Robert Frost once defined poetry as what is lost in translation. And poetry is really the only thing missing from Le Neon Theatre's otherwise charming production in English of the French classic "Cyrano de Bergerac."
True, this is a little like saying the balloon looks great even though it has no air in it. But instead of just endearingly lying flat, the show takes an interesting shape--thanks largely to Didier Rousselet's charismatic performance in the title role and to his and Monica Neagoy's collaborative directing.
For all its many characters, "Cyrano" is really a one-man play. Cyrano's love, Roxane (Neagoy), is simply the reason for the hero to reveal himself to us, and Christian (Patrick Sweetman), whom Cyrano uses as a beard to woo Roxane, is a device to show us how the hero is both clever and sensitive (about his hideously long nose--"a peninsula," as he calls it--which he believes would send Roxane fleeing).
The character of Cyrano, in the original, is also a quintessential product of not just the French but of French poetry (or French verse satire, to be exact). By turns outrageously arrogant, intractable, spontaneous, calculating and vulnerable, he is, in the words of fin-de-siecle critic Max Beerbohm, "the fantastically idealized creation of a poet." In this case, it's Edmond Rostand's poetry, which sends up the French national character, in particular its notions of romance, chivalry and self-sacrifice.
The trouble is, the sensibility evoked in Rostand's verse doesn't have an equivalent in English, despite the best efforts of translator Anthony Burgess, who was hardly a slouch on the nuances of language. You can sense this loss when Rousselet, a Frenchman, still speaks some lines in his expressive native tongue; at these moments, he's vibrantly, passionately, energetically transported to Rostand's world.
A small theater, Le Neon probably doesn't have the budget for an electronic board to provide simultaneous translation for an all-French production. Still, instead of becoming the prosaic caricature that a mostly-English production entails, Cyrano, in Rousselet's hands, is oddly introspective and contemplative, at times even innocent, a stranger lost in the strange land of love. And so you want to know what happens to him.
This interpretation fits nicely with the presiding mood--that of a melancholy farce--that Rousselet and Neagoy have given the production. Despite the stylized movement, often comic, and some of the appropriately exaggerated period costumes (designed smartly by Justine Scherer for the more pompous characters), there's a palpable feeling from the start that things will end sadly. But that doesn't mean you can't have some good laughs along the way, and the show provides plenty.
Neagoy's Roxane is a bit of a doll, but not inanimate. She plays her as a charming, if shallow, girl in love with the idea of love and the frisson of romance. Sweetman's Christian is an affable, likable soul who earns your pity. The veteran Ed Johnson anchors an efficient ensemble, which features good work by Tel Monks, Kim Curtis, Patrick Trainor, Gabriel Zucker and Mikael Manoukian.
Nicolas Rousselet's set, Martha Mountain's lighting and Daniel Portaix's sound all strike a delicate, integrated balance between the literal and the figurative. The overall result may not be fantastically idealized, but it still gets a piece of your heart.
Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmond Rostand. Directed by Didier Rousselet and Monica Neagoy. Through Dec. 17 at the Rosslyn Spectrum, 1611 N. Kent St., Arlington. Call 703-218-6500.
CAPTION: Tel Monks and Monica Neagoy in Le Neon Theatre's "Cyrano de Bergerac."