of the love of the beautiful Roxane.
We all embrace these motifs and we embrace Cyrano de Bergerac. In light of this broad appeal I must think that the time-shift in this production is done merely for logistical and pragmatic purposes: minimizing costume changes, easing the deception of one character playing multiple roles, or simply avoiding the cost of all that velvet and lace.
In any event, as I say, I could have accepted the time-shift. But director Desiree Sanchez Meineck chooses to decorate the play with music and dance in a distinctive French cabaret style. Now, I grant that the first Parisian cabaret did appear in 1881, the year of the battle of Tunis. And I grant that Aquila has some fine cabaret talents. Appealing original songs were composed by actress Lewis Barfoot, and the director herself has had a significant career as a dancer. So the cabaret numbers are attractive and beautifully done, but—just because you can do something—and do it very well—doesn’t mean that you should do it. What does all this cabaret business have to do with Cyrano de Bergerac? Absolutely nothing. What’s more there troubling anachronisms here. At one point we see the projected image of Charlie Chaplin, who wasn’t even born then. The pre-show music includes some French cabaret songs of a far later date.
I must admit that the cabaret act by Montfleury, the terrible actor whom Cyrano had forbidden to appear on the stage, is a curious delight. Montfleury is presented as a kind of pre-Dada performance artist in black who strums a spinning bicycle wheel and chants “Pourquoi? Pourquoi?” It’s lovely, it’s funny, and it’s certainly the kind of act that Cyrano, with his refined classical sense, would have driven from the stage. But again this sort of thing was two or three decades in the future.
But the musical appendage that bothered me most was the addition of a “framing” ballad—a song about Cyrano. It’s a lovely song, but it reminded me of nothing less than Cat Ballou or Gilligan’s Island. Rostand is quite capable of telling Cyrano’s tale by himself, thank you very much. He doesn’t need any balladeer to set the tone or to make the story clear.
Had any living playwright been subjected to such directorial meddling he would have called an immediate halt to the production—with the strong legal support of the Dramatist’s Guild. But Rostand, like Shakespeare, can only spin in the grave of public domain.
In reducing the play from five acts to two and in using only six actors (though they seemed many more) some cutting of the script was necessarily done, but it was seamlessly, invisibly and quite harmlessly done.
Performances are generally very strong, as is usual with Aquila, and the casting of actors in several roles each was carried off with their usual deftness. A time or two one doesn’t even recognize that it’s the same actor in a different role; other times we recognize, but it simply doesn’t matter. Alexander Gatehouse does fine work as both the handsome Christian and the rather bizarre Montfleury; Edward Harrison’s Ragueneau is as delicious as the pastries he serves up and his de Guiche is the embodiment of the wicked count. Even changes in gender are persuasive; actress Lewis Barfoot nicely doubles as a man, and James Belloni gives us a powerful Le Bret, a sweetly dotty old monk and a quite believable Mother Superior.
But Cyrano de Bergerac, more than any other play I can think of, must rest on the shoulders of a simply stupendous actor in the title role. Jamie Bower, even with that nose, is a most handsome fellow—there’s a touch of a young Darren McGavin. He’s confident in the role, but he doesn’t quite shine with that glory that Cyrano must have. (In the performance I saw I sensed he might have been suffering a touch of some minor throat ailment—in which case he should perhaps be granted Kings-X from criticism.) Nevertheless Bower’s Cyrano does beautifully attain Rostand’s intense romantic sense in at least one scene—the one under the balcony when, hidden from her sight, he pours out his love to Roxane.
I have concern with just one other interpretation in the production—that of Roxane, as played by Caroline O’Hara. Miss O’Hara is certainly beautiful and graceful enough, but she gives us a Roxane who would not be out of place in modern New York or L.A. She’s rather sophisticated, occasionally arch—once or twice even smug. (And once, would you believe, she summarizes the end of a letter with “yadda, yadda, yadda” like a very Valley girl.) This simply won’t do for Roxane. What draws Cyrano to her is Roxane’s innocence and utter purity. (I know these qualities are out of fashion now, but surely not out of memory yet.) The kiss that Roxane gives to Christian should obviously be her very first. For Cyrano to be desperately in love with a sophisticate—or a Valley girl—would so diminish him. Both director and actress should have realized this.
So I have a few problems with this production, but it was nonetheless a very worthwhile evening of theatre; the crystalline diction and assured physical confidence and grace of James Belloni and Lewis Barfoot were, by themselves, worthy of the investment of an evening. I’ll look forward to Aquila Theatre’s next appearance on the Edison stage. They’re always quality—and sometimes they’re quite wonderful.