In 1987, when the film ‘Roxanne‘ opened, comedian Steve Martin’s sweet-spirited updating of ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ was greeted with delight by American critics. Martin won a best screenplay award from the Writers Guild and a best actor award from the National Society of Film Critics.
Cyrano, of course, is the swashbuckler who mocks his own proboscis more inventively than any enemy can. He’s the swordsman who deftly dices an opponent’s outfit with his rapier while composing a witty poem on the spot. He’s a delight, sans doute — even as his heart secretly aches for the beautiful but uninterested Roxanne.
All of which is just what Martin does in the film. So what’s not to like?
Yet the French – quelle surprise – the French were baffled. Martin’s cinematic Cyrano doesn’t die in the end. C’est incroyable. And this, after he also doesn’t spend fifteen years faithfully hiding his love from Roxanne. To do otherwise would spoil her idealized image of the dead Christian, the young dolt she actually loves. He’s the military cadet who’s so language-challenged Cyrano has to sound out his love letters for him.
So in France, Martin’s film received some decidedly dismissive Gallic shrugs at our American obliviousness. We’d cut off the play’s essential, chivalric gesture, the one that seals Cyrano’s fate as grand and foolish and self-sacrificing. Without the end-of-life realization by both Cyrano and Roxanne that they’ve been blind about who’s loved whom and why – without that heartbreak, the story lacks the idealistic martyrdom that makes his lifetime of wisecracks and unrequited love truly galante.
For its season opener, Amphibian Stage Productions is offering the world premiere of a new adaptation of ‘Cyrano’ by Jason O’Connell and Brenda Withers, and no worries, it does include that last, sentimental flourish from our hero. But it hardly includes everything else – because it’s not designed to. Playwright Edmund Rostand’s giant crowd-pleaser has become a pocket-watch ‘Cyrano,’ geared down to just five actors and the basic plot machinery of the play.
Which is a shrewd idea. As an idea, at any rate. Rostand’s 1897 play is often called a warhorse and a giant crowd-pleaser. But it’s not often staged: In more than 50 years, the Dallas Theater Center has presented it precisely once (whereas they’ve staged that joyful romp, ‘Julius Caesar,’ six times).
That’s because ‘Cyrano’ can be epic, a grand opera without the arias. Rostand lists more than 40 roles in his cast of characters – not including the unnamed brigades of “cadets” and “pastry cooks.” The last, large-caliber ‘Cyrano’ I sat through (an outdoor version) boasted 27 actors and seemed intent on slogging through every minute of the Siege of Arras – where the historic Cyrano actually fought in 1640.
So instead, O’Connell and Withers created another stripped-down and updated classic. These modern-dress shows – most often of Shakespeare plays – aim to offset their bare-bones budgets with a ‘theatricality-of-necessity.’ Actors fill out different roles by donning and dropping accents or wigs. And if the original play is a comedy, whole scenes are reduced to an exchange of quips, while obvious stage devices are employed with a wink. But if done right, the best such adaptations can still bruise our hearts.
That’s the plan, at any rate. But unlike Cyrano’s precision-targeted aim with an épée or an aperçu, this new, miniaturized version is hit or miss. O’Connell and Withers reduce Rostand’s play to its essentials (even the title, you may notice, has gotten a nose job: just ‘Cyrano’). But they don’t offer enough élan to make up for the losses. Sure, we can do without all the splendor, but this ‘Cyrano’ doesn’t have the zest a ‘Cyrano’ needs (the direction is also by O’Connell). An actor will flip up his shirt to make a shawl, shifting from cadet to crone. But that’s about the level of ingenuity and playfulness here. There are welcome bits of theatrical flair, especially a beautiful blizzard of love letters. But they’re all too rare.
Kate Hamill as Roxanne and Mitchell Stephens as Christian in ‘Cyrano.’
And what’s a ‘Cyrano’ without flair? The real oddity, though, is that, even as they simplified the play, the playwrights complicated it with a frame story. They seem to have reserved all their cleverness for a single, grand plot device. We do not open in Paris in 1640. We’re in the humdrum present, with actors and stage hands getting a show underway. It looks to be another ‘rehearsal’ production where actors in street clothes will pick up a coat and become a character. But here, an onstage accident happens to an ordinary lighting rigger (John-Michael Marrs), and voila, ‘Cyrano’ unfolds as his unconscious fantasy.
Three related problems. The preamble is awkward and hasty; we don’t learn enough about any of the characters to care much about the head bump. And because we don’t know much about ol’ Sparky, his subsequent dream feels unmotivated, disconnected. Did our stage hand, like Cyrano, have a secret crush, in this case on the lead actress playing Roxanne (Kate Hamill)? Hence his dream of acting with her? Or was he like Bottom from ‘Midsummer’ – the little guy always eager for the limelight?
We never know. It’s bang-zap, and up pops Cyrano – from out of nowhere. So the framing device mostly just sets up the modern-dress nature of the show. Which is a pretty weak function. Worse, a frame story that turns all the characters into dream figures tends to ‘de-materialize’ them. We’ll return to that issue in a moment.
