From the first moment of the play, the audience senses that Cyrano de Bergerac is not like other men. He is spoken of in hushed tones, his entrance much anticipated by a growing crowd of 17th century French fops and socialites, festively adorned. They wonder aloud if Cyrano will appear tonight at the theater, where he has forbidden the overstuffed, hack actor Montfleury (a delightfully hammy Brian Mani) from taking the stage so that he will not once again butcher the poetry he is supposed to perform. When Cyrano, unseen, hurls warnings at the stage from the back of the house, his stature only grows. And when he finally enters, he does not disappoint; Cyrano (an extraordinary James Ridge) is larger than life—as is the delightful production of Rostand’s classic at American Players Theatre, on stage at the Hill Theatre through October 6th. Adapted and directed by APT Core Company member James DeVita, Cyrano de Bergerac is an epic adventure and romance, comedy and tragedy rolled into one.
Adventure. Though the play has only one swordfight, it is done with such swashbuckling elegance—while Cyrano composes a poem, no less—that there is no question our hero could later best a hundred men laying in wait for an unfortunate poet, or easily come and go on the battlefield during a siege. Ridge makes the clashing of rapiers look easy as he playfully outperries Casey Hoekstra, as Cyrano’s upstart opponent. They lunge across the stage, leaping on top of tables and around chairs with increasing speed like a cat toying with mouse who will not reconsider the match and yield.
This production also palpably illustrates the adventure of being a soldier, through the camaraderie of Cyrano’s regiment of hearty Gascoignes. Deftly portrayed as individuals though they have few lines, the cadets fighting alongside their flamboyant leader make going to war with the Spanish, and even starvation, look noble as they beat their chests and recite their passionate oath of loyalty. Not since Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech has an audience wanted to desperately to enlist.
And though his friend and counselor LeBret (a strong Chiké Johnson) advises Cyrano to be more careful about the enemies he makes, the consummate soldier continues to plunge into danger for a lady, or any noble cause, like his hero Don Quixote.
Romance. Cyrano’s love for his cousin Roxane (a gorgeous and complex Laura Rook) is boundless, so much so that when she casts her eye on Christian, a handsome new recruit in his regiment, Cyrano not only promises to protect him from harm, he offers to help the tongue tied young man win her love. As a soldier, Ridge is all wiry strength and virtuous resolve. As a lover, he wears his fragile heart firmly on his sleeve. The mixture of pain and intense pleasure that animates his face as he woos his cousin in Christian’s place is both astounding and exhausting. Romeo and Juliet have nothing on this balcony scene: where theirs is youthful infatuation, this love is mature, well studied, and desperate to be released.
As Roxane, Rook is a formidable woman who demands poetry in her life. A raven-haired beauty and the object of many men’s desire, she reveals her heart only to the man who writes eloquently of his passion. More than just a stunning figure in voluminous gowns, her cunning in outwitting the base Count deGuiche (John Taylor Phillips) and her fondness for books makes her self-assured. Her reveal when she storms the barricades, bringing food and cheer to the regiment is (intentionally or not) reminiscent of Wonder Woman fighting her way through no man’s land in this summer’s blockbuster. Kudos to Rook and DeVita for creating such a strong and confident heroine.
Comedy. In the midst of all these scenes of intense love and war, there are delicious moments of levity—some provided by the baker Ragueneau (an earnest, flour-covered David Daniel), whose talent with pastry far outweighs his gift for poetry, though he pursues them both with great fervor. Others are dished out by Marcus Truschinski, as a silk ribbon and bow-covered dandy who is more concerned with being seen at the theater than actually seeing a play. As Roxane’s friend and confidante, Kelsey Brennan’s giggling, pigtails and sweet tooth also add to the humor. And Cyrano himself makes many jests at his rivals’ expense, particularly Count deGuiche, who he fools with an outlandish story about falling from the moon. After all Ridge’s villain roles in recent years (Richard III, Iago, Lord Capulet) it was a revelation to see the actor having so much fun onstage being so ridiculous.
Tragedy. Cyrano tells us that the greatest glory comes from fighting unwinnable battles for the best causes. And so he does, though there are many things that he cannot overcome; age; infirmity; poverty; and bad luck among them. He also cannot overcome his insecurity — that no woman can love him with a disfigured face. Unfolding in the play’s heart-wrenching final scene, both Rook and Ridge convey the ironic tragedy of their lives without the true love of the other. It is an end that comes too soon, though the play clocks in at 3+ hours.
The Production. This Cyrano de Bergerac was literally created to showcase the strengths of APT’s company and on the whole, it succeeds. As the two leads, Rook and Ridge fill the outrageous epic with deep emotion, giving it gravitas that other productions don’t achieve. Even actors in the smallest roles shine — such as Sarah Day as the gentle and generous Mother Marguerite, Colleen Madden as the scandalous baker’s wife, and a smirking Elizabeth Reese as Sister Martha. But the deck may be stacked a bit in the heroes’ favor. Both rivals for Roxane’s love — deGuiche and Christian—don’t have the depth here to make them sympathetic, or even interesting, when they yield. Whether the fault lies in the performance or the writing is hard to tell. Either way, it gives Cyrano two easy wins, and it’s certain that he would have hated that.