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Sunday, 13 March 2011 23:10

The proboscis play

Written by Andrea Braun
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St. Louis Shakespeare has hit a home run with its production of Cyrano de Bergerac, due in great part to a powerful and poetic performance by Todd Gillenardo in the title role.

Gillenardo is simply amazing as the Renaissance man with “panache,” and one other distinguishing characteristic: an abnormally long nose. Much is made of this appendage by friend and foe alike, and Cyrano will happily kill any man who insults his humongous honker, but he is first to make fun of it himself. In Act I, set in a theatre, he rattles off all a long list taunts he has heard. He summarily dispatches the high-voiced, preening actor Montfleury (Mike Juncal), whom he had previously banished from the stage for a month. The crowd loves him; he is a highly accomplished swordsman and wordsmith. Edmund Rostand wrote the play in verse, but Gillenardo makes the potentially artificial speech sound as natural as breathing.

It is the year 1640 in Paris, and Cyrano is a soldier (“cadet”). Not everyone is his friend; his successful duels, one with Valvert (Roger Erb) sets the scene and lets us know Cyrano’s gifts, as well as discover his arrogance, as he utters an extemporaneous poem, wounding his opponent just at the point he says he would in the recitation. In this milieu, the pen is as mighty as the sword. Valvert has also been proposed as a husband for the beauteous Roxane (Andrea Purcell), a cousin to Cyrano and the object of his secret affection. Valvert is a tool for the scheming Comte de Guiche (Tom Kopp), who wants to use him to gain access to Roxane, as the Comte himself is married. Cyrano will not declare himself to her due to his appearance.

Cyrano and Roxane (neé Madeleine) grew up together, and she regards him as a dear friend, not knowing that he loves her in a decidedly non-cousinly fashion. Her eye lands on the handsome young Christian de Neuvillette (Casey Boland), an amiable doofus. But just one look was all it took, and the two are bound to have each other. There’s a catch though: Words are extremely important to Roxane, and Christian knows very few of them. Pained, but wanting Roxane’s happiness, Cyrano writes her letters and even woos her with his poetry under her balcony at night. Naturally (since Roxane is apparently not very good at identifying voices yet) she believes Christian is the whole package. Cyrano gets wind of de Guiche’s machinations, and arranges a quick marriage between Christian and Roxane.

While Cyrano has many admirers, he also has some pretty powerful enemies who have been offended by his satires, the most influential of which is de Guiche, now angrier than ever. He is the nephew of Cardinal Richelieu, and he gains preference in the military due to that connection. He is promoted to Captain of the regiment in which Cyrano serves, and when the army is posted to fight the Spanish, de Guiche plots to run the regiment into certain death, sparing himself, of course, to get rid of Cyrano and Christian. Improbably, Roxane is able to cross enemy lines accompanied by Rageuneau (Aaron Orion Baker), the owner of a pastry shop and a poet himself. The two bring supplies to the starving army. The good-hearted Ragueneau was earlier cuckolded by his wife (Christina Rios) with a musketeer, and she soon leaves her kind husband. He and another soldier, LeBret (Ben Ritchie) are Cyrano’s closest friends.

Cyrano figures out the battlefield plot, but not in time to save Christian. Roxane mourns him for 15 years, living in a convent carrying her husband’s (really Cyrano’s) farewell letter to her in a little pouch at her waist. Cyrano visits her every Saturday, but on this final day, he has met with an “accident” on the street. Ragueneau finds him and gets him medical attention, but he and LeBret are horrified to see the mortally wounded Cyrano with Roxane instead of resting at his lodgings. Before he dies, he recites “Christian’s” last letter to her, and she realizes it is Cyrano she has loved all along.

Director Donna Northcott has done a brilliant job of staging the show, complete with the crowd scenes depicting all strata of society from the pickpockets to the princes, mingling at the theatre. The fight scenes coordinated by Todd Gillenardo, who is himself especially impressive when he duels with a sword in each hand, are as good as I’ve seen. Cristie Johnston’s simple scenic design adapts itself well to the aforementioned theatre, Ragueneau’s shop, Roxane’s balcony and garden, a battlefield and a convent with very few distracting scene changes.

Northcott’s costumes are lovely on the women and dashing on the men. The only weak spot is the lighting scheme; I don’t know whether this is a flaw in the design or the equipment, but sometimes the stage looks dim, and generally, the men’s faces don’t show when they’re wearing their plumed hats. In Cyrano’s case, the lack of visibility is useful because Roxane can’t see him when he’s impersonating Christian, yet it seems like an adjustment could have been made for those scenes.

The acoustics in the history museum tend to be unfriendly to women’s voices, but Purcell is able to make herself understood most of the time. Gillenardo’s diction is so perfect that his words are clear, even when he is “disguised” with a scarf over his face to hide his most prominent feature while distracting de Guiche so the wedding can take place. The play also might have benefitted from more cutting—some of the scenes seemed overlong, especially in Act V. Those quibbles aside, overall, this Cyrano de Bergerac is a beautiful production, and one of the best I’ve attended at St. Louis Shakespeare. I only wish it ran longer than two weekends so more could see it. It’s a rare opportunity to see this classic at all, especially when it is so well-played.

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