The real Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac was by all accounts a pretty good man. A skilled duelist and a free thinker who joined the Guards for honor and then quit because he didn’t believe in war, his most lasting contribution to history was a couple of proto-science-fiction novels about fanciful trips to the sun and moon that would inspire writers from Jonathan Swift to Arthur C. Clarke.
But where the real Cyrano was pretty good, the fictional one created by the poet Edmond Rostand was great, and we get to see why in the extremely-pared-down Shotgun Players show directed by Joanie McBrien. Let us have a moment of quiet admiration for the truly impressive noses. For as the real Cyrano believed, and Rostand elaborated in his most famous play, “A large nose is the mark of a witty, courteous, affable, generous, and liberal man.”
This is the play that made Rostand’s name and got him into the Academie, the play that had its first audience applauding for a full hour after the curtain call, back in 1897. The story is familiar to anyone who has seen the movies of the Gerard Depardieu version, or the Jose Ferrer, or even the Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah Roxanne. Poetic swordsman Cyrano loves Roxane, but believes she can’t love him because his nose “precedes [him] into the room by a quarter of an hour.” When he learns that the handsome yet inarticulate Baron Christian de Neuvillette has drawn Roxane’s eye, Cyrano decides that the two men together can form “one romantic hero,” with Cyrano the brains and Christian the brawn. Which works for a while. Cyrano’s words from Christian’s mouth win the girl, and Roxane and Christian are married. But eventually, between swordfights and sieges, Roxane will learn that she has been tricked …
Even in the Charles Marowitz translation, which quietly removes a lot of the rhyming and preciosity of the original, the play is overblown, as it’s supposed to be. And yet even when an actor is playing an over-the-top character, he needs to believe himself real, something Clive Worsley as Cyrano carries off with panache. Some of the other actors hesitate, or have the bluster without the belief. But then the rigors of outdoor performance bring out inconsistencies in skill and energy levels like nothing else, a challenge that has dogged Shotgun and other local companies for years. But the inconsistencies are hard to focus on with Dave Maier’s gorgeous swordfights filling in the blanks. Although in this version the Cyrano-Valvert duel ends surprisingly — perhaps to keep Cyrano sympathetic — their swordfight is crackling good.
The Shotgun production is solid and well paced, although things have been cut that would make the play richer. The rehabilitation of de Guiche, the married count trying to win Roxane’s bed, is a good example. In the final act, it makes little sense when de Guiche asks Roxane whether she has forgiven his youthful trespasses if we haven’t previously seen him getting her out of danger while Cyrano stays to fight the Spanish. It makes even less sense if, as happens here, de Guiche’s monologue about why he admires Cyrano is cut. In the play as written, de Guiche is the villain of the thing until the fop proves his courage at the siege of Arras. Here, it’s almost not worth having him visit Roxane at all, and Gabe Weiss as de Guiche loses an opportunity to show more range than he has in the rest of the play.
It also would be nice if more of the crowd scenes had real crowds in them. We don’t get to see how much Cyrano is a hero of the people when there aren’t that many people. But what remains is strong, particularly the interaction between Cyrano and Christian, helped by the fact that Worsley and Andy Alabran (Christian) have been working together for years. The connection between these two is the truest thing about this production, after Worsley’s performance. “Go, monkey,” Cyrano growls as he pushes Christian towards Roxane to claim the kiss Cyrano has won for the younger man, and there is an underlying ease and trust to the gesture. Likewise, their first confrontation in the bakeshop is a riot, with Christian taunting Cyrano about his nose.
Alabran does more with Christian than seems possible, given that the character is a cipher (like most of the characters). It’s hard to believe, from Alabran’s careful diction, that his Christian could be anything but a charming speaker, especially at first. That part requires a leap of faith. But he gets Christian’s heartbreak at Arras exactly right. As the truth that Roxane really loves Cyrano — although she doesn’t know it — slowly breaks over Christian’s features, Alabran gives the character depth and dignity.
Because as big and funny as it is, Cyrano is ultimately a love story that ends badly for everyone involved. Worsley and Alabran balance that against the swashbuckling and the bluster, both in the balcony scene where Cyrano speaks his true feelings for Roxane under cover of darkness and then later in one of the longest death scenes ever written, shorter only than the one in The Death of Meyerhold (also a Shotgun show: coincidence?).
Chivalry, wit, passion, and swordfighting: Paris audiences fed on Zola’s gritty naturalism and stung by France’s recent military setbacks were all too happy to hark back to a Golden Age of Musketeers and derring-do. But beyond the lacy handkerchiefs and dropped gloves, the story still has much to recommend it to modern audiences, and the Shotgunners bring all that true love and sacrifice forward.