By Carol Rocamora . . .
What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name “Cyrano?”
You beat me to it! I heard you say it before I could write it. The NOSE, of course. That legendary proboscis that has made Edmund Rostand’s 1897 classic so iconic, as well as lasting.
Rostand drew his protagonist from a glamorous French historical figure, Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655)—a swashbuckling swordsman, poet and playwright, prone to picking fights and fighting duels. It was French essayist Théophile Gautier who suggested that the real Cyrano had a huge, grotesque nose. Whether fact or fiction, it became legend—and the inspiration for Rostand’s verse play. Cyrano de Bergerac was an instant hit and earned Rostand celebrity status and a Legion of Honor decoration, conferred upon him the night after the play opened in Paris in 1879.
Now part of world classical literature, this legendary role has been played by innumerable great stage actors, including Ralph Richardson, Derek Jacobi, Christopher Plummer, and Kevin Kline; and on-screen by Jose Ferrer, Gerard Depardieu, and Steve Martin. Their common physical feature? A grotesque, fake nose, of course.
So what could be more radical and risky than a modern adaptation of this classic that actually OMITS the nose? “What?!” you say. Yes, that’s right. And that’s not all. Martin Crimp’s inspired new adaptation of Cyrano has forsaken a lot more than the famous proboscis. Crimp has set it in modern times and written it not in verse as Rostand did, but rather as a rap, accompanied by an onstage Beatbox. “They say he came through his mother’s vagina/the nose poked out first as a painful reminder,” says a character about Cyrano in the provocative prologue. From that bold couplet you get a sense of the rhythm and flavor of this sensational adaptation that hurls the story headlong into the 21st century.
That famous nose will be mentioned over and over again throughout this daring, thrilling, two-hou and forty-minute version. Nevertheless, its protagonist, played by the charismatic James McAvoy, wears the nose he was born with. With such a challenge to the original and a subversion of audience expectation, the production’s audacious collaborators—adapter Crimp, star McAvoy, and director Jamie Lloyd—offer a fresh approach to this cherished classic. We gain new insight into the true Cyrano because of that absent protuberance. We listen to the words, rather than focus on the face. Gone, too, are the set and costume elements of 1640, the year in which the play is set. What we see and hear is the essence of a timeless love story and a celebration of beauty, heroism, and the power of the words that express them.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s stately Harvey Theater, with its traditional architecture and peeling paint, provides an ideal space for this inspired new-age vision of a sacred classic. An exuberant eighteen-member cast enters Soutra Gilmour’s empty, white stage in casual, modern dress, and is introduced one by one (corresponding with Rostand’s original characters). There’s Valvert, Cyrano’s rival (Nari Blair-Mangat); the power-hungry de Guiche (Tom Edden); the handsome but tongue-tied Christian (Eben Figueiredo); among others (all based on contemporaries of the real, historic Cyrano, by the way). They all ridicule Cyrano for his physical deformity, but Cyrano fights back with his own special strengths. His passion for words gives him clarity and confidence, and his prowess as a poet and swordsman inspires admiration. He defies those who ridicule him with the power of his words: “I will sing my own tune/cling to the dark side of my own moon/I need that hate/need them to isolate/me so that I can create.”
The through-line of Rostand’s original story is there, told in Crimp’s mesmerizing new-age rap-verse, accompanied by a Beatboxer (Vaneeka Dadhrira). When Cyrano’s beautiful cousin Roxanne (Evelyn Miller), object of his love since childhood, confesses to him that she’s smitten with the handsome Christian, at first Cyrano is devastated. Because of his deformity, Cyrano has never dared to declare his own love for her. (“It’s bad enough to be ugly/but to be ugly and in love,” he laments). When asked by both Roxanne and Christian to help develop their relationship, however, Cyrano finds that by writing love letters to her over Christian’s signature, and even impersonating Christian’s voice in the famous love scene, he is able to sublimate his love in verbal expression. (“This’ll work,” Cyrano cries. “I’ve seen it in a film with Steve Martin!”) Meanwhile, Roxanne is seduced by the beauty of the poetry, and falls deeply in love with its author (whom she does not realize is, indeed, Cyrano).
You know the rest of the story. Roxanne and Christian marry, though their bond is not consummated before Cyrano and Christian go to war. Cyrano continues to write magnificent love letters over Christian’s signature, until Christian is killed. (In Rostand’s original, Roxanne enters a monastery—but not in Crimp’s version. She goes on to have numerous affairs, but never falls in love.) In the final scene, set fifteen years later, when Cyrano is dying, the true authorship of the love letters is finally revealed to Roxanne (this is no spoiler—it’s a classic and you already know the ending).
Jamie Lloyd’s staging is arresting and ingenious. At times he has the entire ensemble on stage, moving them masterfully to the rapid flow of rap. At other times, he stages a succession of two-character encounters by placing four chairs on stage and having various actors switch places for their interchanges. In the famous love scene (originally featuring Roxanne on a balcony and Christian beneath her, mouthing the poetry that Cyrano recites from behind a tree), Lloyd reduces it to the stunning simplicity of two actors, Cyrano and Roxanne, seated on a bare platform facing downstage. Cyrano (as Christian) recites a hypnotic, passionate declaration of love in a low, husky voice and a rich Scottish burr (McAvoy’s own) that seduces the entire audience, along with Roxanne. “The whole world shimmers and I burn and I burn with love,” McAvoy incants, and the audience is mesmerized.
McAvoy brings star power to the role from the moment he enters the stage wearing black jeans and a black leather jacket. His physical stage presence is electrifying, his movements are agile and graceful, and his range of expression is dazzling—from brave and bold to vulnerable and heartbroken. As the beautiful Roxanne, Evelyn Miller is a towering six-foot presence of a self-assured modern woman (dressed in a jeans suit) with a beautiful command of the eloquent words Crimp has given her. She radiates confidence and, at the same time, warmth and honesty.
Thanks to this inspired collaboration, we are treated to a celebration of true love, heroism, and the notion that beauty is to be found in the poetic, not in the physical. These insights are delivered in a language and style for our times that is captivating, invigorating, and at the same time deeply moving.
At one point in the play, as the ensemble enacts a scene downstage, an actor is painting a phrase on an upstage wall. The process takes approximately 15 minutes. At its conclusion, we finally read in bold letters: “ I LOVE WORDS. THAT’S ALL.” This stunning Cyrano is a triumph of the power of words and the theater itself. Rostand would have been pleased.
Cyrano de Bergerac. Through May 21 at The Brooklyn Academy of Music in the BAM Strong’s Harvey Theater (651 Fulton Street, Downtown Brooklyn). www.bam.org/cyrano
Photos: Marc Brenner