More immediately, the device stalls the real start of Rostand’s story. Too bad, because as epic as a ‘Cyrano’ staging might be, it always needs to feel light-footed and smart – like its hero. The Amphibian’s streamlined little production would seem custom-made for just this fleet sensibility. Trouble is, as Cyrano, the actor John-Michael Marrs has the size and the lumbering physicality of Vince Vaughn. For all his ‘hunky working man’ qualities, he doesn’t exactly zing, physically or verbally. The play’s famous comic set-pieces – Cyrano’s aria of nose insults, the take-down of the insolent actor Montfleury in mid-performance – these, well, plod. Marrs delivers them like a slugger, pummeling his opponents, not like a master swordsman flicking away flies.
Where Marrs excels in humor is where O’Connell and Withers’ script excels: handling the idiots. These are Christian, the tongue-tied love interest (Mitchell Stephens), and the Count De Guiche (Greg Holt), the would-be seducer. Here, Christian is so inept expressing his feelings toward Roxanne, he describes his heart as this aching “blob.” Marrs’ Cyrano is most amusing in his withering disappointment with this rival – a young man who, if it weren’t for his looks, would barely exist. Stephens’ Christian is likable, but the character, as he should, has little grasp of anything noble and quintessentially French, all that Cyrano stands for: manly confidence, taste, physical grace, deep emotion and, of course, poetry flowing from his fingertips.
As the third part of this triangle, Kate Hamill’s Roxanne strikes one initially as too mature a woman, too sensible, to swoon over a cute-faced, dull-witted cadet whom she’s seen just once.
So we have some early credibility issues with her Roxanne. But once you get Hamill in a room trying to escape the pompous and lustful de Guiche, she’s fun. Pluck, irony and farcical energy suit Hamill beautifully. Holt’s de Guiche proclaims how heroic he’ll be when he heads into battle. She flatters him by encouraging him to just go off and, well, die already.
“I may never come back!” he warns. “Wonderful!” she coos, avoiding his clutches once again.
A New York-based performer and playwright, Hamill is best known for her stage adaptations/reductions of Jane Austen’s novels. One of Hamill’s chief motivations in these projects has been to generate more (and more satisfying) stage roles for herself and female performers like her.
It’s probably deliberate, then, that her Roxanne reminds us that Roxanne is something of a surprise. She’s one of the more ‘forward-thinking’ aspects of an exuberantly backwards-looking romance (Rostand wrote the swaggering ‘Cyrano’ partly to counter the downbeat, modern realism of Ibsen and Zola). Roxanne may be positioned as the stereotypical ‘love prize’ desired by two men. And at the start, she seems as shallow and immature as Christian, adoring him for his looks while keeping the worthier Cyrano locked up in the ‘boyfriend zone.’
But if it weren’t for the iconic figure of Cyrano soaking up all the attention in the play, Roxanne might be more clearly recognized as one of the feistier, independent female roles in Victorian theater. True, she’s no door-slammer like Ibsen’s Nora (‘A Doll’s House’ premiered 18 years earlier). But in the play, she’s never rescued by any man – she dispatches de Guiche on her own – and then it’s she who rescues the starving Christian and Cyrano on the battlefield. A gutsy feat for the time.
Admittedly, the other reason Roxanne isn’t remembered as a model of the ‘modern woman’ is that by the end, she turns utterly conventional. Literally. She joins a convent. Tant pis. The earlier, spirited, resourceful Roxanne is Hamill at her most winning and convincing.
More unfortunate, though, is that the contrived backstage frame story comes back. I hope I’m not giving away too much here. But if you understand the logic of a frame story, you already know it must come back. I’d hoped along the way, O’Connell and Withers might have a novel plan for resolving or combining the main story and its fantasy frame. But no.
At the end of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest,’ the wizard Prospero can declare the actors are all just “such stuff as dreams are made on” – and we still feel the full wonder of ‘The Tempest’ as real (as real as any stage performance). That’s because, from the start, the actors themselves were not part of a we’re-just-dreaming-up-a-play production. What we saw and heard them express all along is all that we know of them as dramatic characters. Prospero may call the play we’ve seen an “insubstantial pageant,” but it’s clear he’s talking about human life itself. The actors don’t suddenly pull back a curtain to reveal, voila, a second, alternative and “realer” version of themselves that had been waiting back there, playing cards.
Or if they did, we’d feel thoroughly cheated. All the emotions we felt for them would be undermined, cheapened.
And by this point, Rostand’s play has raised the emotional stakes. It’s turned richly autumnal with its two, aging, always-could-have-been lovers. This is his genre-bending achievement. What kind of play ‘Cyrano’ actually is has been endlessly debated – rom-com? comedy-drama? chivalric romance? – precisely because Rostand pulls off this melancholic change in tone. We move from swash and buckle to reflection and regret.
Time is clearly running out. Roxanne and Cyrano have begun to see that their own follies have consumed their lives, and just as the Amphibian production turns this sad corner – bang, we’re back to the modern concussion scenario. With that thin device, O’Connell and Withers dissolve all the sweet heartache they’ve worked two hours to achieve.
But that’s always the problem, isn’t it, even with the most moving of dreams?
We wake up.