Folger Theatre CyranoBy Bob Ashby • May 4th, 2011 • Category: Reviews
Folger Elizabethan Theatre, Washington DC
Through June 6th
2:30, with one intermission
Reviewed May 1st, 2011
It’s not just about the nose. Yes, the nose is the play’s icon, recognizable to almost anyone who has ever had a high school or college literature or drama course. So famous is the nose that it received its own full-page spread in Saturday’s Washington Post. But what has made Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac memorable over 114 years, and the innumerable translations, versions, movies, musicals, operas, and TV show episodes that it has spawned, is not so much a prodigious nose as its men’s prodigious passions.
The new adaptation/translation of Cyrano at the Folger Theater, by Michael Hollinger and director Aaron Posner, puts the spotlight on the passionate relationships among friends and rivals in 17th century Paris. In his notes, Hollinger tells of seeking “a poetic sensibility that lets…language soar when it should soar, but which is also lean, precise, spare, and actor-friendly.” At this his script succeeds brilliantly. By replacing the somewhat distancing formality of the original rhyming verse form, it draws in a contemporary audience, but by its content it also emphasizes the relationship of Cyrano to its antecedents in Shakespeare and Cervantes. Its modifications and compressions of some portions of the original play lose nothing essential and maintain the pace and focus of the action.
Eric Hissom’s Cyrano gets all the nooks and crannies of the complex lead character: proud, prickly, smart, verbally and physically virtuosic, brave, insecure, self-sacrificing, self-defeating, and cruel. His greatest cruelty, which he never fully realizes, is to Roxanne, who he leaves in loneliness in a convent for 15 years rather than confess his deception and longing for her. He allows his relationship to the memory of Christian — and Christian’s love for Roxanne and death — to become more important to him than the living woman he thinks of himself as loving.
The production treats its characters with kindness and warmth. Christian (Bobby Moreno) is man of genuine and heartfelt feelings, not simply an amiable dunce. Craig Wallace’s De Guiche is not simply a villain, but also someone who, like Cyrano and Christian, cannot find a good way of seeking what he most desires. His moment of grace in the final scene is touching. Steve Hendrickson and Richard Ruiz are the most steadfast of loving of friends to Cyrano as Le Bret and Ragueneau, respectively.
Roxanne is inevitably the problem character in the play. Notwithstanding Brenda Withers’ effective portrayal, the clarity of this script makes it more apparent than ever that Roxanne approaches being a kind of human McGuffin, an element that drives the plot and which the major characters are willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to obtain. She is less a creature of flesh and blood than, as Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade says of the Maltese Falcon, “the stuff dreams are made of.” Cyrano, Christian, and De Guiche all define themselves, and their relationships to one another — the most important relationships in the play — by their dreams of Roxanne. The staging of the play reflects the dream object role of Roxanne, frequently placing her in a second level “pedestal,” far above the ground level occupied by the men who dream of her.
Every aspect of this production works. So well does Posner use the theater’s space — two levels of the stage, the balconies, the apron and aisles — that the nine-member cast at times seems much larger. All the actors, except Hissom as Cyrano, play two or more roles. Todd Scofield, for example, plays both the pompous actor Montfluey and Roxanne’s nurse, the latter being one of the show’s comic highlights. The stage combat, particularly in a scene when Cyrano takes on a hundred foes, is a delight. Costumes reflect and help to define character: As De Guiche, Craig Wallace wears warm, rich colors and fabrics, while Hissom’s clothing is worn and drab. The ensemble’s comic timing is impeccable.
Folger’s Cyrano is a splendid production that looks and sounds good and illuminates the play’s characters and feelings as no other production of the play I have encountered. Count it as a must-see in what remains of the spring theater season.
I must have seen Cyrano De Bergerac on stage for the first time in 5th grade, because that was the year I began writing poetry and love letters to Michele Weill “from” Pete Stevens. The thing was, I had the hugest crush on Michelle myself, but just didn’t have the courage to pursue her.
I’m pretty sure I saw the play first. I don’t think I made this idea up myself. But I’m not sure…
Regardless, even at ten I clearly saw myself in Cyrano, and Cyrano in myself. And I still do, in both inspiring and troubling ways. In fact, this might be my very favorite thing about a play which I love, enjoy, and respect for a thousand reasons: It is, at its core, an amazing mirror.
Art, of course, contains all manners of mirrors. Reflections. Insights. Foils. Doppelgangers. Magic mirrors that allure and frighten us, from Snow White to Galadriel. Hamlet reminds us that an actor’s chief task is to “hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.” These artistic mirrors are a form of practical magic, a place we can turn to learn to see ourselves more fully.
Enter Cyrano: Brash, bold, brilliant, poetic, passionate, uncompromising, inspiring, and courageous. Or… Enter Cyrano: Offensive, arrogant, insecure, awkward, angry, overbearing, dangerous, and deluded. Which is he? How do you see him? Haven’t we all wished we had more of some of these qualities? Less of others? Longed to be X? Dreamed of being Y? Imagined we could have been Z if only it hadn’t been for W? Who are we really? And how does Cyrano’s extraordinary extremity help us see ourselves a little more clearly, a little more richly?
“What is my ‘nose’?” this play makes you wonder.
What is your nose?
I love the people I get to spend my time with, fictional and otherwise. Being in the room every day with Cyrano, Roxane, and their retinue is an utter joy. And it is an enduring honor to work here at the Folger with a small and devoted army of exceptional individuals striving to bring these monumental works to the stage with force, freshness… and all the panache we can muster!
