Cyrano de Bergerac

Halfway through Act I of the first press preview of Aquila Theatre Company’s vigorous new production of Cyrano de Bergerac, Anthony Cochrane, as the homely title character, began losing his long false nose. Though he re-situated the thing again and again with the tip of an index finger, it continued slipping and peeling away from his face. In the midst of Cyrano’s duel with Viscount de Valvert (Alvero Heinig), the nose flopped to the floor. Cochrane retrieved it between scenes, but eventually resigned himself to playing on with his own more stable, if unremarkable, visage. Rather than undermining the performance, Cochrane’s unruly artificial beak proved the inconsequence of make-up and costumes when measured against resourceful acting.

Cyrano, the 17th-century cavalier who forswears love in the mistaken belief that an ugly face makes him unlovable, is alien to the present age. Daring, proud, bombastic, yet shy and self-effacing, he dwarfs the other characters in Edmond Rostand’s 1897 comic melodrama. Modern audiences turn to this saga, with its emphasis on chivalry and poetic expression, for spectacle and romantic excess, not for verisimilitude.

The memorable Cyranos–including José Ferrer, Christopher Plummer, Gérard Depardieu, and Derek Jacobi–have been outfitted with fabulous, dependable noses. Those false proboscises acknowledge that it’s de Bergerac’s deformity that prevents the swashbuckling poet from having normal relations with others, especially women. What’s striking is that, after Cochrane abandoned the pesky rubber piece, the character’s defects, physical and otherwise, were still vivid in the actor’s subtle, capable art. This young Scot demonstrates the extent to which movement, stance, gesture, vocal inflection, and an actor’s insight can be more potent than putty or greasepaint in evoking grotesquerie.

Cochrane’s poise while proceeding sans nose is emblematic of Aquila’s ambition to create more from less. A decade-old touring ensemble of classically-trained American and British actors, Aquila presents pared-down versions of great texts in all kinds of surroundings, including school cafeterias and church basements. The company’s Cyrano, directed by Robert Richmond, makes judicious cuts in Rostand’s text in order to focus on its core, and stirs up spectacle without elaborate sets or the usual crowd of bit players.

Designed by Richmond and Peter Meineck, the production shakes the rafters of Lincoln Center’s Clark Studio black box with rowdy, often glorious, music composed by Cochrane. Instead of scenery, there’s a beguilingly complicated lighting plot and simple, multi-purpose props (such as umbrella frames strung with Christmas lights that function first as chandeliers in a Paris theater, and then as low-hanging bowers in Roxanne’s garden). Fanciful costumes, constructed by Justine Scherer from thrift-shop togs, rags, patches, and bits of stuff, suggest class distinctions and period opulence at the same time that they liberate the proceedings from the customary stuffiness of historical epics.

The excellent cast–six men and two womenn–whirls about in perpetual motion, playing multiple roles and manipulating puppets to fill the 50 or so speaking parts in Rostand’s script. The doubling is, for the most part, effective. Lisa Carter, who makes Roxanne appealing even in the character’s shallowest moments, is so versatile that she’s hardly recognizable in her other role. Heinig plays Christian with detachment and muddle-headedness, presumably to suggest naivety. It’s an odd choice, but serves to distinguish the juvenile lead from Heinig’s more spirited turn as Valvert.

In Richmond’s two-hour adaptation the most lyrical parts of Rostand’s text retain the sublimity of the familiar blank verse translation by Brian Hooker. The grittier scenes employ contemporary slang from both sides of the Atlantic, such as “bonkers” (rhymed with “love always conquers”), “bloke” (coupled with the slant rhyme “the Incredible Hulk”), and “shag” (in the Austin Powers sense). The resulting script is as raggedy as the production’s costumes, but crackles with verbal energy and linguistic surprises.

Aquila’s textual and directorial license may be more palatable in a warhorse such as Cyrano than in a work that’s universally revered for its literary qualities. This production isn’t likely to ruffle feathers the way Aquila’s controversial adaptation of The Iliad: Book One, set in a World War II bunker during the Normandy invasion, has done. What’s important is that Richmond and his colleagues are staging Rostand’s intricate, expansive drama with a tiny band of actors and a modest budget, without sacrificing its rambunctious theatricality. While this pocket Cyrano lacks the high gloss of Terry Hands’ exquisite Royal Shakespeare Company interpretation, which brought Jacobi and Sinéad Cusack to New York in 1984, it never feels thin, truncated, or unduly abridged, as did Frank Langella’s 1997 chamber version at the Roundabout.

Ultimately, the success of any Cyrano depends on its de Bergerac. Aquila’s carnival staging makes the blood race, but Anthony Cochrane’s performance fills the heart. Pensive, athletic, and poignant without being over-the-top, that performance ensures that, at 103, Rostand’s Cyrano is still astonishing and young.

Featured In This Story

Cyrano de Bergerac

Closed: September 17, 2000