Thursday, February 2, 2012

Review: (Ottawa) Cyrano de Bergerac

The Nose Knows
Cyrano at the Gladstone with a bang-on translation and splendid cast
by Jim Murchison

Cyrano de Bergerac has inspired countless versions of itself. To many actors and directors it is what brought them to the theatre in the first place. It certainly has been a favourite of mine as long as I can remember. I was thinking this before I read David Whiteley’s comments on the play which eloquently paraphrased my own thoughts and all those whop love the theatre. Whiteley’s respect and passion are obvious in a translation that I believe is very accessible without losing any of the power or grace of the period or the poetry.
The challenge for Whiteley as a director was to take a very grand tale and fit it to a rather intimate space, capturing the epic bravado without things seeming too cramped or stagey and frankly keeping the audience safe in the midst of an abundance of swordplay. Except for some very minor glitches that will work themselves out during the run of the play, he succeeded quite well. At one point the action threatens to spill into the house and the actors effectively use humour to pull the choreography back to a safe place.
Edmond Rostand based his most famous work very loosely on a real life figure of the sixteenth century, who was a dramatist and a duelist who had a cousin named Roxanne. The play however is by no means a biography. It is an epic tale of adventure and love and definitely fictional.  Rostand does not let the occasion of some historical accuracy get in the way of grand story-telling. 
Cyrano de Bergerac, despite his arrogance, is so nearly perfect in action and principle that all of his pompousness is forgiven; by his friends anyway. He will spend everything he has for no other reason than the effect is good and the gesture is grand and noble. In a battle of wits he is without peer, for the thrust of his sharp tongue is the only thing surer than the deftness of his swordsmanship. 
Richard Gelinas plays the brash uncompromising side of Cyrano well, but what makes the character poignant is when he reveals the depth of his cowardice and the frailty of his ego in hiding from his true love. The fight most worth fighting is the only one he is afraid of losing. We respect his quest to be “admirable in everything” and his disdain for “poor moral hygiene” but we empathize and relate to his fear and loathing of his physical self, which Gelinas performs beautifully.
Warren Bain as Christian is a dumbstruck adolescent in Roxanne’s presence and an intellectual infant next to Cyrano. At first it appears that Christian and Cyrano have nothing in common, but an unusual alliance of two men is formed to capture a single heart. Cyrano has the wit and soul and Christian the good looks. Neither of them is confident in themselves completely so they collaborate with each other. They are admiring and jealous simultaneously. In the end their mutual, uncompromising love for Roxanne is the unifying element that cements their respect for each other despite their differences.
Roxanne (Elise Gauthier) is beautiful of soul and spirit and moves and speaks with grace. Her quiet moments come through loud and clear. She evokes the spirit of a poetess even in silence but she is not a shrinking violet. She is demanding of her suitors and passionate in her speech. Gauthier’s move from school girl crush to profound, real love is central to the conflict and evolution of the play and she performs it without a false note.
The cast of villains and friends supports the action well. One memorable scene is Zach Counsil as Montfleury, a scenery chewing actor who hams to hilarious effect. Another moment is when Tim Oberholzer’s arrogant Valvert gets locked into a losing battle with Cyrano as well.
Stewart Matthews is solid as Le Bret, a friend, confidante and sometimes conscience of Cyrano. He is aware of the boundaries but confident enough in their friendship that he is not afraid to point out the folly of Cyrano’s vanity.
Chris Ralph plays the thoroughly likeable Ragueneau. His easy-going smile is as welcome as the food and the free flowing wine that he brings with him when times are tough. Ralph is particularly skilled at making verse conversational.
In a time when everything has to be bigger and better, where Superstores and Megashows dominate and effects are more celebrated than story, it is very nice to see an epic tale cracked open to reveal an intimate portrait of love and loss that moves the heart and soul.

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