Monday, February 16, 2009

Cyrano De Bergerac, Mary Moody Northern Theatre at St. Edward's, February 12 -22

Director Michelle Polgar orchestrates a fine, vigorous production of the wonderfully romantic French drama Cyrano de Bergerac, playing through this coming weekend at St Ed's Mary Moody Northern Theatre. Edmond Rostand modeled the lonely, pugnacious cavalier with the big nose on the historical figure of Hector Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, a duelist and dramatist who did, in fact, fight in the Thirty Years' War between the French and the Spanish.

One of my French professors dismissed Rostand's play as clap-trap sentimentality, to my great dismay. My father, a reticent man, had given me a copy of the Modern Libary edition when I was about 15, and in my own lonely hours I had soared with the eloquence of Cyrano, mused at his contempt for death and admired his casual heroism. I suffered with him the colossal irony of his unwanted obligation to support and protect cadet Christian, that young fop who had attracted the admiration of Cyrano's secret belovéd, his own cousin Roxanne.

Anyway, those pompous profs in the French Department were wrapped up in existentialism, Camus and Sartre, those lurching intellectuals at the bleakest extremes of literature and philosophy.

Ah, to live greatly, like Cyrano! He speaks and lives so fully, steadfast to his muse and his friends, defending them selflessly with a flash of the rapier and a swift scribble of the pen. Rostand's play was a great success in Paris in 1897 and his version of Cyrano has been alive with us ever since. José Ferrer won an Oscar as best actor for his 1950 film portayal of Cyrano and the great, inevitable Gérard Depardieu was a memorable Cyrano in his 1990 film (subtitles furnished by Anthony Burgess, translator/adapter of the verse script used in St. Ed's production).

The play's four acts take us to a public theatre, to the pastry shop of the baker Rageneau, to the barracks of the cadets of Gascony, to their hungry existence in the fortress besieged by the Spanish troops, and finally, years later, to a quiet convent garden where the aged Cyrano regularly calls to bring widowed Roxanne his mocking comments about news from court.

Polgar's staging of the opening act uses the theatre's in-the-square configuration to great advantage. As spectators, we in the audience embody the public in that fictional theatre, ranged around the hollow square, awaiting the appearance of the tragedian Montfleury while observing the idle and the aristocratic who are milling about just in front of us. A narrow stage occupies one corner of the square playing space; perched high above us, diagonally across the open area, are the elegant Roxanne, her chaperone and an oily-looking pair of aristocratic suitors. At times the crowd of actors may block sightlines, especially for those spectators in the front rows, but Polgar subtly clears the space for Cyrano's first appearance, his elegantly derisive replies to the challenge of a presumptuous young nobleman, and the fast-moving, fatal duel that follows.

David M. Long is a vivid, quick-witted Cyrano. His friend Le Bret (Greg Holt) frets about Cyrano's delight in insulting the powerful, but Long is airily dismissive of poverty and pains. He quickly wins our sympathy, just as he has won the fascinated loyalty of the corps of cadets.

Roxanne (Julia Trinidad) is the focus of all sentiment in this piece. She is enchanted by the sight of the aristocratic young Christian de Neuvillette, whom she has eyed from afar at the theatre, and Christian responds with silent fascination. Cyrano is deeply enamoured of Roxanne but convinced that she could never love someone with as disfigured a nose as his own. The Count De Guiche (Marc Pouhé), self-assured nephew of Cardinal de Richelieu, schemes to put Roxanne into a marriage of convenience so that he can take her as his mistress. Julia Trinidad must play this as an ingenue throughout. She begs Cyrano to protect Christian as he joins Cyrano's regiment; tongue-tied Christian begs Cyrano to lend his eloquence to woo Roxanne.

Long as Cyrano (left) and Christopher Smith as Christian (right) craft their relationship well. On his first day with the cadets, Christian tosses Cyranoesque gibes at the older man and the cadets are confounded to see that for once, Cyrano does not simply skewer an insulter. Banishing the others, Cyrano dutifully tells Christian of Roxanne's hopes. The mentor-protegé relationship between them is clever, touching and credible. They're particularly comic as doppelgänger suitors, a pair of Romeos falling all over one another in the dark of the garden below Roxanne's window.

So our hero woos and wins Roxanne, but only by proxy. He helps foil the wicked De Guiche. Marc Pouhé as De Guiche is so smooth and well-mannered that we have some trouble imagining him as really evil; he's closer in attitude to Peter Pan's Captain Hook.

The pace is snappy throughout, at times too quick -- for example, in the sequence of Cyrano's witty replies to the lame insult, "Sir, your nose is -- rather large!" Cyrano tells his adversary, "You could have done much better!" and extemporizes a dozen or more -- announcing a style of insult and then delivering a hilarious example. Each is more comic than the preceding, and when the cadence is captured, the full scene builds, to be capped off by Cyrano's extempore sonnet during the duel.

And then there's Cyrano's melancholy, which Long captures fully only in the sublime final scene. For me the divine spark of poetry lights a darkness of disappointment in this man, bravely covered by his jests and commotion. Cyrano at the Mary Moody Northern Theatre is epic and captivating, a hero never daunted. Rarely in this version does he pause to acknowledge or contemplate his disappointment. If we were to glimpse that tragic sense at moments during the play, his final face-off with Death would be even more moving for us.

Elizabeth Cobbe's enthusiastic review for the Austin Chronicle, February 19

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