The critic John Simon once wrote that “Cyrano de Bergerac is not a great play, merely a perfect one.” Simon’s reticence to giving Edmond Rostand’s self-named “Heroic Comedy” of 1897 that final push into the Pantheon stems from his feeling that the playwright does not address the most important themes of life, at least not in a manner that might leave us to grapple with his concerns. It is true, I suppose, that Cyrano is perhaps too pat and a shade too neatly constructed — but what construction! Each of its five acts adds a layer of irony, each ends on a high note that encapsulates (and comments on) the scene just played, and each leads us into the next with a precision and deftness of tone that few of Rostand’s descendants could, or can, achieve.
As for the question of its relation to the great human feelings, I think Simon may be too harsh. Rostand was surely no Shakespeare, and if Cyrano has a flaw it may lie in a certain sentimental indulgence. I use these qualifiers because, for me, Cyrano de Bergerac is a five-hanky exercise. I love few plays the way I love this one (in modern drama Uncle Vanya, Long Day’s Journey into Night, A Streetcar Named Desire, Waiting for Godot, and Fifth of July come closest); and with a good production, I have enough tears for every act. Despite a few reservations about his English translation, it seems to me that Joseph Haj’s current edition written for PlayMakers Repertory Company, and playing April 18-23 and 25-30 and May 2-7 in the Paul Green Theater in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is precisely that production.
I could not disagree more strongly, however, with Haj’s statement that “the success or failure of the play lies in the excellence of the ensemble.” Not discounting the need for strength of casting all around, Cyrano rises or falls on its central actor. A de Bergerac who excels in the physical qualities of the role but is less certain with the text (Gérard Depardieu comes to mind here) robs the role of its grace and poetry. Similarly, a Cyrano who acts, as Kenneth Tynan once said of John Gielgud, from the neck up, fails to make the character as dashing as he must be for his essential élan—what the character calls his “panache” — to astound. Only two such world performers of memory — Christopher Plummer here and Derek Jacobi in Britain—have been especially noted for nailing both prerequisites in their portrayals of the poetic cavalier with the outsized nose. Locally, Michael Cumpsty cut a fine, if rather youngish, swath at PRC 20 years or so ago; in Ray Dooley, now, we have a Cyrano for the ages.
Here are athleticism and erudition combined: the heights of poetry and rhetorical flourish matched by the requisite agility and relentless accuracy of swordsmanship. We no more doubt this Cyrano’s ability to extemporize those skeins of rhapsodic verse with which he makes love, in proxy, to the word-drunk Roxane on behalf of the tongue-tied Christian than we question whether he could indeed face a hundred assassins alone and triumph utterly. Dooley’s exquisitely proportioned performance makes us share every contour of the man’s eloquence: We smile at his wit when not laughing outright. We float on clouds of exhilaration at his every gesture and jocular aside. We wince at Roxane’s unwitting, simultaneous rejection of his face and joyous acceptance of the words she does not know are his. And we weep at his anguished torment—so near to Roxane and yet so unutterably far — both at its most ironically naked, as in a balcony scene second in fame only to Shakespeare’s and on the battlements at Arras, and at its most guardedly cloaked, particularly at Rostand’s bittersweet, duct-tickling finale.
“My elegance is draped across my soul,” Cyrano declares in Haj’s translation, and Dooley’s performance is shot-through with this elemental grace, even at its most heroic. (There is swagger to his de Bergerac, but you feel it’s honestly come by.) I have long believed that Ray Dooley is the most magnificently accomplished actor in the Triangle, perhaps in the state; and when I consider the theatrical moments I most treasure over the past few years, a lion’s share are his. Dooley’s Cyrano encompasses, and distills, everything this great and gifted performer can do, and do better than anyone.
Kate Gleason’s Roxane is ideal, as fetching in her person as she is winning in personality. The role is tricky; a poor Roxane risks making her insatiable desire for intellectual and poetic stimulation strident and her fixation on the physical aspects of her seemingly ideal lover merely fatuous. Gleason is so winning that her very impetuousness seems a virtue: you believe this woman would risk the battlefield for love. She is, rather like Falstaff, witty in herself and a cause of wit in others — or at least, in Cyrano.
