The panache of 'Cyrano de Bergerac'

Posted: Thursday, October 14, 2010

Like Rapunzel's long hair, Cyrano's gargantuan schnoz has earned him an indelible place not only in the literary realm, but also in mainstream culture. Referenced in plot lines of sitcoms and reworked in movies such as Steve Martin's "Roxane," the original tale is easily obscured by modern adaptations, overshadowed by its hero's distinctive profile. You might find yourself wondering, just what kind of story is this anyway? Is it a comedy? A tragedy? A romance?

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Libby Sterling / Juneau Empire
Libby Sterling / Juneau Empire

Turns out, it's all three.

"Its comic, tragic and romantic all in one, all at the same time," said Theatre in the Rough's Katie Jensen.

Theatre in the Rough brings the story to life beginning tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Old Elks Lodge, in a free preview performance. The show runs through Nov. 7.

Written by French poet and playwright Edmond Rostand, "Cyrano de Bergerac" is an "enormous" work, said Theatre in the Rough's Aaron Elmore - part love story, part swashbuckling adventure, at times witty and funny, and at others completely heartbreaking.

Cyrano tells the story of a famously big-nosed man in love with a beautiful woman, Roxane (played by longtime Theatre in the Rough actress Doniece Gott). Convinced Roxane would never have him because of his ugliness, Cyrano (Elmore), decides to help his friend Christian (Carl Broderson) win her heart by supplying the handsome-but-dull soldier with brilliant and lovely verses, at one point taking Christian's place as he stands tongue-tied under Roxane's balcony. The trick works: Roxane is smitten by the combination of Christian's looks and Cyrano's brains, and falls in love with the one she thinks embodies both (Christian). Christian is soon sent away to battle, at the Siege of Arras, and from there things don't go well (read: Bring tissues).

"It's all very star-crossed and dreadful but it's also beautiful and marvelous," Elmore said.

Though the play becomes more serious after the balcony scene, Jensen said the comedic and tragic elements in the story are interwoven, with no clear dividing line between them. For her, that's one of the things that makes live theater so vibrant.

"Even in life, there's no pure tragic moment," she said. "If we just drew a line and said, 'Everything here is funny and everything here is sad,' we would cease to exist as a civilization. I think we would all go mad."

Jensen, co-founder of Theatre in the Rough and Elmore's partner, directs the play, and in the past couple weeks has also had to take on one of the acting roles due to another actor's last-minute conflict. The change was made a little easier by having Becky Orford take on the vacated role (Captain Carbon) so Jensen could take Orford's (Cuigy). Jensen has juggled directing and acting before, but the scope of this play makes the feat a big more difficult. With a cast of 16, and a set that is Theatre in the Rough's most elaborate to date, Cyrano marks an ambitious undertaking for the small troupe, and is one they've been itching to stage for years.

"There's lots of unexpected magic with the set that I don't want to reveal," Jensen said. "It's also in the costumes, and the music - the music is a really big part of it as well.

Rather than choosing a classical quartet to accompany Rostand's script, Jensen decided on great love songs of the 20th century, a more playful approach. She's never been a fan of a strict, musty adherence to classic works in their original form.

"If Shakespeare was alive today, he'd be writing films. Rostand, same thing."

An instant success

"Cyrano" was an instant success when it was performed in Paris in 1897, and was by far Rostand's most famous and lasting work.

"The play he wrote prior to this was a stinker," Elmore said. "Everybody hated it. It was dreadful, it was dull, it was boring. Nobody wanted it. So he threw out all of his ideas and finally wrote this because he thought, 'You know, screw it, I might as well write something that I would like.'"

What he ended up with was a great romance, one that was immediately greeted with enthusiasm by the Parisiens who saw it. The very first audience to watch the play was so moved, they applauded for an hour, according to more than one source. It soon became one of the most famous French plays of all time.

Part of its early success may have been due to the fact that it was unlike most plays being produced at that time. A spirit of grim realism ruled the day in the late 1880s, a trend that ran counter to the emotionalism and romanticism "Cyrano" embodied, with its heroic characters, sword fights and poetry. Like Dumas' "Three Musketeers," Rostand's play, set in the mid-1600s, harkened back to an earlier, gentler era. Cyrano de Bergerac was in fact a real 17th century figure, both poet and a swordsman, and portraits show the nose was not a total fabrication on Rostand's part. However, the story is Rostand's own, and draws more on Cyrano's time than on the man himself.

"(It's set) back before the Industrial Revolution, back when kings still ruled the world," Elmore said. "(It was viewed) as being somehow a halcyon time, a time of better moral virtue or higher ideals. Whether it's true or not is entirely up in the air. ... (but) it certainly hit a chord with Rostand's audience."

Its popularity has continued to this day. Jensen said she thinks its modern appeal stems from Cyrano's character - his panache - specifically his unwillingness to conform to societal norms. In that way the play is a celebration of the soul that hides in every person, she said.

"Our world is not just intolerant but terrified of anything that is unusually vibrant, and I think that is why we keep waving the banner of this play so frequently."

Though Cyrano is seen as a freak, and describes himself as such, he fully embraces his individuality, she said.

"He relishes it, and not once does he say he wishes to be normal, and like other people," Jensen said. "I really love the fury in his refusal."

The play also has timeless appeal as a beautiful love story.

"It's absolutely the quintessential romance," Elmore said. "You couldn't ask for a story that packs more ideas together about love and the connection that spontaneously takes us all at some point in or lives - most of us anyway, and some of us more than once. It's intoxicating and it's terrifying and it's all those things all the time."

Wit and humor

The original was written in French verse, but Theatre in the Rough's version is a prose translation written by John Murrell, a playwright whose works include "The Far Away Nearby" and "Waiting for the Parade."

"It was originally written in 12-syllable, six-foot lines, which sound beautiful in French but hit the English-speaking ear as very sing-song. it was a little lulling. So we chose a prose translation that tells the story very richly, (but) doesn't try to be slavish about the poetry."

Jensen said the prose version provides modern audiences more direct access to the story.

"I didn't want to distance the audience by bogging the whole thing down in archaic language," she said.

Murrell's translation was also chosen for its humor and wit.

Similarly, in the interests of simplicity - and with a nod to the inside-out aspects of the show that highlight, rather than obscure, its theatrical nature - Elmore will not be subjected to hours of elaborate make-up work prior to emerging on stage as Cyrano. Instead, the troupe opted for honest falsity.

"We all decided that most people would spend 10 or 15 minutes at the top of the play trying to find the seam (in the makeup), and then finding it and trying to forget about it - and there's 15 minutes they could have enjoyed the play," Elmore said. "So instead they say 'Oh my god, it's a rubber nose!' and just move on."

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