BWW Review: Masterful CYRANO DE BERGERAC at Guthrie Theater
Sometimes all the pieces come together: story, language, visuals, performance, staging. That's the case with the superb production of the French classic CYRANO DE BERGERAC currently playing on the proscenium stage at the Guthrie. Artistic director Joseph Haj first created his own adaptation in 2006, and he's tweaked it here. The result is quite faithful to the original but tighter, a little less flowery, and more in keeping with modern notions about female agency.
Veteran actor Jay O. Sanders, fresh from a triumphant run on Broadway as Uncle Vanya, inhabits the title role here. He's in utter command throughout, marshaling the resources of a terrific voice that can thunder or whisper, linger on playwright Rostand's luscious syllables or rush through them, while staying crystal clear. He delivers some passages in fine French, despite the fact that it's a language he doesn't actually speak. He manages the famous early soliloquy about his outsized nose with simplicity and speed rather than pomposity, a welcome choice. Older than many Cyranos, he uses great economy of effort in the fight scenes (directed by Kara Wooten), vanquishing multiple younger combatants with aikido-like efficiency. His is a comfortable, rumpled charisma rather than a spectacular one, and we are recruited to his side from his first entrance through the audience.
It's a joy to watch him react to his lady love Roxane in the famous bakery scene. She is unaware of his passion for her and is there to ask his help in protecting the young soldier she's fallen for. His spirits are dashed and his customary eloquence deserts him but his pure heart shines forth.
Happily, Jennie Greenberry's Roxane, in this adaptation, manages to dodge the twin dangers of cluelessness and foolishness that can plague the part. She's tall, she's smart, she's spunky, she's resourceful, she's kind. And she's aided by her savvy and sexy duenna, played by the great Charity Jones.
The object of Roxane's love is Christian, who is beautiful and brave, but simply can't talk to women. When faced with a female, he's reduced to stuttering cliche, though, as played by Robert Lenzi, he still manages to exude depth of character. But Roxane requires verbal wooing of the highest order. Thus it is that Cyrano selflessly supplies Christian with the words he needs, both spoken and written, to fuel Roxane's love. This production, more than most, traces the way Roxane grows from someone who is charmed by good looks to someone who comes to value inner beauty.
The brilliant set traces this thematic journey. Designed by McKay Coble and built by the Guthrie's crack carpentry shop, it's a pleasure to behold but is more than pretty: it's a visual metaphor for how attractive outsides can be stripped away to reveal spiritual richness. What we see upon arriving in the theater is a huge white quill suspended in space before an equally huge handwritten letter. The lights never go out so we get to see these fly out once the play starts.
Behind them is a two story version of an 17th century curio cabinet: an elaborate chest of drawers, decoratively painted. Almost immediately, the cast starts to unbuild this thing, using pieces to create what subsequent scenes require, like a small stage, benches, a table. By the end of the show, the decorative facades are all gone and we are left with the supporting scaffolding, which can be backlit and climbed by the nuns whose space we enter for the final scenes.
Costumes by Jan Chambers parallel this progression. High society characters in the first scene wear ringlet wigs, furbelows, frippery and folderol: the height of 17th century fashion. As the play progresses, these are left behind and we see more basic peasant and front line soldier garb, until in the end all is simplified to the black and white of the nuns' habits and Roxane's widow's weeds. Cyrano is in simple, functional shapes in earthy warm tones with texture throughout: true to his nature from the start, he changes little about his look.
Director Haj has coordinated all these elements with real intention, and adds his own touches in timing and staging. A favorite moment for me was the transition from the battle sequence to the convent. Rather than removing us from the world of the play with a blackout to cover this transition, Haj leaves the lights up, and lingers much longer on the scene of devastation than most directors would choose to do. We are asked to take in what it means to die in the mud. He then employs the ensemble of gliding nuns and simple theatrical magic to clear the stage of battlefield detritus and move us into the world of spirit and sanctity where the play concludes.
Playwright Rostand thought his play would be a flop when it premiered in 1897 since it was such a romance in a cynical age. He was well aware that theatrical norms had shifted dramatically a scant 18 years earlier with Ibsen's DOLL HOUSE, which ushered in realism and naturalism as dominant styles. The story goes that he apologized to the cast before they went on for putting them in such a bad spot. However, the audience then responded with rapturous applause that is said to have lasted for an hour after the final curtain. CYRANO has never gone out of fashion; swashbuckling and wisdom have rarely been so neatly coupled.
This play and this production provide pure pleasure and may well settle into your soul if you are lucky enough to attend. It runs through May 5.
Photo credit: T Charles Erickson