Cyrano de Bergerac
Presented by Tennessee Repertory Theatre
Through Apr. 2 at TPAC’s Polk Theater
Call 255-ARTS for ticket info
The theater season in Nashville is in full swing, and each experience seems to deliver something new and surprising. On the same weekend that a superb production of A Doll’s House closed at War Memorial Auditorium, right across the street at TPAC the Tennessee Repertory Theatre opened a sparkling new production of Cyrano de Bergerac, Frenchman Edmond Rostand’s 1897 romantic classic about the poet/swordsman with a most remarkable nose.
There’s so much good about the production that I hardly know where to begin. The sets are simply magnificent, and as stagehands deftly and swiftly spin them around, the audience is transported magically from a rousing Paris city scene to an enchanting French bakery to a smoke-filled battlefield. The costumes are a knockout as well, with each plumed soldier’s hat and elaborate ladies’ gown more spectacular than the last. Director Todd Olson also has his cast hitting their marks most of the timeno small feat with about 30 actors taking on some 50 different roles and a circus atmosphere surrounding much of the action.
A good many people have at least a working knowledge of the story of Cyrano. Even those whose impressions are derived primarily from film and video will recognize the plot. Yet Rostand’s original is so much the richer, offering broad historical scope, liltingly speakable poetic lines, a deep interpretation of the title character, and a tragicomic dimension rarely equaled in other dramas.
But in case you missed it: Cyrano de Bergerac is a 17th-century French soldier. Besides being the finest swordsman in the land, he is also a poet and wit beyond compare. Beloved and admired, and a loyal friend to all, Cyrano has only one flaw: the stupendously long nose on his face.
Cyrano has learned to live with his bizarre appearance. He even knows how to turn it into a strategic social advantageexcept where his beautiful cousin, Roxane, is concerned. Cyrano loves her deeply, but both his nose and a young cadet named Christian are in the way of his ability to express himself freely. Instead, he befriends Christian and helps him woo Roxane by supplying him with stirring poetic lines that would melt the heart of any woman. He even helps to deflect the attentions of the somewhat overbearing Comte de Guiche, who is also smitten with Roxane, so the young couple can be secretly married.
The poignancy of this story, with its rare combination of romance, drama, and humor, has made it a crowd pleaser for more than a century. The Rep’s treatment does Rostand justice; indeed, even during the talky stretches, one is content to sit back and warmly observe the players, like old friends who have come to entertain in the parlor.
Of course, to do Cyrano, you need an actor who can match the character’s passion and larger-than-life persona. For this, the Rep has turned to its executive producing director, David Grapes, who adds this role to an already considerable list of acting achievements. Certainly Grapes, while not perfection, is up to the task. His reading of Cyrano is creative, multileveled, infused with wit and tenderness, and characterized by a commitment beyond sincerity. While it may seem unfair to proffer criticism toward one who has scaled such a vast theatrical height, it should also be said that Grapes’ performance sometimes lacks the dashing physicality viewers might expect from the role. Even so, he’s very entertaining.
With only a few quibbles, the rest of the cast is generally quite good. The lovely Siân Heder brims with charm as Roxane, and Christopher Baker pulls off the somewhat thankless role of Christian with a welcome self-awareness. The supporting players who add a great deal to the overall sense of time and place are many; worth mentioning are Pete Carden, Bill Feehely, Wm. Daniel File, Nan Gurley, Laura Jordan, and Joe Keenan. Veteran British actor David Saire meets with only modest success in the role of De Guiche; his performance is a tad desultory, and it seems that whenever the play lags a bit, that’s where you’ll find him.
Any reservations are small ones, however. The important thing is that the spirit of Cyrano himself is winningly captured in this colorful and impassioned extravaganza. With that, the Rep adds yet another feather in its collective hat.
The weight of history
Ragtime, the musical based on E.L. Doctorow’s best-selling novel, arrived at TPAC on Mar. 14 and will remain through the 26th. The production is lavish enough, the music pleasing, and cast members uniformly proficient. But something happened in the translation from literature to theater, and the production loses momentum as the evening drags on.
Ragtime ultimately fails in its attempt to take an ambitious literary epic to the stage. The plot is way too complicated for a short evening in the theater, and as a result the production runs on far too long. Terrence McNally, who wrote the book, conceded defeat the moment that he imported authentic personages such as Henry Ford and Emma Goldman to narrate the action and fill out the historical background.
The problem is compounded by the musical’s Seinfeld technique of rapid-fire cross-cutting from one story to another. Such an approach works well on television shows, where personalities have weeks to develop, but theater is different. In this case, the stop-and-start episodic treatment pulls the emotional rug out from under the actors. On a recent evening, Sarah, played by the highly talented and beautiful Lovena Fox, moved the audience with her impassioned song but then disappeared offstage. Ditto for Jim Corti, who sensitively enacted Tateh; by the time he returned to the stage, it was hard to pick up the thread of his story.
Set in the ragtime musical era, the play initially revolves around a generic WASP family, complete with nurturing mother, authoritarian father, rebellious younger brother, dutiful son, and eccentric grandfather. Then the plot throws in an African American unwed mother, her child, and a piano player who turns to a life of violent crime, before adding an impoverished but clever immigrant, etc. It was a tribute to some of the actors that they turned these stereotypes into people. Notable were Fox and Corti, along with Lawrence Hamilton as Coalhouse and Stephen Zinnato as Father.
The authentically researched costumes were pretty and praiseworthy. The opening scene, when the curtain went up on a dark stage, proved the most imaginative event of the evening. A door opened in the center, with light shining from behind. A little boy stepped through and played with an old-fashioned stereoptic viewer, its image projected onto the back curtain. When the scrim lit up to reveal the same image with real people, it was like stepping through Lewis Carroll’s looking glass.
Unfortunately, the ragtime theme failed to unify the production. Too many subplots and too many people overwhelmed the frail but genuine charm of Stephen Flaherty’s music. Not even this enormous cast of 70 or so persons could articulate their purposethe confusion was simply embedded in the material.
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