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Noses Off 

An economical Cyrano emphasizes the play's exuberant, gung-ho spirit

Wednesday, Aug 17 2005
Edmond Rostand's 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac is a triumphant exercise in unmitigated hyperbole. The comedy is based -- extremely loosely -- on the life of Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac, a 17th-century French dramatist and expert dueler. By all accounts, the model for Rostand's play was not a very gifted writer. And, although he seems to have been sensitive about his physical appearance, the original Cyrano did not have a humongous nose. Yet Rostand's hero is not only an intellectual rock star and a master swordsman, but he is also cursed with a colossal conk.

The facts of the subject's life are not the only areas ripe for exaggeration by the playwright. Composed at a time when other writers like Ibsen and Chekhov were penning naturalistic works simmering with constipated emotions, Cyrano is steeped in good old-fashioned Romanticism, ardently championing -- in alexandrine couplets no less -- the power of language to express the passions of the human soul. Set during the reign of Louis XIII at the time of the Thirty Years' War against the Spanish, the story focuses on the idealistic, chaste love of Cyrano for the gorgeous Roxane, whom he is obliged to woo on behalf of a handsome but woefully inarticulate younger man. Over the course of five swashbuckling acts, Cyrano single-handedly vanquishes 100 foes, risks life and limb to deliver billets-doux to his ladylove across enemy lines, and counters rude comments about his nose with rhetorical derring-do. It's all marvelously gung-ho, a perfect dramatic expression of the idea of grabbing life by the, er, nose, and not letting go.

Rostand's play might be more over-the-top than a night spent necking absinthe at the Moulin Rouge, but the Shotgun Players' production of Cyrano is quite the opposite. Charles Marowitz's no-frills, fast-paced adaptation sets the tone. Unlike the excellent but more verbose translations by Brian Hooker or Anthony Burgess, for instance, the elegant verse of Marowitz's truncated text emphasizes action over preamble and contemporary language over arcane turns of phrase.

The staging of the play couldn't be more understated. Performed in the compact open-air auditorium at John Hinkel Park (itself an inconspicuous patch of greenery in the middle of a quiet Berkeley neighborhood), the production unfolds against sets so minimal that at first you wonder why the company bothered at all. Yet there's a daft flamboyance to some of the quick scene changes -- most notably, the patisserie-on-a-string complete with countertop, hanging utensils, and paper bags of cream puffs that magically appears at the start of Act 2, and the enormous fold-down crucifix that transports us, with a flourish, to the nunnery at the end of the play -- that balances the overstatement of Rostand's play with the simplicity of Shotgun's presentation. Director Joanie McBrien's creative recycling of actors is further testimony to the economy of this Cyrano. In the thrillingly choreographed battle scenes of Act 4, for instance, members of the French army reappear as rampaging Spaniards from one moment to the next, wearing different-colored tunics. The Spanish forces craftily face upstage with their backs to us, so the trick kind of works.

Then there's the nose. While other famous Cyranos such as Steve Martin (who turned the character into a 1980s fire chief in Roxanne) and Gérard Depardieu (who starred in the 1990 film version directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau) made a big deal out of their noses -- a bird could literally perch on Martin's -- Shotgun veteran Clive Worsley's, though still a profusion of flesh-colored latex, looks like a cute little button in comparison. (Worsley's nose is actually dwarfed by the size of his feet in this production; in heavy black boots, the actor looks more like a Giacometti sculpture in doublet and breeches than Pinocchio.) In the tradition of actors who downplay Richard III's hump in Shakespeare's play, this relatively pert-proboscised Cyrano seems riled by deeper sources of anguish than his unsightly physique. In fact, it's hard to believe the hero of Shotgun's production takes the comments about his physical appearance to heart at all. Perhaps this explains why the play's most famous and funny speech, in which Cyrano brilliantly parries an insult about the "tow'ring monument" in the middle of his face with his own lavish list of self-deprecating jokes and comes up smelling like roses, feels a little flat. Still, a nose is a nose is a nose, and Worsley's quietly assertive performance drives the action forward with the attribute Cyrano most highly prizes: panache.

It is this sense of panache that bridges the gap between Rostand's hyperbole and Shotgun's simplicity. "Panache," which is the very last word spoken in the play, stands for more than the white feathers in Cyrano's hat. It represents an entire approach to life. Just like Cyrano throws himself at the business of living, taking risks with flair, so the Shotgun Players' minimalist production conjures marching armies and raging passions out of little more than bodies in space and thin air.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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