Hey, Big Nose!
CenterStage's Cyrano trims the play and loses the point
CenterStage has given us a terrific Cyrano de Bergerac, full of all the poetry and passion Edmond Rostand's play is capable of.
That was back in 1980 when an up-and-coming actor named F. Murray Abraham, four years before he starred in the movie Amadeus, insisted on playing the role of the French swashbuckler without the usual prosthetic nose. He didn't need it, for director Stan Wojewodski Jr. gave the actor plenty of room and plenty of time to explore all the contradictions, delusions, and heroism of one of the stage's great characters.
Today, nearly 30 years later, CenterStage has given us another version of the same show, now called Cyrano, shrunken not only in its title, but also in its running time and ambition. The original ran nearly 200 minutes and employed more than two dozen performers; the new one runs 75 minutes and employs just three. Rostand's 1897 script has been adapted by Belgian playwright Jo Roets and translated by Audrey Van Tuyckom. The adaptors no doubt meant to concentrate the play, but they have merely reduced it.
All the major plot points are still there. Cyrano is still the swaggering hero of Paris, a soldier who will challenge any man to a duel with swords or words--and always win--but who is afraid to approach any woman because of his enormous snout. He's infatuated with his cousin Roxanne, but she's in love with one of Cyrano's cadets, a tall, blond dolt named Christian, as plain within as he is handsome without. As much to release his own feelings as to help out his friend, Cyrano begins to write Christian's love letters to Roxanne, simultaneously stoking her desires and stifling his own.
What's missing from the new version is not the story, but the sense that the story matters. Again and again, director David Schweizer chooses the easy joke over the deeper resonance. When his three young performers first bounce onto the stage with a circus-ring "ta da!"--the red-headed Sarah Grace Wilson in her pink bodice and tights, the towering Luke Robertson in his white hoodie, and the scruffy-bearded Manu Narayan in his maroon jacket and epaulets--they each try on the long plastic nose with the elastic strap to see who it fits best. It's an amusing bit, but it undermines the central point of the play: Cyrano's outsized proboscis is not a choice, but a curse of birth.
Narayan assumes the sausage-shaped nose and immediately challenges the audience to describe it. They do, and the actor is soon bantering with us across the stage's collapsed fourth wall. Does Schweizer have a larger purpose for audience interaction? Is it a device he will pursue throughout the play? No, it's just a convenient way to handle this opening scene.
Narayan is a gifted actor, but he's too young for the part. He never seems old enough to be Christian's commanding officer, as Rostand wrote the role; he seems more like Christian's peer, which alters the play's dynamic considerably. You never feel the weight of experience that compels him to help his beloved Roxanne fall in love with the knuckleheaded Christian. When the Narayan snatches the writing pad from Robertson to rewrite Christian's love letter, it seems less a noble self-sacrifice and more a schoolboy prank. On the other hand, when Narayan is moping over the love he dare not declare, his boyishness seems quite apt.
Less appealing is Robertson, the same actor who did so much damage to The Importance of Being Earnest at CenterStage last October. Robertson turns Christian into such a cipher--all cheekbones and no spark in the eyes--that it's hard to understand why Roxanne ever noticed him in the first place. And Robertson reduces the Comte de Guiche, the third rival for Roxanne's affections, from a dangerously violent, powerful noble into a sniveling fop with a frilly handkerchief, further unbalancing the play. Because Cyrano's rivals for Roxanne are so implausible, so is his surrender.
As Roxanne, the pretty, bright-eyed Wilson seems a young woman well worth swooning over. She's no slouch at swooning herself; when she reads Cyrano's poetic letters, Wilson catches her breath and clutches the paper to her bosom in a way that would give any writer inspiration. Wilson also doubles as a sound-effects expert.
When Cyrano and the Comte duel early in the show, they do so without actual weapons. While they're miming a swordfight downstage, Wilson is upstage, sliding actual swords against one another to produce the sounds of the battle. Like so much else in this production, this scene is clever but wrongheaded. Does anyone go to live theater preferring to see a radio-play version of a swordfight rather than the real thing? Does anyone go hoping to see a college-skit version of Cyrano de Bergerac rather than the real thing?
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