The role of Christian is equally problematic. No mental or linguistic giant, he must nevertheless convince you that he can make a series of snide but clever puns on the subject of Cyrano’s proboscis, that his love for Roxane is as sincere as Cyrano’s own, and that there is within him a man capable of honor and complex emotion. In Steve Martin’s otherwise splendid variation Roxanne, “Chris,” as he is known, is lumpen to a point that would drive a dedicated Marxist into madness, and inconstant as well. This will not do, and in Grant Goodman’s lovely performance, never does. Compte De Guiche, Rostand’s Commander of Cadets, is the personification of the playwright’s generosity of spirit. Seemingly vain, pompous, authoritarian, even cowardly, De Guiche likewise proves his mettle, with disarming honor and decency, as the play moves toward a climax. John Feltch makes every act by this martinet possessed of surprising depth true and credible, so that he does indeed become a man haunted by “the sound of dead illusions.”
Jeffrey Blair Cornell, so fine in many previous PRC outings, is good at portraying Le Bret’s devotion to Cyrano but less felicitous in limning the kindred variety of that friendship. Joseph Bowen is properly orotund and swooning as the poetaster Ragueneau, and Julie Fishell makes her two roles so varied you’d swear you were watching not one actor but two; her Duenna is as deliciously common as her Mother Marguerite is gently benign.
Enough praise cannot be laid upon McKay Coble’s scenic design, which resembles a polished, two-tiered curio cabinet whose drawers may be opened, turned outward or removed to set each act. As the play progresses, these elements are gradually stripped away in a manner that is both ingenious and apt. This gradual dismantling accommodates each new setting—the theater, the bakery, Roxane’s balcony, the Arras battlefield, the abbey to which Roxane has retired—so that at the end only the superstructure is left. It’s a beautiful effect, so well-integrated into the arc of the play that it never smacks of simple gimmickry.
Marion Williams’ costumes are equally precise and, in their modesty, equally sumptuous, and her wigs are staggeringly good. Some might cavil at the simplicity of her designs for Roxane’s wardrobe, but Williams is canny and correct. There is always a temptation in period drama to over-embroider, and it should be remembered that Roxane is of the middle class, not the aristocracy. Justin Townsend’s intelligent, unobtrusive lighting reaches a spectacular climax in the fourth act battle before dissolving into the fifth act convent like a blissful, dying fall.
Joseph Haj, who previously directed the PRC production of Not About Heroes (which also starred Ray Dooley), has directed the very large cast of Cyrano with brisk and inventive command that never calls attention to itself conceptually — no mean feat, that. I was particularly struck by his staging of the balcony scene and the emotional climax at Arras; his placement of the actors, in relation to each other and the sentiments expressed, is masterly. My only quarrel is with some of his choices as a dramatic translator.
For many decades, the preferred translation of Cyrano de Bergerac was that of Brian Hooker (1923), which is highly readable but scarcely actable. Happily, it is being eclipsed by the Anthony Burgess adaptation of the 1970s and ‘80s (Burgess revised it considerably between the Guthrie Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company productions). Haj’s own transcription plays beautifully but runs to the occasional anachronism. Cyrano’s crying out “Please!” is a bit too contemporary, but “Not quite following the whole heart thing” is repugnant. Imagine Rostand’s hero saying such a thing! The play’s final line is a more debatable issue. Some versions use “My white plume,” which to Cyrano is the embodiment of his style but which may be a bit too vague for maximum impact. “My panache” has the virtue of being both idiomatic and expressive. Haj opts for the former, which is less problematic perhaps than his not translating the poem Cyrano extemporizes during his first act duel with Valvert. By failing to render the verse in English, Haj deprives us of Rostand’s effective, repetitive, and versified reminders to de Bergerac’s antagonist (“When the poem ends, I hit”). This seems a bit perverse.
Still, these are small matters overall. During the interval, one of my companions remarked that we’re lucky to have Ray Dooley. You may never see a finer argument in favor of that observation than this production; whether clothed with white plume or panache, this Cyrano nearly always hits.
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Cyrano de Bergerac Tuesday-Saturday, April 18-22 and 25-29, and May 2-6, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 23 and 30 and May 7, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theater in the Center for Dramatic Art at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $10-$32. 919/962-PLAY (7529) or etix at the presenter's site. Note 1: There will be two post-show discussions, both led by dramaturg Adam Versenyi, after the April 19th and April 23rd performances. Note 2: All Access Night on April 21st will feature Braille and large-print programs, audio description, and sign language interpretation, plus assisted listening system and wheelchair seating. (First-time users of PRC’s accessibility services will receive a buy-one-ticket, get-one-free discount.) PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/genPage/index.pl?pgid=102 [inactive 8/07]. E-Text (Project Gutenberg): http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1254.