The poignant romantic play, Cyrano de Bergerac was written by Edmond Rostand in 1897. It is a work on a grand scale, a five act drama peopled with colorful characters. Originally composed in French using Alexandrine couplets, a poetic form of rhyming couplets using lines of six feet or twelve syllables, the play has been translated numerous times in both verse and prose forms. In his new translation, simply called Cyrano, Michael Hollinger has chosen to use non-rhyming tetrameter, or four feet per line, avoiding end rhymes except in the few instances of actual poetry recited or sung within the work. The adaptation by Mr. Hollinger and the director, Aaron Posner, eliminates the crush of supporting characters and crowds presenting the play with a spare ensemble of nine actors, eight men and one woman in a belief that doing so "invites compression and theatricality" and "allows for the imaginative and self-conscious use of the theater and the audience." The resultant production in the Elizabethan Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library is uneven, and for theater-goers familiar with other productions of the play an unsatisfactory evening of theater.
The loss of minor secondary characters is not the problem here. It is fine to hear about the romantic baker Ragueneau's unsympathetic wife, Lise, rather than see her torment her put-upon husband. Likewise it is equally fine to have the captain of the Gascon cadets, Le Bret, narrate the setting of the scenes, which is particularly effective in the beginning of the play to immerse the audience in the chaotic atmosphere of the 17th century theater that comprises Rostand's act one and Hollinger and Posner's scene one. What is not acceptable is to fundamentally make changes to Rostand's narrative, making major changes to the story and the impact of the tragic romance that unfolds.
For those unfamiliar with Rostand's story, it is the tale of Cyrano de Bergerac, an expert swordsman of the Gascon cadets and a brilliant poet, who is deeply sensitive about the physical deformity of his large nose. Secretly in love with his cousin,Roxane, he never dares to declare his feelings as he is certain his ugliness prevents Roxane from returning his love. Roxane, in turn falls in love at first sight with the newest member of the cadets, Christian de Neuvilette, who has the opposite problem. Christian is stunningly beautiful, but has not the wit to woo Roxane intellectually. To make Roxane happy, Cyrano becomes the poetic voice of Christian helping his rival win Roxane's love.
Into this triangle comes the Comte de Guiche, a married nobleman who seeks Roxane as his mistress. When he discovers the lovers he dispatches the cadets on a dangerous mission at the siege of Arras. There the tragedy reaches its peak, leading to a quiet ending fifteen years later, full of reconciliation, confession and regret as the loss of love is revisited for a second time.
The reduction of the play to a spare ensemble does focus the play upon the main five characters of Rostand's original piece, Cyrano, Christian, Roxane, de Guiche and Le Bret. What is lost is the dramatic impact in certain key moments. In the original play, Roxane gives encouragement to de Guiche in order to convince him to keep Cyrano and Christian's cadets away from the battlefield. De Guiche sends an illiterate Capuchin monk with a letter in order to arrange a sham marriage for Roxane and take her as his mistress. Roxane convinces the monk that he is to wed her to Christian and he does so. When de Guiche arrives he is so infuriated that he orders the cadets to war immediately thus preventing Roxane and Christian from consummating their marriage. Here they simply announce they are affianced and are caught in the midst of "making out." This seems to go against Roxane's character and lessens the impact of the tragedy of Roxane and Christian-married yet never fully together.
The other major change to the story takes place at the siege of Arras. This scene is the most trimmed of any in this adaptation. There is a great deal of buildup in previous scenes and then so much is cut from Rostand's work that the resultant battle scene becomes anticlimactic. Two plot points are changed or dropped. In Rostand's original work, de Guiche, performs a potentially traitorous act. He has used a spy to send word to the enemy that on de Guiche's signal they are to attack the position of the Gascon cadets assuring their annihilation and his revenge. Here the betrayal is simply gone, giving nothing for de Guiche to have to make amends.
The other major change is the arrival of Roxane to the battlefield. In Rostand's original she sweet talks her way through enemy lines arriving in a fine gown, in a carriage and with a great deal of food which she gives to the starving cadets. Here she arrives dressed as a man and calling for a sword so that she can fight along side her man. Why can't we accept a 17th century woman being allowed to keep her feminity? That was part of the charm of Rostand. Roxane becomes an angel of hope on the battlefield giving courage to the doomed troops.
The impact of the death of Christian is also lessened in this staging as he dies offstage instead of in Roxane's arms. By not having a visual death for Christian it makes Cyrano's decision to not reveal that he is the author of all of Christian's love letters harm the heart of the tragic tale.
Despite these grievous flaws there are some good performances upon the Folger Theatre stage. Bobby Moreno gives nice depth to the handsome Christian and is well matched by Brenda Withers Roxane. Steve Hendrickson provides excellent support as Cyrano's confident and commander Le Bret.
Craig Wallace's de Guiche is a force of nature. With his clear command of the language he takes control whenever he appears on the stage. It is a shame that part of the villainy of the character has been cut from the script, but he still carries well the arc from spurned suitor to penitent.
As Cyrano, Eric Hissom gives an erratic performance. His slight build and disheveled appearance are appropriate to a man who pointedly admits to not caring about his appearance. Yet in a world of larger than life performances for this role, Mr. Hissom fails to command the stage. While his performance improves over the course of the evening he simply lacks the charisma necessary to the role. Without a memorable Cyrano there is a gaping hole at the center of the play.
Cyrano translated by Michael Hollinger and adapted by Michael Hollinger and Aaron Posner will be performed on the Elizabethan stage at the Folger Shakespeare Library through June 12, 2011. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.Folger.edu/theatre.