If you can see only one of the two plays -- "Much Ado About Nothing" or "Cyrano de Bergerac" -- that the Royal Shakespeare Company is presenting in repertory in the Kennedy Center Opera House, see "Cyrano."
If you can see two, see "Cyrano" twice.
This is the production that shows off the celebrated British company in all its color and glory. The kind of ballyhoo that Hollywood used to trot out regularly for some minor historical epic -- "Romance! Adventure! Humor! Poetry! Grandeur! Coming to your neighborhood screen next week!" -- is, in the case of "Cyrano," quite breathtakingly true. Rarely has the Opera House stage seen such an abundance of spectacle or housed such a surfeit of passion.
What lifts the production above all the din and tumult, however, is the soaring performance of Derek Jacobi as Cyrano, that mongrel poet whose nose is as long as his soul is giving. The role is nothing if not flashy. Jacobi also makes it true to the depths and, in his final moments, unbearably poignant. He can fence an enemy to the floor, all the while improvising a satirical poem that merely adds insult to injury. He can discourse with endless wit on the subject of the human nose, with torrential feeling on the nature of love, with daft imagination on lunar travel, and with courageous ferocity on the imminence of death.
But he also knows when to keep quiet. Jacobi is as eloquent in silence as he is when the words are pouring passionately from his mouth. With a less assured actor at the helm, "Cyrano" could be an invitation, if not to open laughter, at least to mild amusement. Written in 1897, long after French romanticism had spent itself, Edmond Rostand's five-act drama behaves rather like a late-comer to a waning party who insists on getting the fun started up again. It is full of forced claptrap and excessive sentiment. Its effects are blatantly calculated. Rostand was not one to believe in the dramatic principle that less is more. For him, more was more.
This stunningly sure-footed production, directed by Terry Hands, certainly doesn't deny the play its florid ambitions. But there is something about the British sensibility -- an inherent sense of control even in abandon -- that counters so much extravagance. It is the subtle difference, if you will, between showing one's stripes and showing them off. Anthony Burgess' adaptation is immensely helpful in that respect, preserving the vigor of Rostand's imagination, but attenuating the clangorous ring of his verse.
The plot is almost mathematically constructed. Cyrano is sick in love with Roxanne (Sinead Cusack). Inhibited by his outlandish physiognomy, however, he dares not speak all the poetry in his heart. Roxanne is deeply smitten with Christian (Tom Mannion), the dashing cavalier. But if Christian is handsome on the outside, he's so vapid on the inside that, left to his own devices, all he can summon up by way of ardor is a stammering "I love you . . . very much."
The romantic temperament in France relished such obvious oppositions -- the beauty of the beast, the nobility of the scoundrel, the baseness of the aristocrat, the modesty of the braggart. As Cyrano says, just before the second most famous balcony scene in the history of the theater, "There's promising algebra here. You plus I equals one hero of the storybooks." Under the cover of night, he will speak the needed words. Courtship-by-proxy is all he can aspire to. Giving vent to his feelings, but knowing that Roxanne will perceive them as Christian's, Jacobi is sublime.
So is the last act. It is fall, and from a magnificent fire burst of foliage, designed by Ralph Koltai, leaves drift softly to the ground. Having preserved his secret for 14 years, Cyrano pays a final visit to Roxanne in a convent garden. He is now as frail as he once was strapping and death is looking him squarely in the eye. But his gallantry remains undimmed: He will no more admit to Roxanne that he was Christian's mouthpiece than he will give in to mortality without a last burst of Gascon defiance. Jacobi orchestrates all the multiple strains -- the age, the pain, the pride and the burning ecstasy -- with such artistry that it is impossible not to be moved.
For four acts, this "Cyrano" dazzles the senses -- first recreating the hurly-burly of a theatrical performance at the Hotel de Bourgogne; then animating the antic lowlife in the pastry shop of Ragueneau, that "patron of the tarts." No sooner has it established the nighttime iridescence that bathes Roxanne's balcony than it unleashes the full smoke and fury of battle, as Cyrano and his men undertake the siege of Arras. The very profligacy of production up to that point will have you reeling.
But it is in the quiet serenity of the convent garden that this production achieves its fullest impact. After so much vibrancy, the prospect of Cyrano's death in autumnal stillness is devastating.
The play doesn't have a cast so much as it has a population, and the RSC players take to even the smallest roles with relish. Cusack makes a lovely Roxanne, the character's limpid beauty marred only by the scratchiness of the actress' voice. John Carlisle deftly plays the arrogant villainy of the Comte de Guiche and then redeems himself, in the last act, with the rueful awareness of the emptiness of power. Pete Postlethwaite, as the first-rate patissier who also cooks up third-rate poems, gives a wonderfully generous performance.
My only reservation has to do with Mannion, who captures Christian's spiritual blandness well enough, but hardly cuts the strapping figure that so enraptures Roxanne. Indeed, judging from "Cyrano" and "Much Ado," the RSC is rife with gifted character actors, but has a decided weakness in the lineup when it comes to young leading men. But even that does not seriously harm this production. If it makes Cusack's role harder in the earlier stretches, it makes it easier in the end, when she comes to realize what we have known all along: that Jacobi's Cyrano is quite literally a blessing in disguise.
CYRANO DE BERGERAC. By Edmond Rostand. Adapted by Anthony Burgess. Directed by Terry Hands; sets, Ralph Koltai; costumes, Alexander Reid; music, Nigel Hess; lighting, Terry Hands. With Derek Jacobi, Sinead Cusack, John Carlisle, Pete Postlethwaite, John Bowe, Edward Jewesbury, Tom Mannion. At the Kennedy Center Opera House through Feb. 14.