an ornamental tuft or plume (as of feathers) especially on a helmet
The confidence, elegance, and style of the current, Joseph Haj adaptation and production, of Cyrano de Bergerac at The Guthrie Theater
American theatre critic John Simons once said, “Cyrano de Bergerac is not a great play, merely a perfect one.” This might be the most adept way to articulate my convoluted relationship with this piece of literature. I’ve seen an assortment of movies, read and performed the script in multiple adaptations, wept when Antony Sher ended his run at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon, worked front of house for the latest revival on Broadway where Kevin Kline swashbuckled into the title role, and NOW...the unerring Jay O. Sanders, dutifley picks up the foil, in the Guthrie’s latest production on the McGuire Proscenium Stage. I hesitated (albeit it briefly), about seeing/reviewing the show, not wanting to ruin my long time love affair with this love story but, ultimately, I made the right decision. If you want to skip the details, it was awesome!
“Mention not that fatal cartilage!”
Director, Joseph Haj, also has a wonderfully long and complicated relationship with this play. In fact, this is his very own adaptation from a directing gig he had with PlayMakers Repertory Company over 13 years ago. From his Director’s Notes in the program, he speculates the intentions of playwright, Edmond Rostand, suggesting that “(he) chose to write a heart-forward, transcendent story for a cynical age.” I couldn’t agree more. Cyrano’s nose is the metaphor for all the personal flaws we see that hold us back from being our greatest version of ourselves! It undermines our confidence, and shapes our self worth. Meanwhile, the play, Haj says, “interrogates the idea of how we treat people we find highly attractive and project qualities on to them that they may, or may not, posses.” In the midst of the trend of models and social media influencers, it’s tricky to see beyond that facade to what is real, and where that “real beauty resides.”
Another theme running rampant through this play, that still rings true today, is the pressure to conform. Cyrano is a poet, a fighter, a lover, and loyal friend, and all on his own terms. Written during a civil unrest in French history, there was necessity and compulsion to have a patron (as an artist) and a battalion (as a fighter). This wasn’t just to satisfy social constructs but for actual survival. These things provided money, food, shelter, as well as a fundamental identity and belonging, during a time that was very unstable. Sounds familiar, no? And, (spoiler alert), even as he lays dying at the end of the play, Cyrano proclaims proudly that he lived his own life and never gave up his “panache” or plume, that aforementioned symbol of independence and personal freedom.
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, (Dramaturg, Carla Steen, writes in her article Seeing With a French Heart), this play is about the French spirit. It is full of “love, appreciation of language, epic romance, chic glamour, wit, theatricality and, of course, pastries.” This production takes on and successfully tackles all of the above themes with equal fun and foppery, reverence and respect. You will laugh out loud one moment, and hold your breath the next. Be prepared to run the emotional gamut with abandon and without regret.
“I do not find your eyes unconquerable…”
The acting as a whole is solid, and the ensemble does a wonderful job embracing their diverse character tracks with commitment and gusto. Accolades must be given to the leads who carry the verbal and emotional weight of this epic journey- that spans close to 20 years! Secondary characters RAGUENEAU, the poet/pastry chef and LE BRET, the cadet captain (local actor Ansa Akyea and Remy Auberjonois respectively), play the extreme comedy and drama of the piece with easy assurance; while Jennie Greenberry (ROXANE), is grounded, jocular, brave, as well as, stunningly beautiful. However, Jay O. Sanders as Cyrano, is all I expected he would be- and more. His personal “panache” and presence is the bedrock of this sparkling production. From his entrance, (a booming off stage voice from the annals of a house right aisle), he guides us along this uncertain pilgrimage with strength and grace. From swordplay to wordplay, he handles it all masterfully and he is delightfully stubborn while being painfully vulnerable simultaneously. It’s also worth noting that everyone on that stage is having a blast. Not as their characters, (there are some very solemn moments), but as actors, and as people. That joy for the love of the work, and the appreciation to be part of a company, is not present in every production, but when it is, you can feel it. It’s palpable!
Production values are impeccable. From colorful period perfect costumes (Jan Chambers), lighting with a cozy glow (Rui Rita), and original score, (composed by Jack Herrick), they compliment and impress without distraction. Scenic designer, McKay Coble, should be commended for the glossy, luxurious, yet surprisingly inventive set. Inspired by a traditional “curiosity cabinet,” made popular in the 17th Century, (when the play is set). The glossy black lacquered cabinet, with intricate jewel toned flowers and foliage, is nostalgically familiar. It threw me back to something my grandmother might have had, or better yet, an heirloom now kept safely in a museum. Seemingly flat and ornamental, it morphs into a two story house, a theatre, a town square. Drawers pull out into benches, functional window shutters, and even an ornate doorway with pillars for practical entrances and exits. I LOVE sets like this. With beauty and brains, it makes the scene changes as engaging as the scenes themselves and helps maintain flow and momentum.
“Are all words fair that lurk under fair features?”
I really loved this show! Ultimately, it is as good as it is because ALL the production pieces work together effortlessly. From the acting, to production, music, to the confidence and love shown in directing, Cyrano de Bergerac, is a whole, and beautifully balanced piece. I must mention again the adaptation, that our own Joseph Haj did himself, has a vocal and physical cadence that is fresh, new, and serves this classic romantic dramedy SO well. Look, I could go on and on and on...but I’ll save the last of my proverbial breath. Here’s bottom line, go-go-GO see this show!