A correction was made to this review on May 2, 2006.
Translations of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 sensation “Cyrano de Bergerac” continue to be tweaked to cut running time or cope with more players than budgets can usually afford. Director Joseph Haj believes other versions are “overwrought, don’t let actors carry the play, and needed contemporary taste” to make the humor more palatable than in the time of its origin. His investment of uncompensated time has yielded an extensive adaptation that makes a stirringly effective finale for PlayMakers’ 30th season.
Another plausible reason for Haj’s commitment to the project is that he’s one of three finalists (the others are Philip Sneed and Betsy Shevey) to succeed David Hammond, the North Carolina company’s artistic director the last 14 years.
Haj has enlisted for the title role veteran actor Ray Dooley, who soars with a mix of bravado and intimacy far above his supporting players, six playing single roles and 21 filling two to four parts to make their numbers seem multiplied as required in the original play.
Haj told himself to “choose this play only if you have a Cyrano.” Dooley indeed sets a high standard in portraying Cyrano’s persona from extraordinary sensitivity as a poet to master swordsman, lover in absentia, leader of soldiers, pauper patron of the arts and introspective, proud iconoclast.
Haj rewrote much dialogue and trimmed scenes that “don’t move the story forward.” An example is the deletion of the wedding scene of Christian (Grant Goodman) to Roxanne (Kate Gleason), but they remain betrothed through the battle scene where Christian dies. Cyrano is the hidden creator of solipsistic Christian’s letters and of the monologue to Roxanne, whom Cyrano loves, but fears will reject him because of his grotesque nose. “We cannot disappoint Roxanne; we two as one,” Cyrano coaxes Christian, a cadet in his care.
Running slightly over two hours while being faithful to Rostand’s storyline, Haj’s version adds contemporary touches not likely to be noticed by those unfamiliar with previous translations. The most frequently performed are Brian Hooker’s 1923 version, the basis of a Broadway production and 1950 movie with Jose Ferrer; and Anthony Burgess’ update, first performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1983.
Haj worked more with the 1898 translations-into-verse of Gladys Thomas and Mary S. Guillamard and into prose by Gertrude Hall about the same time. His work has done a great service to regional companies especially.
Flawed casting is apparent in PlayMakers’ otherwise fine rendition. As Roxanne, Gleason fails to match Dooley’s emotional outpouring. John Fletch as antagonistic commander De Guiche also is narrow in his emotional range. Goodman’s Christian effectively realizes his ineptitude with words, a sharp contrast to his performance as Hildy in season’s opener “The Front Page.”
McKay Coble’s set is an ingenious modular divider from which benches, platforms and other props are removed and restored, aiding quick and generally unobtrusive transitions between locations of a theater, balcony, bakery, battlefield and convent. The battlefield siege at Arras and Cyrano’s conquests of antiheroes are well conceived by fight director Kara Wooten.