Cyrano de Bergerac has a flaw that cuts far deeper than that ludicrous nose. He’s a bit of a bore.
Everyone who shares this point of view, follow me! What — wait — no one? You mean to say, I’m the only person who finds Edmond Rostand’s tale of the swashbuckling poet with the thing for the pretty verse-worshiping girl a polyunsaturated wheel of cheese?
Well, so be it. I’ve sat through enough productions of the play — good, bad and in between — to speak for the minority. Some of the stagings have managed to tease out a charismatic poignancy or wittiness to offset the tale’s shameless melodramatics. But Folger Theatre’s new version, simply called “Cyrano,” never establishes an adequate counterbalance for the schmaltz. It’s a faithful, even credulous, treatment that ultimately comes across as wordy and weightless.
This adaptation arrives with a decent pedigree: It has been composed by dramatist Michael Hollinger (“Opus”) and frequent Folger director Aaron Posner, represented most recently by “The Comedy of Errors” and, at Arena Stage, “The Chosen.” They have for the most part eliminated the oft-employed rhyming couplets in favor of more colloquial language, a decision that should make it inviting for school groups.
The well-spoken Eric Hissom, an actor of personable if not arresting presence, has been engaged to play the title character. And the cast has been trimmed to an economical nine players, requiring a few of the men, cutely, to fill female roles (but not, the gods be thanked, the part of Roxane; that key assignment has gone to Brenda Withers).
With the addition of workmanlike design contributions by Devon Painter on costumes and Daniel Conway with the set, you have the ingredients for a reasonable treatment of an audience-friendly piece. Still, while the evening prompts a lot of reflexive laughter, its earnestness exposes the play’s shallowest aspects: the overworked plot mechanics; the love story’s hollow core; the hero’s unbecoming self-absorption. By the time Cyrano shows up in the final scene, after having been clunked on the head by a particularly well-aimed log, the words “oh, brother” may have crossed your mind once or twice.
Many of the shortcomings can be redressed with, to quote Cyrano himself, some panache in the central portrayals. This happier circumstance elevated the 2007 Broadway revival with Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner, just as Geraint Wyn Davies carried Shakespeare Theatre Company’s cheekier, anachronism-spewing adaptation in 2004.
Hissom, an excellent Porter in Posner and magician Teller’s delightful “Macbeth” at Folger a few years ago, has the wry delivery required of Hollinger and Posner’s script. As for the panache: Well, there’s a deficiency here of larger-than-life-ness that renders suspect Cyrano’s implausible stunts. This guy, taking on 100 swordsmen? I don’t think so.
Neither do he and Withers exude much chemistry. You are supposed to believe at the night’s conclusion that Roxane realizes retroactively that she was in love with Cyrano all along. That teary catharsis never truly occurs; the relationship with Bobby Moreno’s thick-headed Christian, on whose behalf Cyrano writes the lyrical lines that bewitch Roxane, on this occasion seems to be the more promising one. Moreno offers one of the evening’s more nuanced portrayals, investing Christian with a dignified restraint.
The other performances range from very good — as always, Todd Scofield is your go-to guy for incisive support, here as a fatuous actor and fussy nurse — to bland: Craig Wallace’s portrayal of De Guiche reminds you less of a pompous French nobleman than of an assistant high school principal. The result is a show of admirable intention and minimal persuasiveness.
by Edmond Rostand in an adaptation by Michael Hollinger and Aaron Posner. Directed by Posner. Lighting, Thom Weaver; original music and sound, Veronika Vorel; fight director, Dale Anthony Girard. With Dan Crane, Chris Genebach, Richard Ruiz, Steve Hendrickson. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through June 5 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Call 202-544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu/theatre.