PERHAPS TO REMIND the Yanks how it's done, Britain's estimable Royal Shakespeare Company is paying a visit to the capital of the colonies with a magnificent, stirring "Cyrano de Bergerac" and a calmly beautiful "Much Ado About Nothing." Both evenings at the Kennedy Center Opera House belong to the extraordinarily gifted actor Derek Jacobi, who proves himself adept at comedy high and low, and all the delicate points in between.
Most everyone knows this nose: "Cyrano," that is, hero of Edmond Rostand's 17th-century comedy about homely, brilliant and ever- excessive Cyrano who, with his wit and words, helps the handsome dolt Baron Christian win the love of Roxane, the woman they both adore. Anthony Burgess' precise new translation from the French gives Rostand's barbs and rhymes a sting and dramatic rhythm. And what words he had to work with -- how could love ever live up to the ecstatic state conjured in Rostand's lines?
Beneath all the hilarity and heartbreak, Rostand's play speaks movingly of the contrast between our deceptive skin and the souls beneath.
Riding atop a colossal chandelier, Jacobi (pronounced JACK-o-bee) makes a memorable entrance as Cyrano, leader of the wild Gascons, and his energy never abates through three and a half swift hours. Flamboyantly interrupting a hammy actor's performance with a poetic recital of the indignities his notable nose has provoked, he then matches his wordplay with his swordplay, the flash of wit paired with the clash of steel.
Jacobi's heroic Cyrano is a Renaissance man whose glorious excess makes men love and hate him. Proud Cyrano's generous nose represents his capacity of intellect, spirit -- and anger. But it is also his heartache. He is a "little everyman" who feels he must constantly exel to compensate for his looks. And though he knows that his words have won her, he never dares reveal himself for fear of her revulsion.
Jacobi orchestrates a series of emotional frenzies: from ethereal torrents of poetry, to profane clowning, to unutterable sadness when he hears his own "winged words" from Roxane's unwitting lips.
Sinead Cusack (pronounced Sha-NED), with her wonderfully textured voice and wickedly merry eyes, is a Roxane worthy of Cyrano's poetry, though the actress slightly overdoes her mournful moaning in the final scene. John Carlisle, who seems born to play the villain, is a deliciously soulless Comte de Guiche, and Pete Postlethwaite is an affecting comic foil as Ragueneau, the pastry cook who would be a poet.
Ralph Koltai's settings are lovely, especially a blazing autumnal tree that looses a gentle flutter of leaves. Director Terry Hands maintains sense amid the spectacle, and his hand is particularly evident in that other famous balcony scene, when Cyrano supplies the words for his "speechless" puppet, Christian.
The imposing nose itself is a lifelike marvel, and because designer Christopher Tucker decided not to take it to ridiculous lengths, Jacobi's Cyrano becomes less freakish and thus more akin to all of us.
CYRANO DE BERGERAC -- At the Kennedy Center Opera House through February 17.