A few things you need for a successful Cyrano de Bergerac: a passion for language, a gutsy production and a terrific, swashbuckling Cyrano. Director Christopher DuVal provides all these and more in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s version, which is served up like a banquet, varied and full of rich flavor, a mix of savory and sweet courses, pricked through with surprising and piquant little treats...and ultimately, so very satisfying.
The metaphor is appropriate: Food matters in this story of love and war. The baker, Ragueneau, not only provides sweet treats and a place where Cyrano and Roxane can speak privately to each other, but makes pastries for starving men on the battlefront. Who but the French could so thoroughly understand and honor the role of food in our lives? Though love comes first, of course.
Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play is about a man whose love is as large as his flashing wit, close-to-uncontrollable temper and extraordinary swordsmanship. Cyrano yearns for his beautiful cousin, Roxane, but believes she can never return his affection because of his protuberant nose. His feelings are so chivalrous, however, that when she asks for his help in protecting Christian, the handsome youngster she’s fallen for and who’s about to be sent into battle, he agrees. And though it pains him, he goes further, lending his tongue to inarticulate Christian’s courtship, prompting him as he woos, writing dozens of passionate letters from the battlefield in Christian’s name.
Comedy and tragedy are intertwined throughout the play. Humor prevails in the first part as Cyrano humiliates the pretentious and high-born, and manages with difficulty to control his rage when Christian — unaware of the pact between Cyrano and Roxane — goads him about his nose. Things become more serious as the story moves through the sorrowful events of the second half, and there’s a gentle transcendence to the conclusion — though Cyrano continues his bons mots to the bitter end.
We tend to think of warriors as anything but poetic these days, but there’s a long tradition of warrior poets — from Alexander the Great to Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen — whose poetry rose from their experiences in the First World War. Words and wordplay are clearly hugely important to the Cyrano story, and this production uses Anthony Burgess’s vital translation, much of it in rhymed couplets that often add a bouncy humor. Cyrano’s eloquence is a big part of his eccentric greatness: He can insult, quip, invent and spin gorgeous elevated words of praise for his beloved, all with extraordinary speed. By contrast, Ragueneau has a strange little ditty that begins: “Poised on steady legs/First your poet begs/Several eggs...” and ends with “Saliva starts — /Almond tarts.”
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The production hums beautifully on every level: direction, fight choreography, costumes and set. There are all kinds of delights in the large cast, some in small parts: Desirée Mee Jung brings grace to the role of a nun, Aziza Gharib provides a charming spark as a food-seller, and you simply have to experience Michael Bouchard’s delivery of Ragueneau’s tart poem. Among the leads, Marco Robinson turns in a pleasant performance as Christian, Rafael Untalan is a smoothly nasty Comte de Guiche, and Brynn Tucker’s Roxane matures over the evening from a lovely, lively young girl to a woman whose spirit is deepened by sorrow.
And then there’s Scott Coopwood’s long-nosed Cyrano. The play’s plot has popped up in The Simpsons, South Park and several movies, but every time I see a production of Cyrano de Bergerac, I’m struck again by how deep the trope goes, the way it explores the very nature of love itself. I’m also struck by what a unique hero this Cyrano is, how complex, overblown and yet human. The role requires physical stamina, a retentive memory, precise and expressive speech and, of course, fighting skill. Coopwood has all that, in addition to a mocking intelligence and powerful presence.
This tasty production will entertain you with spectacle, thrill you with inventive language and offer an intriguing glimpse into nineteenth-century French culture — at the same time reminding you of just how relevant a play that’s been around well over a century can still be.
Cyrano de Bergerac, presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 11, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-8008, cupresents.org.