Sunday, November 25, 2012

Theater Review: ‘Cyrano de Bergerac,’ from the Roundabout Theatre

Thirty-five different parts exist in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of Cyrano de Bergerac, which just ended its short run today, and the troupe filled its flagship American Airlines Theatre with stagecraft to match the epic scale: under the direction of British director Jamie Lloyd, all manner of costumes, wigs, swordfights, booming cannons, dark French alleyways and battlefields, etc.

But you don’t need any of these—nor a particularly good Roxane or Christian, even. What you do need is a Cyrano of herculean acting range, and in Douglas Hodge they had one ready to do the wearying work of hoisting the show on his shoulders, just as the brave soldier who is the title character is called upon to do repeatedly in rallying his men.

I’ve seen five or six Cyranos, on TV, onstage or on film (Jose Ferrer, in his 1950 Oscar-winning performance). None matched Hodge for the way he seized a production by the scruff of its neck and bent it to his will. In his first appearance, his voice came from the back of the theater without warning, his booming scorn stripping a poseur poet to nothing.  When his voice—he—went missing, the show faltered, just as much as handsome male bimbo Christian does when he courts Roxane without the help of the lovelorn poet who provides him with the words to woo Roxane.

At the same time, Hodge was unafraid to plumb the lowest psychological depths as his Cyrano grasped the exquisite agony of giving full vent to his love for his beautiful cousin Roxane, even while practically putting the words into the mouth of the inarticulate Christian. This Cyrano was, in a sense, doubly cursed: not just with that astonishingly ugly nose, but with a harsh voice that, used to the company of men, was utterly unfamiliar with the soft feminine graces.

Translations seem to be the pet peeve of theater reviewers these days. Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s version of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, for instance, had a fair number of naysayers. As fraught as translating prose can be, rendering Edmond Rostand’s celebrated French rhyming couplets in English is a positively hazardous enterprise—a fact seen vividly in the complaint by The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout about the version for this production by Ranjit Bolt (nephew of the playwright-screenwriter of A Man for All Seasons). Bolt, he charges, loaded his translation with “anachronistic colloquialisms like ‘No can do’ and ‘I'll eat my hat.’” My own opinion is that, what Bolt lost in elegance, he more than made up for with puckishness (Cyrano to Christian, hatching his plan to have the young soldier speak his words to Roxane: “Alone, we don’t stand a chance./Together, we can get all the girls in France.”)

As Roxane, Clemence Poesy did not exactly make the critics of New York and London sit up and take notice. But Roxane is hardly Medea material. The role calls, simply, for the tangible quality known colloquially as eye candy, and she more than satisfied many (male) fans in that department. Moreover, with her background as a French model and actress, she brought great credibility to Roxane’s pouting that Christian needs to talk as good as he looks.

The one supporting performance that stood out was Patrick Page’s. Comte de Guiche, the aristocratic general who strives vainly for Roxane’s hand, could have been the kind of villain that Basil Rathbone played so well in the 1930s before he became typecast as Sherlock Holmes. Yet Page invested him with a bewildered wistfulness over how time and fate have wrecked his best-laid plans.

In its 15th time on Broadway (the first coming only a year after its 1897 premiere in Paris), Cyrano proved that it’s still possible to stage this theatrical warhorse in a new way—even with panache, courtesy of Hodge.

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