This Cyrano de Bergerac is a “rare being,” indeed. The latest revival of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, currently in performances at the American Airlines Theater and starring the force of nature Douglas Hodge in the titular role, is a fresh take on an old classic that breathes new life into what could easily be a night of weary sentimentality.
Directed by Jamie Lloyd, this production features a new translation by Ranjit Bolt that includes more colloquial language. But the appeal of Cyrano de Bergerac – its unabashedly romantic and tragic story – is not lost in this new translation. And with Hodge, last seen in a Tony-Award winning performance as the flamboyant drag queen Albin in the 2010 production of La Cage aux Folles offering a new take on the title character, the romance is enhanced and textured in a new and surprising way.
Fear not – the old-fashioned romance of Cyrano remains, especially with the sets and costumes by Soutra Gilmour that depict the beauty of the time as well as a slightly grittier edge. But from the moment Hodge enters the play (following a lengthy exposition where many characters talk about him) in a startling and highly entertaining way, a new energy is breathed into the play.
Cyrano is a man of many talents according to his peers – witty, clever, a great dueler, and a gourmet, amongst others – but his most distinctive feature is his, as he refers to it, “olfactory organ.” Much larger than the average man’s, Cyrano’s nose is the source of his insecurity – and the inspiration for his grandiose behavior, much of which is demonstrated throughout the first act when he successfully duels a man while simultaneously composing an envoi. (The fencing, staged by Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum, is wonderfully staged.)
Bold, brash, loud and fast, Cyrano personifies the “Gascon swagger” he speaks so proudly of, and it is clear he could be a dangerous man if his temper was provoked. It is not until he speaks of the woman he loves, his cousin Roxane (played by the luminous Clémence Poésy) that one glimpses his vulnerability. For Cyrano never dreams that Roxane could love him and instead assists Christian (Kyle Soller, who happens to be extremely handsome) in wooing her instead.
Good tempered but dim-witted, Christian is immediately infatuated with Roxane, but he is unable to articulate his passion. This proves to be a problem for Roxane, who possesses high intellectual standards; upon greeting Christian, she happily commands him to “Bombard me with romance and with wit” and when he is unable to meet her standards, she banishes him from her courtyard. In steps Cyrano, who provides Christian the words to woo the woman he actually loves, leading to one of the most famous love scenes in theater. As Roxane stands on her balcony, thinking it is Christian who speaks to her, it is actually Cyrano, wearing Christian’s hat and hiding in the dark. Beautiful not only for its language, this scene is especially moving thanks to Hodge’s masterful and textured delivery of the lines. Here we are able to see the real Cyrano, who is soft and vulnerable, not the one hidden beneath grand bravery and gross exaggeration.
That exaggeration and what lies beneath it is depicted clearly by Hodge, whose Cyrano is motivated by his anger at his appearance and at how unfair the world can be. When speaking (or performing) in public, Hodge speaks so rapidly at times he is difficult to understand and the wit of Rostand’s script, but whenever he speaks of Roxane, the pace and pitch of his voice becomes much more clear and lyrical. Deserted by his mother and doomed to a life of being an outsider, his grandiose personality is a defense mechanism to protect his desperately low self-esteem. When arranging to collaborate with Christian on his courtship of Roxane, Cyrano says, “Shall I make you, and you make me complete?” Despite all of his bombast and bravery, Cyrano is a man who does not feel complete and Hodge presents a searing portrayal of that incompleteness.
As Roxane, the woman Cyrano describes as being “wholly unaware of her perfection”, Poésy gives a spirited and entertaining performance. Both beautiful and vivacious, one can understand Cyrano’s infatuation with her. However she also comes across a quite naive, claiming she can “just tell” by looking at Christian that he is urbane and educated. She also seems fickle at times, ordering Christian to leave her the moment he does not speak in the manner she desires. But when she appears at the battle front dressed in men’s clothing, bearing food and supplies for the starving men, she is so charming and energetic one becomes infatuated with her all over again.
As a feminist, as well as a fan of old-fashioned romantic entertainment (yes, I am aware of the contradictions) I was both entranced and depressed by Cyrano de Bergerac. Keeping the setting of the play in mind, I still felt skeptical by the idea of a man dueling another man to the death in order to impress a woman, let alone killing 100 men in one night in a celebration of love for her.
As the handsome and tongue-tied Christian, Kyle Soller gives a nuanced performance, believably depicting his insecurities. Patrick Page, who was the heart and soul of Spider-Man – Turn off the Dark, gives a delightfully smooth performance as Comte de Guiche, with his silken voice and languid way of speaking infusing the role with regal ease. Page, known for his roles in classic Shakespearean works, is a natural with the old language and is an absolute delight to view onstage.
After a lifetime of verbosity, Cyrano’s last words are “My panache!” He can rest assured it it will be honored and remembered well by this production.