by Lynn on March 29, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, until May 8, 2022

Written by Edmond Rostand

Translated and adapted for the stage by Kate Hennig

Directed by Chris Abraham

Set and costumes by Julie Fox

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Original music and sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Cast: David Adams

Kyle Blair

Jason Cadieux

Sharry Flett

Patrick Galligan

Katherine Gauthier

Deborah Hay

Jeff Irving

Marie Mahabal

Michael Man

Marla McLean

Nafeesa Monroe

Tom Rooney

Kiera Sangster

And exquisite production in almost every way that slightly stumbles with gender-bending casting.

The Story. Cyrano de Bergerac has always loved his cousin Roxane since the time they were children when they played together. She always appreciated his friendship. Cyrano grew to be a formidable swordsman (he’s a member of an elite troop of soldiers), poet, esthete, bon vivant and lover of art and beauty. But for all his accomplishments Cyrano was crippled with insecurity about his pronounced nose. For him it defined him. He assumed that that was all people considered when they thought of him, especially his cousin. Assumption is a terrible thing.

But one day Roxane wanted to meet Cyrano to talk and he thought his luck might change and she would love him as he loved her. In fact Roxane had fallen in love on sight with a handsome new cadet in the troop named Christian and Roxane wanted Cyrano to act as a go-between. Soul-crushing, but he did it.

It turned out that Christian also fell in love on sight with Roxane and since Christian could not express himself in the poetic terms that thrilled Roxane, he had Cyrano act as his go-between. In a sense Cyrano wooed Roxane with his words, but through the beauty of Christian.   

The Production and comment. Edmond Rostand’s wonderful play was first done in Paris in 1897. Kate Hennig, theatre-creator-extraordinaire, adapted Rostand’s play where it was first done at the Shaw in 2019 and now after a COVID hiatus is being revived with a few cast changes.

Kate Hennig has done away with the rhyming couplets of Rostand’s original play but been true to the soul, heart and spirit of this heart-squeezing epic. The language is lush, the emotions are high and the all-embracing love in the piece envelopes the characters and the audience as one.

Director Chris Abraham has filled the small Royal George Theatre stage with the rambunctious, bustling, heightened world of Paris in 1640. Abraham has also created scenes of such aching intimacy between Cyrano and Roxane that you are aware of the profound silence as we all hold our breaths for fear of missing a word.  

At the beginning of the play the French ‘theatre crowd’ is ready for a fight. Cyrano (Tom Rooney) has threatened an actor not to appear on the stage because he’s terrible. The actor ignores him and everybody waits for Cyrano to appear. Cyrano doesn’t disappoint.

With what seems like effortlessness Tom Rooney illuminates Cyrano’s panache and elegant brashness as he dispatches all comers who dare challenge him or look at his nose. Cyrano is emboldened when he can get the better of De Guiche (Patrick Galligan)—a man who covets Roxane (Deborah Hay). Because Roxane is also there at the theatre Cyrano acts with a fearlessness that subtly tries to win her favour. In all these moments and so much more, Tom Rooney is consumed with the spirit of Cyrano.

While Roxane is almost giddy with the favour of Christian (Jeff Irving), she is also a woman with deeper emotions and sensibilities. Deborah Hay as Roxane plums the depths of this exquisite character as she shimmers with the love of Christian, but wants more from him, deeper language and sentiments, and she gets it via Cyrano. It’s a beautiful thing to see Deborah Hay’s Roxane ease into the beauty of Cyrano’s words as said by Christian. There is such conviction in her dept of emotion as she falls in love with the words and not just the superficiality of Christian’s looks. As Christian, Jeff Irving has the confidence of a man who knows the power of being handsome. But Irving also realizes Christian’s insecurity when he knows that Roxane is a lover of words and poetry and he, Christian can’t rise to the mark. It’s a truly emotional moment when Christian realizes that Roxane is in love with the words of Cyrano and therefore, is really in love with Cyrano, before Cyrano does. Christian is a complex character and Jeff Irving beautifully realizes this multi-faceted man.

As De Guiche, Patrick Galligan plays him as a man to the manor born. This is a world of silks, ribbons, bows and artifice (kudos to designer Julie Fox) and Galligan has the swagger and elegance of De Guiche right down to the stockinged leg. What is also evident in this bristling performance is that De Guiche is dangerous.

As Roxane’s Companion, Sharry Flett is watchful, knowing and whimsical. It’s a lovely performance. Also noteworthy, is Kyle Blair as Ragueneau, a man more in love with his flowery poetry than his pastries.

I can appreciate that in the changing theatre world gender-bending casting is employed to shake things up or change perceptions. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In several cases in this production women play men and it’s less than successful.  While this world of 1640 is one of artifice and affectation, the men, and certainly the swash-buckling Cadets, are not one-noted, blustering stereotypes, which too often is how they are played.

When Cyrano challenges Valvert (Katherine Gauthier) to a duel he says he will recite a poem in the process. Valvert can’t be less than a true challenge to Cyrano or the scene has less at stake. In this instance Gauthier (an otherwise fine actor) seems to screech and squeal when Cyrano makes a hit. This weakens the scene.

Le Bret (Nafeesa Monroe) is a supremely confident Musketeer and Cyrano’s long-time friend. There is loyalty there. Le Bret is the one in whom Cyrano confides about his love for Roxane. When Cyrano returns from the meeting with Roxane he is naturally upset but tries to hide it from Le Bret with off-handed remarks. Le Bret is wise to his friend and challenges him saying “What’s happened?” And Cyrano replies, “Shut up.” Then Le Bret twigs, “Roxane doesn’t love you.” The line is heartbreaking. Le Bret’s realization of this is heartbreaking. But too often Nafeesa Monroe plays Le Bret with stereotypical swagger and posturing. And she just throws away the line, “Roxane doesn’t love you,” and looses the scene. And that too is heartbreaking.

Too often in this production when women play men they go for the obviousness of bellowing and swagger and not the subtleties and depth of the characters.

But at its heart, is the heart and soul of Cyrano de Bergerac thanks largely to Tom Rooney as Cyrano and Deborah Hay as Roxane. The last intimate scene alone is worth the price of admission, said so quietly but clearly, that the silence is resounding. You can’t get that quality of silence anywhere but the theatre. Welcome back.    

The Shaw Festival presents:

Plays until May 8, 2022.

Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes (with one intermission)

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