December 10, 2007
My first exposure to Cyrano de Bergerac was the film of the play starring José Ferrer. I was about 12 years old when I saw it, and I was swept away. Ferrer’s theatrical style and magnificent voice so superbly suited him to the role that all my life I had never really been able to imagine anyone else playing it.
I saw the film again on television a few years ago and felt the whole production held up very well; even though it was made as a showpiece for Ferrer, on a low budget with actors to match. A broad actor, and a heavy one at that, he refrained from what is known in the business as chewing the scenery and fleshed out the large-nosed poet with heart and soul. I realized how much the play itself really moved me when I enjoyed Steve Martin’s rendition of the part in his adaptation of the play to the movie Roxanne in the late 1980's.
I had only seen one live production of the play, at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival about 15 years ago, starring Greg Thornton. They did a nice job of it. I’m beginning to think the play may be actor-proof.
But the version I saw at a matinee Sunday was so superior to any experience I have had with the play – and just about superior to any experience I’ve ever had in any theatre – that I must share it with you.
Kevin Kline is among the best of American actors, especially suited to classical roles, and particularly offbeat ones like Cyrano. The play builds the entrance of the character beautifully, and Kline was set to climb onstage from one of the boxes when a spotlight went up on him. By the time the audience saw him we were primed to adore him. We burst into applause. He slyly silenced us as if to say, “Just wait.”
The translation varied slightly from the one I remember with Ferrer “And, as I end the refrain, thrust home!” became something like, “At the end, I hit,” but it was servicable and in some magical way, Kline made the language his own, as if the lines had not been said before. Usually in such a grand, old-school kind of role, the actor chosen has a rich and mellifluous voice (this gift can be a burden as well). Kline doesn’t have that kind of voice. He has a good voice, a stage voice, but not a stentorian one. His greatest stage gift is probably his combination of looks, agility, and intelligence. We understand what he is saying and we believe that he is this other-worldly creature with an unreal face and a heart the size of the moon. And he is funny, brilliantly hilarious actually, while at the same time modest and touching.
Jennifer Garner brought a contemporary charm to the role of Roxanne, a role usually little more than an accessory from which to dangle the plot. Garner was up for all the major scenes and, although as beautiful and elegant as any Roxanne could be, she seemed more three-dimensional and appealingly real in this production. Chris Sarandon had a rather good time with the evil Comte de Guiche, and Daniel Sunjata was effective as the hapless Christian de Neuvillette.
In plays such as this, probably thanks to my years of attending Alabama Shakespeare Festival productions, I have become accustomed to seeing black actors in the period roles. Sometimes this works very well, as was the case with the casting of John Douglas Thompson as Captain Le Bret. Here is an actor who can take stage in any role -- dynamic, powerful, elegant and sympathetic -- as he holds Cyrano’s secret to the end. And Conchetta Tomei, always in character and always “in” the scene, made me at times forget it wasn’t a play about the duenna.
The set was one of the most magnificent creations I have ever seen. Boasting a tall staircase at the rear, stretching from stage left to stage right and going right up for a good 100 feet, it was flexible as both interior and exterior. In one scene there’s a chandelier which rises and drops; in another the moon is as big as a Greyhound bus; in another a tree which Cyrano actually climbs, and the next time we see the tree it is horizontal in a besieged castle. In the last act the tree is dropping elegant red leaves in the abbey where Roxanne has consigned herself.
I could tell you every scene, but if you’re in New York before January 8, maybe you can get a ticket and see for yourself. If not, rent the movie with José Ferrer and join me in collecting Cyranos for a lifetime.
At the end of the performance we were giving them all the standing ovation they deserved, and tears were falling out of my eyes as I was thinking, “They nailed it! They nailed it!” Then Kevin Kline hushed us once again to tell us this performance was going to raise funds for Broadway Fights AIDS. Then he left the stage saying, “I’ll be back,” and Jennifer Garner explained that actors would be in the lobby collecting donations, selling signed posters for $100 each, and the cast had decided to auction off Cyrano’s nose, (autographed) with a starting bid of $400. Kevin Kline returned with the proboscus removed and signed it. Jennifer Garner kissed it, and Kline mouthed, "Now it's really worth something!" There was soon a bid, then another, and the damn thing went for $1,500! Not only did I see a performance of a lifetime, I was in the audience with a lot of high rollers.
An unforgettable Christmas present to myself.