THE BASICS: CYRANO de BERGERAC by Edmond Rostand in a new translation adapted for the stage by Kate Hennig, starring Tom Rooney, designed by Julie Fox and directed by Chris Abraham, is at The Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON in repertory through October 20, 2019 (905-468-2172 / 1-800-511-7429) www.shawfest.com Age recommendation: 14+ Full service bar downstairs, with gourmet ice cream, chocolates, coffee. Runtime: 2 hours, 40 minutes including one intermission
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: This is the famous 1897 play, set in Paris in 1640, where “Renaissance Man,” poet, swordsman, and member of the Cadets of Gascoyne, a company of French guards, Cyrano, usually supremely confident, is cursed with insecurity. Central to this play is his enormously long nose, which prevents him from expressing his true love for his cousin, Roxane. He honors a promise, however, to help one of his recruits, the painfully-awkward-with-women Christian, to woo the same Roxane. Of course, the words he puts in Christian’s letters are his own poetry. Roxane is smitten at first by Christian’s good looks and what she assumes are his beautiful words but is put off by Christian’s oafish behavior. Cyrano never does confess his love, but in the end, Roxane knows.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: It would be hard to find fault with any aspect of this production. Kate Hennig’s translation is a gem as is she, being both a playwright herself (her plays, including this year’s MOTHERS DAUGHTER are annually produced at the Stratford Festival) and the Shaw’s Associate Artistic Director. She decided to avoid the confines of metered verse in her translation. She writes: “In order to create rhyming verse in English, you have to drastically change the words from the French. This means that the translator basically rewrites all the words in the play. The more I worked on the literal translation, the more I fell in love with the word choices that Rostand had made. So I scrapped the verse in favour of prose, allowing me to preserve some of Rostand’s magnificent poetry which you otherwise would never hear.”
Best of all, while staying true to the roughly 125-year-old original script about life in the 1640s, it sounds very natural to our 21st century ears. As Hennig tells us in the forward to the play, the original script had more than 40 speaking parts and more than 60 named parts, but Hennig has managed to create a version for seven women and seven men (including a fair amount of roles mixing genders).
And the actors! Oh my. Not only is there a Stratford-Shaw connection with translator Hennig, but Cyrano is played by the incomparable Tom Rooney who has been a favorite with Stratford audiences for 11 seasons. Note that Rooney is also impressive as another Cavalier, across town in the play VICTORY, also set in the mid-1600s and currently on stage at the Shaw’s Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre.
The man has confident swagger down to a tee and a voice that, no matter what he says, sounds so convincing. He is joined on stage by other fellow actors from VICTORY, including Shaw treasure, Patrick Galligan as de Guiche, who is one of the two mirror images of Cyrano. De Guiche is also a man of words and an able swordsman, but he is cruel, not kind, and even tries to have Cyrano killed by 100 swordsmen. SPOILER ALERT: “tries” is the operative word. The character de Guiche represents the aristocracy and is not interested, as is Cyrano, in the plight of the lower classes.
The other “opposite” or mirror image of Cyrano is, of course, Christian, younger and more unworldly than his fellow cadets, and closer in age to Roxane, who, on one enchanted evening has seen this handsome stranger across a crowded courtyard. Christian has great self-doubt about his abilities to attract Roxane and isn’t as comfortable as Cyrano, de Guiche, or even Roxane at disguising the truth for his own purpose. He is an innocent, played by Jeff Irving.
Roxane in this production is played by Deborah Hay as an independent woman who knows what she wants and does not suffer fools gladly. Her struggle is to remain true to herself in a patriarchal society. Since we are at The Shaw Festival, we should point out that Roxane, as written by Kate Hennig, directed by Chris Abraham, and played by Deborah Hay is exactly the kind of brave “modern woman” that Shaw admired so much in his plays.
The acting is first rate, no doubt, but what puts this production over the top are all of the other elements, including the music by Thomas Ryder Payne and the interplay of lighting by Kimberly Purtell with the overall design by Julie Fox. Fox lands us squarely in the middle of the 17th century and you’ll swear that the costumes and sets were actually designed by master painters from the Dutch Golden Age such as Rembrandt or Hals. Shawfest sets are always first rate, but these are works of art.
You may have seen some other version of CYRANO, perhaps in school, or perhaps in the Steve Martin movie “Roxanne” (which was director Abraham’s first encounter with the story) but this is something truly memorable, and, as the “Five Buffalo” rating says, “you’d be a fool to miss it.”
Lead image: CYRANO Tom Rooney with Deborah Hay credit Emily Cooper
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!