Words of Love
Almost everyone has some idea what Edmond Rostand's famed play Cyrano de Bergerac is about: a man with an enormous nose who, sure he can never win the woman he loves, selflessly woos her on behalf of a handsome, equally lovestruck compadre. The plot is so resonant, so filled with possibilities for pathos, humor and exploration of the universal irrationalities of love, that Cyrano has been adapted several times for film and television.
Most of us on some level feel unworthy of love; almost all of us have at some point loved not a real person, but that person's shadow. Shakespeare knew all about it: Think of the fantastical couplings in A Midsummer Night's Dream. And World War I poet Rupert Brooke once wrote that those who think their love mutual "are but taking their own poor dreams into their arms and sleeping each in a separate night, each with a ghost."
But Cyrano is also a huge, romantic swashbuckler; it's about courage, society, proud individuality, loyalty, friendship and the wisdom that comes with age. And words. In our day, the composition of poetry is considered an effete and marginal practice, but there have been times and cultures in which the warrior poet was held up as an ideal. A Renaissance nobleman (and Cyrano, while written in the late nineteenth century, is set in 1640) would have been able to play a musical instrument, pen a sonnet for his lady and disembowel an opponent with equal skill. Cyrano is, among other things, an affirmation of the power of language, and poetry is what gives the play its breath, whether administered at the business end of Cyrano's sword, loved without comprehension by the baker or dissected by the fastidious heroine, Roxane. And if poetry is treated as a pretty toy at first, it's ultimately understood as a way of plumbing the deepest secrets of the human heart.
The Denver Center has staged a lush, opulent production of Cyrano de Bergerac. The costumes, by Andrew V. Yelusich, are astonishing. Some of them -- in particular, the amazing apparel of the two fops and the poor actor Montfleury, speak as loudly as the acting and the dialogue. Rosario Provenza's sets are fine, too, especially the scene outside Roxane's house, with its stone wall and the silhouette of the town against the night sky. There's also a lovely moment as the last act opens: The stage is lit by golden light, courtesy of lighting designer Dawn Chiang, and a few golden autumn leaves drift to the ground.
But for all its visual delights, the production rests on two strong foundation stones: Bill Christ's performance as Cyrano and director Nagle Jackson's translation of the play. In the program notes, Jackson recounts some of his concerns as a translator.
The play is written in rhymed verse, but rhyme, Jackson explains, is much easier in French -- with its relatively few word endings -- than in English. Unwilling to follow the practices of previous translators, who generally contented themselves with blank verse (non-rhyming iambic pentameter), the director was determined to use rhyme for a good part of the text. He cites Shakespeare who, he says, alternated rhyming passages with unrhymed blank verse, and often uses prose, particularly for comic scenes. But it seems that Shakespeare didn't actually use rhyme very much in his plays. He occasionally tossed in a rhyming couplet for emphasis or humor at the end of a scene, but offhand, I can't remember scenes of sustained rhyme other than the touching sonnet recited by Romeo and Juliet on their first meeting. At any rate, there's a reason English playwrights are sparing with rhyme. It distracts. You listen for the rhyme instead of the sense. When things are happening fast on stage, it's a bit like hearing the repetitive pop of a Ping-Pong ball.
For the most part, Jackson actually manages his translation well -- even brilliantly. Some of his rhymes are wonderfully clever. Among many gems, I noted "hips" and "eclipse" and "trowel" and "disembowel."
The rhyming works best in the comic scenes. It's tougher when the actors are trying to be serious, though Bill Christ certainly has the knack of keeping both the integrity of the rhymes and the character's train of thought intact. In the balcony scene, however, where Cyrano finally speaks for himself, expatiating on the limitations of poetry when the heart is full, he's still rhyming. It just doesn't work here, and we're glad when -- eventually, mercifully -- the rhymes are abandoned.
For the most part, Jackson's touch is deft. He's substituted some modern slang for Rostand's period idioms ("this guy," "I guess so," "hit me again" when requesting another drink), but he has been careful to keep it untrendy and unobtrusive. He's had fun with the translation, as when Roxane complains of Christian's inelegant speech: "You offer me broth, and I want veloute." He's thrown in a couple of references to Richard III -- at one point, a soldier calls out, "My kingdom for some cheese," and, like the hunchbacked king, the proboscis-challenged Cyrano hates to see his own shadow.
Cyrano is a larger-than-life, almost mythic character, and the role calls for stamina, feeling, a voice both bluff and expressive and huge physical endurance. Even given a terrific script, it's a tough order, but Bill Christ fills it with heart and aplomb. As Christian, Ryan Shively is less expressive than one would wish. Libby West is charming as the young Roxane, but this character is supposed to transform from a lighthearted, sometimes silly girl into a woman capable of mature love, and West doesn't quite make the transition. Tony Church is very interesting in a tiny role, and there are lots of small pleasures among the rest of the cast, but there are also some glaring weaknesses. One expects a uniformly strong ensemble in a company of this stature.
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