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REVIEW: Powerful, Beautiful Cyrano de Bergerac (Guthrie Theater)

Jay O. Sanders as Cyrano de Bergerac, surrounded by the cast of the Guthrie Theater’s production of the same name. Photo by T Charles Erickson.

There are moments in the Guthrie Theater’s new production of Cyrano de Bergerac where the audience hangs on every word spoken by Jay O. Sanders. Moments where the only sounds not emanating from the stage are the faint gasps and murmurs of an audience raptly sitting on the edge of its seats. These are carefully chosen, elegantly crafted moments where you could hear a pin drop in the theatre. How these moments emerge are the outstanding virtue of director Joseph Haj’s new performing edition of Cyrano de Bergerac, which premiered this past weekend at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

Many things can change in the adaptation of a play or its translation, especially when deciding to make cuts. Cyrano has been played as a near-farcical comedy and as a drama of the most serious order, and it is a strength of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 French play that it can play well in each. Haj’s direction emphasizes the comedic aspects for much of the play, with those select scenes slipping almost unexpectedly into blossoming into lines of such poetic beauty as to melt the hardest heart. Left on the cutting room floor are pieces like Cyrano’s famous moon speech, an analogue to the famous Porter scene in Macbeth or the Queen Mab monologue in Romeo and Juliet. Purists will miss it, but a viewer seeing Cyrano for the first time will see nothing conspicuously absent.

Cyrano (Jay O. Sanders) helps Christian (Robert Lenzi) court Roxane (Jennie Greenberry) in Cyrano de Bergerac’s famous garden/balcony scene. Photo by T Charles Erickson.

Haj’s script is credited as being principally derived from the the 1898 translation by Gladys Thomas and Mary F. Guillemard, to the separate translation of the same year by Gertrude Hall, and to Haj’s own work. The debt to the Thomas/Guillemard translation is quite clear, although without that edition’s affected archaisms. (At the time, there was a fashion for writing new English plays in the style of Shakespeare.) Haj’s script is also sprinkled with quotations from the original French – notably in the famous rapier-and-wit’s-edge duel, where it’s repeated multiple times for comedic effect – and characters tend to slip into more poetic lines as they grow more introspective. If the result doesn’t capture all the wonderful nuances of Rostand’s French original, it is nevertheless a fine middle ground in the world of translation. (The Guthrie Theater has produced Cyrano twice before, using the Hooker translation in the 1985-1986 season and the Burgess translation in 1971-1972.)

As might be expected in a play named after its title character, Cyrano de Bergerac hangs more than anything on the panache of its leading man. Jay O. Sanders does not disappoint, commanding the theatre from his first entry striding onto stage. His performance captures Cyrano’s strength, bluster, and wit, but also his vulnerability. Several of the monologues that Sanders delivers are shoe-in candidates for end-of-year favorites lists, especially the balcony/garden scene, and the last letter to Roxane is as powerfully evocative in his rendering as it is heartbreaking.

Another thing that this edition of the play does is collapse its focus around Cyrano and Roxane. Both Christian (Robert Lenzi) and the Comte de Guiche (Cameron Folmar) have noticeably smaller roles, and are played much more for comedic effect than you might recall in a previous viewing of the play. This Christian is a little on the dim side and de Guiche very much the dandy and fop; their scenes are shorter, making more emotional time for Cyrano and Roxane, and more space to laugh at elements like the Duenna (Charity Jones)’s fawning adoration for Cyrano. This story unfolds less as the love triangle (or quadrangle) that is sometimes played, and wraps around the kind of torchbearing that makes you ache in sympathy. Who hasn’t ever pined over a secret love, or felt thoughts bubbling up inside that they worry could never truly be expressed and heard?

Cyrano (Jay O. Sanders)’s famous nose requires a freshly built prosthetic for each performance. Photo by T Charles Erickson.

The pivot to Cyrano’s lever is, of course, Jennie Greenberry’s performance as Roxane, which sells the other half of the equation. Greenberry not only brings to life the object of Cyrano and Christian’s love, but also shows us as the audience the charm that beguiled them. She is also, very importantly, the window through which we see how Cyrano’s letters and poetry land, and her reactions give the audience license to feel what Roxane the character feels. It’s an indelible and inseparable aspect of a powerful production that, although comedic in much of its arc, makes the audience both sigh with delight and brush away tears.

There have been many area performances in recent years that have been inspired by Cyrano de Bergerac – musical adaptations, a posthumous sequel, and more. Whatever their virtues, the real article has always proven superior, and the Guthrie’s new production of Cyrano de Bergerac is not to be missed.

Due to a communications error by the Guthrie Theater, the source English translations of the play were identified in an earlier version of this review as those by Brian Hooker and Anthony Burgess.

Cyrano de Bergerac runs through May 5 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN.

Basil Considine

Basil Considine is the Performing Arts Editor and Senior Classical Music and Drama Critic at the Twin Cities Arts Reader. He was previously the Resident Classical Music and Drama Critic at the Twin Cities Daily Planet and remains an occasional contributing writer for The Boston Musical Intelligencer and The Chattanoogan. He holds a PhD in Music and Drama from Boston University, an MTS in Sacred Music from the BU School of Theology, and a BA in Music and Theatre from the University of San Diego.

Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.
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