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Cyrano (T. Scott Lilly) with the reflection
of Roxane (April Cantor)
(Photo © Stanley Stellar)
Considered by many to have been the finest Russian actor in history, Michael Chekhov was the nephew of playwright Anton, and Stanislavski's star pupil. The proponent of an acting technique that relies on imagination in the way that the Method relies on memory, Michael Chekhov came to America in the 1930s and mentored Anthony Quinn, Clint Eastwood, Gregory Peck, and Marilyn Monroe, among others.

The Chekhov Theatre Ensemble is one of the few American theaters dedicated to his techniques. In Cyrano, a production of a new translation of Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, the ensemble members put their experience in performing and educating New York area schoolchildren in dramatic arts to work; the result is a rousing, light-hearted, family-oriented show. Headed by T. Scott Lilly as the famous swordsman with the prominent nose, a gallant whose flair for poetry matches his facility with a rapier, the cast moves breezily through the text -- as adapted by Jo Roets from a translation by Audrey Van Tuyckom -- in just over an hour.

Owing in part to the unabashedly romantic nature of the story, few realize that this classic 1897 work by the popular and prolific Rostand is based on a real-life figure of the 17th century, duelist and satirist Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac. In fact, the birthday of the real Cyrano falls during the run of this production and will be celebrated by the company with a party on March 6.

That's the spirit in which to receive this show: as a celebration of the enduring mystique of this eternal character and an easily digestible presentation of the tale within the constraints of a small budget and limited time. The production is directed by Floyd Rumohr with a nose for the broadest, most accessible gesture. Featuring the gorgeous and charming April Cantor as Roxane, whose beauty entrances Cyrano and everyone else in the royal regiments, the play unfolds on a basic set by Russell Michael Schramm that has one very impressive feature: a rustic-looking, functional fountain. With the equally attractive Robert Lee Taylor doubling in the roles of Christian and his boss de Guiche, Cyrano's story of seduction-by-proxy -- a French idea if there ever was one -- unfolds with an innocent spirit that seems at odds even with other works of its time, such as those of Chekhov and Shaw.

One of this production's central flaws is that, despite lovely costumes designed by Andrea Huelse, the two characters played by Taylor are not distinguished sufficiently by their outfits or by his acting -- especially not for younger audience members. With Georgia Southern rounding out the small, able cast, the show amuses but lacks notes of poignance that director Rumohr might have included without sacrificing accessibility to all ages.

Additionally the impact of the few gritty and desperate scenes -- such as the starvation of the troops at Arras, which adds a needed element of reality to this romance -- is undercut by the brevity of the adaptation and the small size of the company. The sophistication we saw in the ensemble's production of Christopher Durang's Baby with the Bathwater a few years ago is absent here, replaced by an ingenuous, drama school sensibility.

Still, the Chekhov Theatre Ensemble's efforts to broaden the minds and hearts of our city's schoolchildren are laudable, so take the kids and have a raucous good time. Their minds and emotions will be stimulated more provocatively and deeply by this great old yarn than by a third visit to The Lion King, also playing on 42nd Street and vastly overwhelming in terms of spectacle.

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