You can, it seems, teach an old warhorse new quips. A frothy "Cyrano" has taken up residence at Shakespeare Theatre, invigorated by a crafty star performance by Geraint Wyn Davies and the irreverence of a zinger-packed adaptation that displays as much affinity for the wit and wisdom of Milton Berle as for that of Edmond Rostand.
The jokes in Barry Kornhauser's wiseacre script are often cheap -- a tavern called "Sacre-Coeur's Light"? But let's face it, so is the sentiment in Rostand's eternally mushy play about a swashbuckling soldier-poet who had the misfortune to be born before rhinoplasty. Something needs to be done to offset the story's shopworn contrivances, and Kornhauser comes up with a nifty solution: a new pun-filled rhyming version that performs a kind of teasing gavotte (or a lobe-dance, maybe?) on the ears.
From "The Silent Woman" to "The Rivals" to "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the Shakespeare has of late been distinguishing itself with classical theater's more tickling tendencies, and "Cyrano" extends the trend. Owing in large measure to its hoary source, however, the production is not quite as beguiling as the others. The antic freshness of "Silent Woman," the riotous ensemble acting of "The Rivals," the jaw-dropping beauty of "Dream" were qualities investing each with the buoyant exhilaration of a ride in a hot-air balloon.
"Cyrano" -- the title's been shortened here, though not, at three hours-plus, the running time -- presents a thornier challenge, at least to those who are not among the play's ardent admirers. The plot progresses like a slow leak: It begins with a heady and raucous scene in a theater, the one in which Cyrano delivers his risible oration on the wonders of his nose. From there, it's a descent into pathos, as the mechanics of the story's epistolary subterfuge kick in, and we wind up, late in the evening, in a convent, where the corny truth about the authorship of Christian's love letters is revealed by a Cyrano dying in Roxane's arms.
Director Michael Kahn and Kornhauser recognize the need to play down the melodrama and aim for the funny bone; the best productions of "Cyrano" understand that its hero could do a set at the Punch Line after a session with a rapier. Kornhauser's script, first performed in 2000 at the Fulton Opera House in Lancaster, Pa., where he is playwright-in-residence, apes the rhyming format of Rostand's 1897 French original (in English, it's often been performed in blank verse). His language, though, is unabashedly contemporary, and that suits the occasion just fine. It meshes with the vitality of Kahn's staging as well as with Cyrano's hyperbolic personality.
Three sittings, in fact, would be required to catch all the cheesy-cheeky asides, on the order of:
Le Bret: Bigger than life, our Cyrano is!
Ragueneau: Especially . . .
All: . . . His nose.
Ragueneau: And if you ever saw it, you would even say it glows.
The scene containing the reindeer reference is the play's opening, and in many ways it's the production's best. The keen design elements -- James Noone's colorful, Broadway-worthy sets, Robert Perdziola's snazzy 17th-century wardrobe and Howell Binkley's warm lighting -- are harmoniously revealed to us. The initial moments with major characters like Gregory Wooddell's Christian, Claire Lautier's Roxane and David Sabin's Ragueneau also serve to put the production on a solid footing.
The vital entrance, of course, belongs to Wyn Davies, and he does not disappoint. With a vocal facility as entrancing as rushing water, the actor finds the music in the poetry. And he establishes Cyrano's alpha-male superiority in his very first salvo, an attack on the hapless ham (an expertly puffed-up Paul Romero) who has the bad luck to be the star of the play-within-a-play.
Wyn Davies, a Welsh-born actor and veteran of Canadian classical theater, plays a guy's guy sort of Cyrano. He's good with words, sure, but he's more of a fighter than a lover, and words are the most effective weapon in this Cyrano's arsenal. That's not to say he's not a man of his sword. When, for instance, an insult directed at his overmatched rival, Ryan Artzberger's ultra-effete de Valvert, results in the inevitable duel, the stage fight isn't a standard-issue plink-plink, clink-clink of blades.
As Cyrano himself might say, there's panache in the swordplay. The choreography is sure-handed and even witty; this is one of the rare occasions in which you feel the fight director justifies his billing. (Thank you, David Leong, and while we're at it, thanks, too, to the assistant fight director, Paul Dennhardt.) The parry and thrust are as intricately entwined as one of Kornhauser's best-rhymed couplets.
Wooddell and Lautier are exceptionally well-matched as Christian and Roxane. Neither falls prey to the woodenness the parts sometimes invite. They're both swell-looking and well-spoken and, with Wyn Davies, capably fulfill the comic mandates of the famous balcony scene. Sabin's Ragueneau is sweetly bumbling, a natural cuckold, and Lawrence Redmond makes a delightfully simpering theater director. Marty Lodge is sturdy, if a bit stolid, as Cyrano's pal Le Bret; Andrew Long delivers a polished, naturalistic performance as the arrogant heavy, de Guiche, though given the florid circumstances, it would certainly be bearable were there a tad more Captain Hook to the portrayal.
Kornhauser's embellishments often pack surprising punch. The inept reporter from the Royal Almanac who can't spell Cyrano is a neat touch, and some of the items in Ragueneau's pastry shop are delectably out of left field. Still, the ensemble has yet to perfect the rhythms of the fast-breaking ripostes. This is especially true in scenes involving the Gascony cadets, who are called on to pass lines off to one another with the dexterity of major league infielders.
The makeup department's major contribution is convincing except when Wyn Davies works himself into a lather. All of his facial features turn scarlet, with the exception of that pale, flagpole-style proboscis. It's the curse of a good performance: noticeable mainly because its bearer is so watchable.
Cyrano, by Edmund Rostand; adapted by Barry Kornhauser. Directed by Michael Kahn. Sets, James Noone; costumes, Robert Perdziola; lighting, Howell Binkley; composer, Adam Wernick; sound, Martin Desjardins; fight director, David Leong. With Jeremy S. Holm, Jefferson A. Russell, Catrina Ganey, Edwina Findley, Fiana Toibin, Edward Boroevich, Allan Care. Approximately 3 hours 20 minutes. Through Aug. 1 at Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.