Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac immediately took the world by greater storm than any other play in the history of the theatre. And today it still easily holds its position as the towering peak of 19th-century French drama.
A few critics complain that it is not a "well-made play" a la Sardou--something it had no intention of being. Cyrano's unity is emotional, not academic. It presents an ideal attitude, tests it for three acts, and verifies it in the last act. The attitude here, as in Rostand's other works, is, as Rostand himself put it, "the need to preserve one's dream; to have eyes which, seeing the ugly, can see the beautiful all the same." Consequently, it is a play whose focus and mood is always rapidly changing, like a kaleidoscope.
The play is an idealized portrait of the real Cyrano, but is based on as careful research as any of Sir Walter Scott's historical novels. The 17th century is seen through 19th-century eyes, but the Baroque and Romantic eras had almost the same cultural spirit.
Under Jerome Kilty's resourceful direction, the Group 20 Players have come up with a production that preserves the grand sweep of the work and captures its many facets. It is a glorious extravaganza--a huge cast of some seventy or eighty complete with child acrobats and jugglers, not to mention the dazzlingly colorful costumes--but one in which Kilty has taken great pains with the blocking and with fine details. And when he stages a big battle scene, it has all the trimmings. (He is using the wonderfully rolling translation that Brian Hooker made for the actor Walter Hampden.)
Kilty's only error is his staging of Cyrano's improvised ballade duel. But then I have never seen this scene done correctly outside of France. This is supposed to be a feat to epater les bourgeois. And the feat lies neither in expert swordplay nor in improvising a poem about it, but rather in doing both simultaneously. The duelling should be done strictly in time with the flowing cadences of the verse. But here there are so many pauses between phrases and lines that the stunning effect of the tour de force is lost; the tongue and the wit defer to the foot and the blade.
The demanding title role is in the masterly hands of Barry Morse. Though still suffering on opening night from a throat and lung infection, he insisted with true Bergeracquian heroism on playing anyway. His performance certainly did not suffer, except for an occasionally gravelly voice. Morse can summon the panache, the spirit of bravura that the role requires. He becomes in turn all the things that make up Cyrano's character--braggadocio, courageous soldier, learned wit, testy quarreler, gallant lover, poetic lyricist, resigned indigent, noble altruist and pathetic but proud moribund. He gets a lot of variety out of his famous Nose Speech; and he correctly performs his Moon Travel Scene with a foreign accent. His Cyrano is first-rate acting.
Nancy Wickwire is a beautiful and compelling Roxane; but she should look older at the end, for Rostand jumped ahead 15 or 16 years here, as Shakespeare had done in A Winter's Tale. Michael Higgins is excellent as the ardent but inarticulate Christian; he can convey earnestness as well as anyone in the company. Michael Lewis is a strong and brusque Comte de Guiche. Sorrell Booke makes a lovable Ragueneau, the baker whose heart lies in trying to write verse rather than in selling pastry (did anyone ever better deserve the name of poetaster?). And there are other laudable performances in Rostand's roster.
This production definitely earns Kilty and his players a big white plume!