In conceiving this new adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac with Aaron Posner, I’ve sought to produce an American translation that is true to the beating heart of the play, with a poetic sensibility that lets language soar when it should soar, but which is also lean, precise, spare, immediate, and actor-friendly at all times. The play comprises a huge range of tones — comic, tragic, melodramatic, farcical, antic, elegiac — and I’ve tried to honor all of them, though the particular way each appears in our version may differ from the original. (What’s funny or poignant or scary in fin de siècle Paris may not have the same effect on Americans in 2011.)
Rostand set his “Heroic Comedy in Five Acts” in the mid-1600s, and wrote it in Alexandrine couplets — paired rhyming lines of six feet (twelve syllables) each — a nod to 17th-century plays by Molière, Racine, and Corneille which used the same form. English translators have typically chosen to either convert the whole script to prose, or retain the rhymed couplets and set the dialogue in iambic pentameter (five feet, ten syllables), a meter most of us associate with Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, e.g. (Sonnet #18):
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
Except for explicit poetry — Montfleury’s soliloquy, Cyrano’s duel poem, the songs, etc. — my translation tends to avoid end rhymes, and employs tetrameter (four feet per line) with a variable number of syllables per line. My decision to abandon the rhymed couplets of the original derived not from the inherent difficulty of the task — as a lyricist, I use rhyme all the time — but rather from the way this formalism tends to distract me from the play itself, continually drawing my attention to the artfulness of the playwright or translator and away from the predicaments and souls of the characters. (I don’t feel this way about Molière, where a consciousness of the formal perfection of the verse enhances my delight.) Likewise, tetrameter gives lines a wonderful sense of velocity, though rhymed tetrameter tends to have a sing-song quality (think Dr. Seuss). Instead, I’ve employed a range of other poetic devices — alliteration, assonance, consonance, internal rhyme, etc. — that I believe keep the ear engaged while not encouraging the audience to begin listening for a rhyme at the end of every line. The idea is to allow the poetry of the play to wax and wane, depending on the moment and the lyrical nature of each character.
Like the translation, this adaptation strives to be lean, precise, spare, immediate, and actor-friendly. The greatly-reduced size of the acting ensemble — eight men and one woman — invites compression and theatricality; the use of direct address by the character of Le Bret (a nod to the Chorus in Shakespeare’s Henry V) allows for the imaginative and self-conscious use of the theatre and audience, and for devices familiar to contemporary theatre-goers but not in currency in 1897.
Throughout the process, my goal has been not to diminish the riches of the original play, but rather to release them so they will impact those who see it with force, feeling, and panache.
Michael Hollinger, translator/co-adaptor
Photos by Carol Pratt
- De Valvert & others: Dan Crane
- Ligniere & others: Chris Genebach
- Le Bret & others: Steve Hendrickson
- Cyrano De Bergerac: Eric Hissom
- Christian De Neuvilette & others: Bobby Moreno
- Ragueneau & others: Richard Ruiz
- Montfleury & others: Todd Scofield
- De Guiche & others: Craig Wallace
- Roxane & others: Brenda Withers
- Translated by Michael Hollinger
- Adapted by Michael Hollinger and Aaron Posner
- Director: Aaron Posner
- Artistic Producer: Janet Alexander Griffin
- Assistant Artistic: Producer Beth Emelson
- General Manager: Giuseppe De Bartolo
- Scenic Design: Daniel Conway
- Theatre Production Manager: Charles Flye
- Costume Design: Devon Painter
- Lighting Design: Thom Weaver
- Sound Design/Origional Music: Veronika Vorel
- Original Songs: Michael Hollinger
- Fight Director: Dale Anthony Girard
- Resident Dramaturg: Michele Osherow
- Production Stage Manager: Amanda Michaels
- Assistant to the Director: Stephanie P. Freed
- Associate Fight Director: Joe Isenberg
- Fight Captain: Chris Genebach
- Casting Assistant: Lisa Forrest
- Assistant Technical Director: Joshua Bristol
- Assistant Stage Manager: Eric Arnold
- Production Assistant: Kirsten Parker
- Dramaturg Intern: Allison Bucca
- Scenic Design Assistant: Douglas Clarke
- Scenery Construction: Bella Facia
- Scenic Charge: Ruth Barber
- Painter: Mariana Fernandez
- Swords: Lewis Shaw
- Prop Master: Daniel da Cruz Pinha
- Prop Assistant: Melissa Wunder
- Assistant Costume Design: Ren LaDassor
- Wardrobe Head: Adalia Vera Tonneyck
- Costume Construction: Troika Costumes
- Prosthetics: SkindeepFX LLC, Michael Meyer
- Boot Construction: John Baird
- Wig Construction: Ashley Ryan
- Mask Construction: Aaron Cromie
- Assistant Lighting Design: Drew Kaufman
- Master Electrician: Amber Meade
- Electricians: Brian Allard, Garth Dolan, Matt Shipley, Aaron Waxman
- Light Board Operator: Matt Shipley
- Sound Head: Matthew M. Nielson
- Sound Board Operator: Brandon Roe
- Promotional Photography: James Kegley
- Production Photography: Carol Pratt
- Archival Recording: WAPAVA
- Open Captioning: C2 Inc.
Disclaimer: Folger Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/6529.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.