The temptation is to say that compared with the superlative production of "Cyrano de Bergerac" performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Kennedy Center last year, the American-born "Cyrano de Bergerac," which has found its way to the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre here for four weeks, is an ill-acted and ill-conceived affair.
But comparisons, as Dogberry once observed, are "odorous." So let's just stick to the current production, which stars John Cullum as the man with the nose. It is an ill-acted and ill-conceived affair.
This "Cyrano" comes to us in a new prose adaptation by Emily Frankel (Mrs. John Cullum) that is remarkable only in that it manages totally to flatten out the tumultuous imagery and throbbing lyricism of Edmond Rostand's script. The banality of her lines is perfectly matched by the sparseness of Arthur Storch's staging and the flailings of an underpopulated cast, doubling and tripling to little avail.
Frankel's thinking, according to a program note, holds that we are "surfeited with panorama and spectacle in television and movies" and that a leaner and, apparently, more intimate view of "Cyrano" as "a play in space with the imagination providing the decor" is called for. Nonsense! Stripping Rostand's saga of its ornate trappings is akin to removing the gargoyles from a Gothic cathedral.
"Cyrano" is intentionally excessive in every respect -- a sweeping display of nobility and baseness, beauty and ugliness, all engaged in epic battle for the hand of the impossibly fair Roxane. Indeed, glorious excess is its subject. You do not bring the play into focus by amputating its Romantic trappings. You merely reduce it to a skeleton -- and a fairly silly one at that.
Still, if this production, which was hatched two years ago at Syracuse Stage, was acted with any degree of conviction, we might be willing to forgo the spectacle that is part and parcel of "Cyrano." Good actors can sometimes make us see in the mind's eye vistas and visions as sumptuous as any provided by gifted scenic designers. But Frankel's dialogue is no more evocative than the instructions in an appliance manual. And the supporting players are of such rank mediocrity that they might as well be addressing matters of the refrigerator, not the human heart.
Cullum has his moments -- most of them, however, as the old, broken Cyrano, struggling to hold onto the gallant fictions of the past. His plumed hat pulled low over a less than noble brow, he resembles one of those crotchety fathers who pop up in commedia dell'arte. It is not a look that serves him well for the younger, more strapping Cyrano, who spits fire and poetry and, in the celebrated balcony scene, reveals the depth of his soul's beauty.
As Storch stages it -- on a peculiar set by Victor A. Becker -- that scene is inane. The set, you see, consists of a huge flight of stairs, leading from the back of the theater to the footlights. The requisite balcony is a translucent platform that inches forward from the middle of this construction and then proceeds to wobble like a diving board under Roxane's weight. Although presumably cloaked in the darkness of night, Cullum stands barely a breath away, bathed in a spotlight, as he courts Roxane for the tongue-tied Christian. As for Christian, he's huddled under the translucent balcony and, from all appearances, gazing up Roxane's skirt. It's as if, you find yourself musing, "Cyrano" were being staged as some kind of delirious half-time entertainment on stadium bleachers.
There is no point belaboring the shortcomings of this cast, other than to point out that Megan Gallagher would be twice as effective as Roxane if she closed her mouth when she wasn't talking, instead of indulging in a nonstop display of puckers, smiles and pouts. Marcus Smythe (Christian) might think about his lines when he says them, while Richard Cottrell (DeGuiche), Joseph Culliton (Montfleury) and John Perkins (Ragueneau), among others, could fruitfully contemplate another line of work entirely.
Cyrano de Bergerac. By Edmond Rostand. Adaptation by Emily Frankel. Directed by Arthur Storch. Sets, Victor A. Becker; costumes, Jennifer von Mayrhauser; lighting, Marc B. Weiss. With John Cullum, Marcus Smythe, Megan Gallagher, Richard Cottrell, Joseph Culliton, John Perkins, Sean G. Griffin. At the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre through Feb. 1.