Posted by: strugglesome | March 23, 2012

Love’s Labor’s Lost: The Arden Theater Company presents Cyrano

There is an old Yiddish saying, “God doesn’t give with both hands”. Putting aside the anthropormophising of God, which traditionally is frowned upon in Judaism, we can take this bit of folk wisdom to mean that especially endowed in one respect may not be as blessed in others. For the same reason that you see very few supermodels with PhDs, there are very few PhD students who would pose for Vogue. Tyra Banks may have gone to Harvard Business school, but I think she can safely be called an exception, rather than a rule. It seems to be a sad truth of life that smart and pretty can’t always live side by side.

Or at least that’s what we learn from Cyrano de Bergerac, the classic tale of love in disguise and everlasting if unrequited affection by Edmond Rostand. Well, it’s actually not that much of a classic, as it turns out, given that Rostand wrote the thing in the 1890’s. But the real person upon whom that story is very loosely based lived and died in the 16th century. A playwright and solider with a flair for the dramatic, the real De Bergerac probably had an average sized nose and a self-deprecating sense of humor, and he perished at a mere 36 from disease. So the character of a flamboyant poet with an eye for the ladies and a silver tongue (if not a face to launch a thousand ships) is one that has been passed along through history, only to arrive at the Arden Theater Company, adapted from Rostand’s French original and tossed onstage for all to see.

And one must say, all things considered, it’s well worth seeing, if only for the excellent adaptation created by Michael Hollinger’s text and Aaron Posner’s concept and direction. But mostly Hollinger’s text. Because this story is about language, about poetry and the way the words, not the eyes, can be the windows into the soul. And Hollinger gives us an adapted translation that is at once fluid and forceful, while maintaining a subtly and a wit that one rarely sees in pieces written originally in English, much less their translated counterparts. The story is a well-worn favorite, with a few melodramatic twists. Cyrano de Bergerac (Eric Hissom) is a solider with a rapier-like wit, matched only by the speed and ferocity of his actual rapier (I’m talking about his sword, he’s a fierce solider, get your mind out of the gutter).  But as we know, no one man gets everything, and so Cyrano’s speedy mind is matched by a less-then-devastating visage, the cherry atop of which is his monumental nose. He is madly in love with his (second) cousin Roxanne (Jessica Cummings), who only has eyes for the dashing Christian (Luigi Sottile). But Christian has a problem himself, and that is that while he makes a pretty picture he can barely manage one or two words, let alone a thousand. And our crafty hero therefore enlists Christian as the vessel through which the self-loathing Cyrano can woo his love without exposing his heart (and nose) to her ridicule. This love triangle is joined by a colorful ensemble of David Bardeen, Scott Greer, Doug Hara, Justin Jain, Benjamin Loyd and Keith Smith, who play everyone from Roxanne’s duenna to fellow soldiers in the Gascony Guard to Roxanne’s slimy suitor, the Count de Guiche. Of course, it wouldn’t be a doomed love story without tragic separations, so Cyrano and Christian find themselves shipped off to war, participating in the siege of Arras. From their time on the front lines Cyrano writes Roxanne letter after letter from her Christian,  and Roxanne of course falls in love anew with the Christian (Cyrano) of those missives.  But just as Cyrano is ready to reveal his true self to Roxanne, who declares she would love the man of those letters regardless of his looks, Christian is killed in battle, and of course the noble Cyrano refuses to besmirch the memory of his dead compatriot (or ruin the adoration Roxanne holds for the Gailic Adonis). So the two spend the next 15 years in their own forms of exile, one mourning her dead lover, the other watching his live paramour bury herself in widows weeds. Yeah. It’s a real upper.

All that being said, this production carries itself with the lightness of a comedy, not the melodrama that it actually is. With a levity of spirit and a catchy tune (courtesy of James Sugg’s sound design) the air of the play is hopeful, not painful, despite the sweet melancholy that pervades this story. Part of that is the ensemble, who move with swift well crafted fluidity, keeping the story going despite it’s jumps in time and complete lack of continuity. And part of it is, again, Hollinger’s text, which is itself a tribute to the art of the word. Lush and lascivious, funny and frank, both modern and clearly of another period in time, it’s crisp and sharp and funny and sweet. And while not every member of the cast might fully honor Hollinger (and Rostand’s) obviously adoration of language, the script itself is so strong that it transcends those individuals to deliver something good.

Staged in a world of mirrors (a rather obvious reference to the whole “love is blind” and “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” themes of the play, but I’ll allow it) with a balcony taking center stage (care of set designer Daniel Conway), the story works as a “play within a play”, sort of. After all, this tale is one of deception and theatricality, so why not acknowledge that straight from the start. While Keith Randolph Smith does a lovely job in his role as Le Bret, kindly narrator, it’s a little disconcerting to be led through this story by a expository older African American gentleman, as though he’s a servant to the show as master.  Still, he discharges his role well, cluing us in to the world of the play. Bathed in Thom Weaver’s lovely lighting design, and doublets courtesy of Devon Painter’s costumes,  Jain, Greer, Hara, Bardeen and Loyd are the workhorses of the piece, ducking around the lovers and transporting us here and there. They mug, they gasp, they oooh and ah, they are the peanut gallery you would actually want to have in the background of your life, and if they are available for hire they can feel free to call me, anytime.

And then we come to the love triangle. Sottile, it must be said, is pitch-perfect in the role of Christian. He’s funny, he’s sympathetic, he’s dashing, and he actually adds a layer of empathy to a character who could just as easily be nothing more than a barrier between Roxanne and Cyrano. Hissom, on the other hand, is a touch more problematic. Does he discharge the role adeptly? Absolutely. Does he command the eye? Sure, why not. But he seems detached, somehow, both from his own body and from the story, watching it from a distance rather than really living through it with the rest of the cast. He’s articulate and well-timed, but he never seems to really hate himself or really love language or truly adore Roxanne. His performance is polished and intelligent, but never quite draws us in, and as a result his final noble act seems somehow ridiculous, instead of painfully moving.

And then we have Roxanne herself. It’s a tall order to tell an actress, by the way, you’re going to be playing the most beautiful woman in the world. Think Helen of Troy mixed with Gretchen from Faust. Annnnnnd go. So one must sympathize with Cummings and admit that she is both charming and poised in her performance as the fickle yet ultimately faithful Roxanne. (Though it has to be said, her costume with its completely inappropriate to the period materials does the beautiful Cummings no favors in this role, the one misstep in Painter’s otherwise excellent design.) She trills, she sighs, she vows love and mourns, and if she never really goes much deeper into the role, well, how deep does this role really get to be? Roxanne is the object of affection, but not really a person in her own right. She’s the muse, not the artist. As Jessica Rabbit once stated, I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.

The Arden Theater’s production of Cyrano may not be perfect, after all, what play is? But it’s very very good, and it’s a treat to see a great script nicely and briskly played  by skilled and sensitive actors. Cyrano runs until the 15th of April. Tickets are available here.

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