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Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post

Editorial Review

Just say nose: Peter Marks reviews Folger Theatre’s ‘Cyrano’

By Peter Marks
Tuesday, May 4, 2011

Cyrano de Bergerac has a flaw that cuts far deeper than that ludicrous nose. He’s a bit of a bore.

Everyone who shares this point of view, follow me! What — wait — no one? You mean to say, I’m the only person who finds Edmond Rostand’s tale of the swashbuckling poet with the thing for the pretty verse-worshiping girl a polyunsaturated wheel of cheese?

Well, so be it. I’ve sat through enough productions of the play — good, bad and in between — to speak for the minority. Some of the stagings have managed to tease out a charismatic poignancy or wittiness to offset the tale’s shameless melodramatics. But Folger Theatre’s new version, simply called “Cyrano,” never establishes an adequate counterbalance for the schmaltz. It’s a faithful, even credulous, treatment that ultimately comes across as wordy and weightless.

This adaptation arrives with a decent pedigree: It has been composed by dramatist Michael Hollinger (“Opus”) and frequent Folger director Aaron Posner, represented most recently by “The Comedy of Errors” and, at Arena Stage, “The Chosen.” They have for the most part eliminated the oft-employed rhyming couplets in favor of more colloquial language, a decision that should make it inviting for school groups.

The well-spoken Eric Hissom, an actor of personable if not arresting presence, has been engaged to play the title character. And the cast has been trimmed to an economical nine players, requiring a few of the men, cutely, to fill female roles (but not, the gods be thanked, the part of Roxane; that key assignment has gone to Brenda Withers).

With the addition of workmanlike design contributions by Devon Painter on costumes and Daniel Conway with the set, you have the ingredients for a reasonable treatment of an audience-friendly piece. Still, while the evening prompts a lot of reflexive laughter, its earnestness exposes the play’s shallowest aspects: the overworked plot mechanics; the love story’s hollow core; the hero’s unbecoming self-absorption. By the time Cyrano shows up in the final scene, after having been clunked on the head by a particularly well-aimed log, the words “oh, brother” may have crossed your mind once or twice.

Many of the shortcomings can be redressed with, to quote Cyrano himself, some panache in the central portrayals. This happier circumstance elevated the 2007 Broadway revival with Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner, just as Geraint Wyn Davies carried Shakespeare Theatre Company’s cheekier, anachronism-spewing adaptation in 2004.

Hissom, an excellent Porter in Posner and magician Teller’s delightful “Macbeth” at Folger a few years ago, has the wry delivery required of Hollinger and Posner’s script. As for the panache: Well, there’s a deficiency here of larger-than-life-ness that renders suspect Cyrano’s implausible stunts. This guy, taking on 100 swordsmen? I don’t think so.

Neither do he and Withers exude much chemistry. You are supposed to believe at the night’s conclusion that Roxane realizes retroactively that she was in love with Cyrano all along. That teary catharsis never truly occurs; the relationship with Bobby Moreno’s thick-headed Christian, on whose behalf Cyrano writes the lyrical lines that bewitch Roxane, on this occasion seems to be the more promising one. Moreno offers one of the evening’s more nuanced portrayals, investing Christian with a dignified restraint.

The other performances range from very good — as always, Todd Scofield is your go-to guy for incisive support, here as a fatuous actor and fussy nurse — to bland: Craig Wallace’s portrayal of De Guiche reminds you less of a pompous French nobleman than of an assistant high school principal. The result is a show of admirable intention and minimal persuasiveness.

By Edmond Rostand in an adaptation by Michael Hollinger and Aaron Posner. Directed by Posner. Lighting, Thom Weaver; original music and sound, Veronika Vorel; fight director, Dale Anthony Girard. With Dan Crane, Chris Genebach, Richard Ruiz, Steve Hendrickson. About 2 hours 40 minutes.

'Cyrano' adapts to minor surgery
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, April 22, 2011

What is it about "Cyrano de Bergerac" that inspires infinite adaptations? Maybe it's the title character's enviable aptitude for both swordplay and wordplay. Or a storyline pulsating with the familiar longing of unrequited love. Or - could it be - that magnificent spectacle of a nose?

Whatever the reason, everyone from "A Clockwork Orange" author Anthony Burgess to funnyman Steve Martin has put his own spin on French playwright Edmond Rostand's 1897 play. And now, Folger Theatre premieres a new translation by a writer who director Aaron Posner calls "uniquely qualified for the job": Philadelphia-based playwright Michael Hollinger.

"I knew I needed - in addition to someone who spoke French - someone with the right kind of wit," Posner says, "someone who could help find the really delicate balance between freshness and a respect for the text."

Washington theater fans can see that Hollinger has the range. In addition to "Cyrano," local productions of his plays this year include the Washington Stage Guild's well-received staging of the madcap Cold War-era farce "Red Herring" and Olney Theater Center's upcoming "Opus," a subtle drama about a string quartet.

Even so, "Cyrano" marks Hollinger's first major translation, and what a doozy. The play is the treasured story of a complex, if quirky, soldier who recites poetry during duels. He's a man of contradictions, valiant enough to take on 100 men but too self-conscious about his colossal sniffer to approach the woman he loves, except as a proxy for a tongue-tied friend.

"I don't know why, it just felt like there was a translation in my future," Hollinger says. "And it turned out to be this whopping five-act French play that everybody says is their favorite."

Hollinger and Posner, who met more than 20 years ago working in Philadelphia theater, imagined a version that cut the length and cast while still radiating that electric energy. Hollinger talks about the process in terms of "releasing the text" so that the audience comes away with the same emotional wallop of Rostand's version, even if the journey is compressed. Sometimes that means a word-for-word translation of the original.

"And sometimes," Hollinger says, "it's about saying, 'You know what? This was 114 years ago and France and rhymed Alexandrine couplets, and it's not going to do it for us like this.' "

While the memorable scenes have remained - Cyrano professing his love for Roxane while disguised as her suitor, Christian, for example - other elements had to go, including the persistent end rhyme. Hollinger is a fan of end rhyme in stylized plays, such as those by Moliere, but he worried that it might distract from the story of Cyrano.

"Even when it's done very, very well, the presence of the playwright or translator is very palpable," he says. "When we're caught up in this wild romantic story where it's about pursuing a passion, I don't want to be reminded of the playwright or translator; I want to forget. I want to fall in love with this man and what he falls in love with."

Although every deviation represents a risk, there's also something comforting about translating a classic work.

"With an original piece, it's possible to doubt the entire venture," Hollinger says. "And in some ways it's a great relief to say, 'I don't have to question this story. This story is great, the characters are great.' "

As exhilarating as "Cyrano" may be to watch, it's apparently just as stimulating to adapt. Maybe that explains why so many writers take it on. Spending time with the character can be revitalizing.

"During the first week of rehearsal I couldn't sleep," Hollinger says. "I felt literally like someone had pumped more oxygen into the room. I don't know why, maybe I was just tapping into the wonderfulness of the play, or maybe Rostand just packed more life into it than we're accustomed to."