Deaf West Theater made its bones ingeniously interweaving American Sign Language (ASL) and multiple interpretive voices to elevate larks like the Taper’s “Pippin” and 2003 Gotham transfer and Tony honoree “Big River.” Stephen Sachs’ “Cyrano” cuts deeper, exploring the nature of being deaf — and in a larger sense, being just plain different — in a majority culture. Simon Levy’s Fountain Theater world premiere co-production isn’t seamless but hits a nerve, and buzz is proving an irresistible magnet to the L.A. theater community, making for sellout biz.
Credited as merely “inspired by” Edmond Rostand’s 1897 classic, this modern-day “Cyrano” actually fulfills all the requirements of adaptation. It boasts a distinctive point of view; transforms elements of the original to purvey that point of view; and deletes everything superfluous, which in this case means jettisoning the entire war subplot and the older mentor/younger disciple legs of the central triangle.
Oh, and the nose is also gone. There’s no nose, Nanette. In this incarnation, the dashing poet, cultural critic and provocateur (Troy Katsur) finds his deafness to be the impossible barrier to courting the sensual — and hearing — Roxy (Erinn Anova presenting not a witless object of affection but a fully realized woman of wit and spirit).
How can he convey any passion, Cyrano agonizes, when all he can do is jerkily flail his arms in the air? Especially in the presence of musician Chris (Paul Raci), who’s more romantically prepossessing and equally stuck on Roxy but able to speak “her language.”
Still, it’s no surprise when Roxy proves more vulnerable to traditional verse than to Chris’ rock lyrics, thus demanding the intercession of some anonymous eloquence.
Sachs does well to turn Chris into a beloved sibling, principal interpreter and confidant as well as rival; it complicates everything so interestingly. Tweeting Roxy the romantic oratory via Chris’ cellphone cleverly intertwines modern technology and Rostand’s central conceit.
Even more impressively, Cyrano violently rejects all overtures by the non-hearing community (he refuses to participate in a local “Deaf Poetry Jam,” for instance). His intransigence is escalated into a metaphor for everyone who refuses to join any club both willing and eager to embrace him as a member.
Kotsur is heartbreaking in his balance of classic de Bergerac panache with deeper longing and self-consciousness, while Raci satisfyingly replaces Rostand’s callow youth with a more mature figure of pity. Their intense confrontations somewhat compensate for the minor players’ awkwardness and the choppy delivery of those translating ASL aloud. (An effort to place signing and spoken language on equal footing requires equal facility of delivery, but here the signers beat out the speakers by a considerable margin.)
Complementing all is Jeffrey Elias Teeter’s video design, with eight monitors projecting text messages, transcripts of spoken dialogue (for the benefit of audience members who can’t hear it) and imagery keyed to “the world outside.” The consistently beautiful entertainment on those screens does as much to nudge the vital world of “Cyrano” into the 21st century as the revised text itself.