Wizards of Schnoz

The archetypal tale of Beauty and the Beast takes many cultural forms. In all of them, a "beast" loves a "beauty," wins her love and is then saved by her love from the curse that turned him into a beast. Edmond Rostand's flagrantly romantic version of the story, Cyrano de Bergerac, ends more tragically than either the Greek myth or the Disney fairy tale. But the principle hasn't changed: Cyrano's life is somehow justified, if not saved, by the love of breathtaking Roxanne. And while Christopher Fry's popular verse translation from the French leaves something to be desired, Compass Theatre Company's raucous production at the New Denver Civic Theatre makes up for any of Fry's shortcomings with high energy, delightful performances and fine direction by Steve Wilson.

Fry's rhyming rendition can't compare to Brian Hooker's clever and more emotionally evocative translation. But the classic tale, set in seventeenth-century Paris, remains the same. Cyrano has banished the ham actor Montfleury from the stage of the Hotel de Bourgogne, but the fool has defied his tormentor and tries to go on. Cyrano has his good reasons and soon routs the timorous fat man from the stage, incurring the wrath of Montfleury's patron, the Viscount de Valvert.

Valvert is no match for Cyrano in wit or in swordplay, and one of the funniest moments in the play finds Cyrano insulting himself to demonstrate how an intelligent man would have insulted him, thus showing Valvert to be a witless ass. Cyrano then fights and skewers Valvert even as he composes a ballad about the deed. This scene introduces us to a gallant soldier (at least by romantic standards) who, disfigured by a huge proboscis, loves the greatest Parisian beauty, his cousin Roxanne. Fearless and proud, Cyrano fights any who insult his looks or bother his friends.

Alas, Roxanne thinks she loves the dashing young cadet, Chris-tian, and when she confides her love to Cyrano, he promises to defend the young man. But while handsome Christian is a good soldier, he's none too bright with the ladies. So Cyrano offers to write Christian's letters to Roxanne for him and to teach him pretty speeches to say to her. The scheme succeeds too well one night when Cyrano himself speaks to Roxanne as Christian--under cloak of darkness beneath her balcony. The rest of the play finds Roxanne led sadly astray, and Cyrano left holding the emotional bag. Still, Cyrano's love is not unrequited--it's just displaced, and in the end Roxanne knows all.

Christopher Selbie plays Cyrano with frenetic glee, keeping the mighty hero as edgy as an alley cat and twice as graceful as he scurries about, dodging Roxanne's eyes. It's an unusual interpretation; instead of the usual measured wit most actors bring to the role, savoring every line, Selbie tosses off his lines unself-consciously, as if mere words are never the point. Selbie's approach works because he projects intelligence, impatience and vulnerability with equal ease.

Mia Todd makes Roxanne a little tougher and smarter than is usual for the role--she's a determined woman, bent on having romance her own way, and balances Cyrano's sensitivity with a hardheaded willfulness. Erik Tieze is appropriately dashing and bumbling as Christian, while Mark Connolly gives a sterling performance as Cyrano's nemesis, the Comte de Guiche, stirring up arrogance with pride and genuine grit. And Harry Cruzan as Ragueneau the baker and Carla Kaiser as Roxanne's companion make a delightfully funny pair of buffoons.

Nineteenth-century romance may seem dated on stage. But Cyrano lives on because it's beautifully written and because it has something more significant to say than the usual inanities about romantic love. Honor is even more important to Cyrano than sexual fulfillment, a kind of heresy in American culture at this point in history. When he dies, he dies never having compromised his integrity--and the soul of the beast finds its freedom.--Mason

Cyrano de Bergerac, a Compass Theatre Company production through March 3 at the New Denver Civic Theatre, 721 Santa Fe Drive, 595-3800.

 
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