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Chicago by John Olson

Cyrano de Bergerac
Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Also see John's review of The North China Lover


Harry Groener and Company
Cyrano is arguably one of the greatest male roles in theater and, equally arguably, there would be little point in seeing a production without a great performance in the leading role. No problems here—Chicago Shakespeare has Harry Groener in the title role and he seems uniquely qualified to play Rostand's 17th century warrior-poet with the oversized intellect, heart and nose. Groener brings to the role his chops both as a classical actor and a Broadway song and dance man. Cyrano is alternately a comedian, a swashbuckling fighter, a lover, a heroic figure and a tragic one. Groener takes us just where we need to be through each of these faces of Cyrano. He's larger than life when taking over the Theatre Beaujolais—stopping the performance of the untalented Montfleury but giving the audience an even better show of his own. At other points, Groener has comic subtlety and nuance in his impatience with the hypocrites and dim wits he sees around him. A dismissive flick of the wrist is all he requires to let us know what Cyrano is thinking. We never doubt his aching heart over his love for the cousin Roxane (Julie Jesneck) who he presumes finds him too ugly to consider him as a lover. His gradual acceptance of that idea is heartbreaking, as is his death at play's end. It's a wonderful performance and reason all on its own to make this production a must for anyone with Cyrano on their bucket list of plays to see.

The performances around Groener's Cyrano are a mixed bag. That's not so severe a problem given that Groener is speaking throughout at least half the play, I'd guess. Groener's best supporting players are Ross Lehman as the hapless baker Ragueneau and Sean Fortunato as his steadfast friend Le Bret. Aloysius Gigl makes a believably malevolent villain as the Count de Guiche. The other two leads, though, are problematic. As Christian, the new cadet in love with Roxane but too inarticulate to win her without the help of poet Cyrano, Nick Dillenburg is likable enough—a decent guy who ultimately wants to do the right thing—but as directed by Penny Metropulos, Dillenburg doesn't add anything unexpected to the role. Jesneck's Roxane, at least until the final scene, comes off as self-centered and shallow. Her only desire in a man, beyond sex appeal, is his ability to tell her in a myriad of ways how he loves her. Ms. Jesneck does show a transformation and increased maturity in the final scene, but before that, we don't feel she's good enough for Cyrano.

Metropulos is directing the 1970 translation by Anthony Burgess and it's a good one. Burgess managed to not only write in verse, as per the original 1897 French text by Edmond Rostand, but also maintains the florid feel of the original with an accessible, contemporary sensibility. The performances are frequently quite funny in the hands of this cast, and served up with great production design. Kevin Depinet's set includes rustic wooden stairways and towers, lit beautifully by Jesse Klug. Klug's lighting the for the act four battle scene—in which the set is bathed in a red suggestive of both dawn and the bloodshed of the fatal battle soon to come—is stunning. Susan E. Mickey dresses the cast in glorious costumes of 17th century France, topped with some marvelous wigs and makeup by Melissa Veal. There are laughs, romance and fighting (directed by Rick Sordelet), making a complete package of onstage spectacle.

For some, this Cyrano may be too much of these good things, though. It seems Metropulos has chosen not to cut the text—or if she has, it's cut by much less than it could have been. The show runs about three hours and ten minutes, including one fifteen-minute intermission. The Roundabout's New York revival a few years ago was, by comparison, a good half-hour shorter. Purists may approve—it gives the opportunity to hear lots and lots of the poetic speeches Rostand wrote for Cyrano, and Groener's energy never flags in delivering them. Those simply interested in following the plot and the swashbuckling may find the production unnecessarily overlong. If seeing a big, expertly done performance of the complete Cyrano text is something you crave, though, this one qualifies.

Cyrano de Bergerac will play through November 10, 2013, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, Chicago. For reservations, visit www.chicagoshakes.com or call 312-595-5600.


Photo: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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