If you’re expecting to see Folger Theatre do the traditional over-three-hours-five-acts-cast-of-hundreds production of Cyrano (and yes, having been brought up on Derek Jacobi’s brilliant RSC Cyrano, I was), forget it. You don’t need the caffeine, it’s already built into this lightning fast adaptation by Michael Hollinger and director Aaron Posner. Nine actors play multiple roles over two acts in a translation that may lose some of the poetry but none of the verve.
Or rather, the panache.
Thanks to its constant reinvention in popular culture ever since its debut in 1897, the plot of Edmond Rostand’s play about the swashbuckling 17th-century soldier with an enormous nose and a heart to match is well known enough that slicing and dicing the text isn’t viewed as too sacrilegious. Hollinger’s new translation tosses the Alexandrine couplets in favor of a less formal tone, and the cuts he and Posner made streamline the action to its most essential elements. Sure, I missed a few of my favorite bits and the lusciousness of the Anthony Burgess translation, but that didn’t mar my enjoyment. This adaptation is whistling sharp, like a rapier. Or as a friend put it afterwards, “It’s the Cliff Notes version… if Cliff Notes were actually really good.”
What is the beating, raging heart of this production? Eric Hissom’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Completely believable as both a scathing poet and a dashing fighter, his self-loathing whips him on to acts of self-destructive bravery and selfless love. Battling a hundred knights on the bridge? I bet he could’ve handled a thousand.
Cyrano has been madly in love with his beautiful cousin Roxane since they were children in the countryside of Gascony. Now in the bright light and big city of Paris, she is an aesthete and lover of poetry, he a poet and soldier. They seem the perfect match, except for Cyrano’s repugnantly huge nose. Cyrano’s rival, the handsome Christian, borrows first his words and then his voice to win Roxane. But it’s only her body he gets. Her soul is seduced by Cyrano and those words remain on her mind.
Words and their use are of vital importance to the play’s characters. It’s not just the right words in love, but also the right words in life, that drive Cyrano. His refusal to seek out a rich patron and his utter disdain for pomposity have guarded his honor, but also made him a pauper. That stubborn pride is both the bright plume in his hat – the symbol of his panache – and his total downfall. His foil, the man who took the other path, is the jaded Comte de Guiche, played with wicked gravitas by Craig Wallace. De Guiche knows full well that Cyrano will lose the game of court politics, and yet he cannot help but admire him even as he works against him. The interplay between Hissom and Wallace is brilliant fun, the circling of a cockfight.
As the romantic rival, Bobby Moreno is simply adorable, as the hapless Christian should be. This is a man who doesn’t know the right words in love but can certainly hold his own in a Gascony guard pissing match. His friendship with Cyrano is the inspiration for his journey from callow youth to noble soldier, but it’s a bittersweet victory. Brenda Withers’ Roxane shines beautifully at the sad end, as the weary widow’s true love is finally revealed, but earlier lacks the naive frivolity that makes her being duped believable. There is an unevenness in the ensemble as well, but I think that’s due to the trickiness in paring down so many roles to so few actors and some rapid costume changes. Everyone is having a good time regardless, with an energy level that’s worthy of a rough-and-tumble barracks.
In the end, Cyrano may just be the old Beauty and the Beast scenario, but the yearning of unrequited love paired with the defiance of injustice make for a beautiful panache.
Folger Theatre is located at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol Street SW, Washington, DC 20003. Closest Metro stop: Capitol South (Orange/Blue lines). For more information call 202-544-7077.