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Regional Reviews: Los Angeles


Cyrano


Troy Kotsur and Paul Raci
Troy Kotsur was born to play Cyrano. Honestly, I hadn't been sure he'd be up to it, as my only previous experience with his work was his broad comedy in Big River and Sleeping Beauty Wakes. But, holy cow, Kotsur is Cyrano, from the second he walks on stage, in Stephen Sachs's modern-day updating of Rostand. Kotsur's Cyrano is a true poet in a room full of pretenders; he swaggers into a Poetry Jam at a local watering hole and demands that the moron on stage stop polluting the environment. He's confident, quick-thinking, and, above all, eloquent. By the time he has finished teaching a numbskull proper insulting technique, and composed a poem while kicking his ass (Sachs's adaptation covers all the key scenes you'd expect), he has surely won over the crowd. Indeed, if there's anyone in the room who hasn't been charmed by Cyrano's flair, the problem is with them, not him.

And the problem is with them. Because in this adaptation, it isn't Cyrano's nose that gets in the way, but his hands. Cyrano is deaf, and finds himself running up against jerks who see him as someone who can't hear, can't speak, and flails his arms around in a wasteful and senseless attempt to make his presumably childish thoughts understood. Blinded by their own prejudice, they can't see beyond his disability to the extraordinary individual standing right in front of them. It is very much their loss.

It all rolls off Cyrano's back until, of course, his thoughts turn to Roxy, with whom he is secretly smitten. When that happens, Kotsur's cocky and defiant Cyrano melts away to reveal a man who magnifies his perceived flaws until he's a mass (but still an articulate one) of self-doubt and insecurity. Unless you truly have been living under a rock, you know where things are going when Cyrano excitedly receives a text message that Roxy wants to meet him. It's very nearly painful to watch him get his hopes up, knowing that he'll be devastated when she reveals that her real interest is in "hooking up" with his brother, Chris—the long-haired, much-tattooed, unsuccessful rock musician.

The very best Deaf West productions (Big River clearly among them) are those in which the use of ASL and simultaneous interpretation adds something to the original play. In this, a co-production with the Fountain, the additions are nothing short of amazing. Sachs's adaptation makes deafness a natural fit for Cyrano, exploring the relationship between Cyrano and Chris in ways in which Rostand never did (but, perhaps, should have), while, at the same time, using the framework of the tale to say something about the issues facing deaf people today. (Not to mention that, having left Cyrano's nose out of the equation, Sachs doesn't have to try to come up with any more nose-related insults, and his fresh jokes make for one of the funnier Cyranos I've seen in ages.)

A very cool taste: When Cyrano first enters the club, interrupting the Poetry Jam, his brother interprets for him. This is different from what you might recall from other Deaf West productions, when a hearing actor provides the voice for a deaf one, both playing a character who is not specifically deaf or hearing. Here, Cyrano is actually a deaf character, he's signing in a room full of hearing people, and Chris is actually interpreting for him. And Chris, to put it bluntly, sucks at it. Don't get me wrong, he understands the words his brother is saying, he just isn't all that good at putting them across. Cyrano is signing poetry with beauty and expressive elegance; Chris is spitting out the same words with a stilted, awkward delivery. And I thought, "if I have to sit through the entire play with Chris voicing Cyrano, I'm going to go mad." But I didn't. Because Chris isn't voicing Cyrano; he's just interpreting for him. When Cyrano soliloquizes or is having a conversation in ASL, a different actor, Victor Warren, voices him, and he's genuinely good at it—acting the role, rather than just saying the words. It makes Chris's limited abilities seem all the more limited, but it also makes you realize that even when Cyrano has his brother around to interpret for him, a hell of a lot is getting lost in Chris's translation.

This fits so perfectly into the plot of the story that I'm surprised I didn't see it coming. When Cyrano suggests that he tell Chris what to say to Roxy, he's basically suggesting an arrangement they've been using for years; only this time, the listener will think the words have a different origin. Chris is open to the idea because he knows his brother is much more articulate than he is (which neatly explains why his interpretation sounds so bad). "Voicing you," says Chris, "makes my words get better."

So, Sachs's Cyrano gives you the standard Rostand love triangle, complicated by Cyrano and Chris being brothers who have, for years, depended on each other. It also adds in texting, email, and YouTube (rumors of Cyrano's exploits travel so much faster in cyberspace); and a deaf Cyrano who (to the aggravation of many of his friends) refuses to be a full part of the Deaf community. Not to mention that, as Sachs's play is "inspired by" Rostand's original, rather than a faithful translation, one does not actually know how Cyrano and Chris's deception will play out, which allows the audience to become more emotionally involved.

It isn't perfect. Opening night technical issues had a text message conversation on an overhead screen out of sync with the actors sending and reading the texts on stage. Sachs's script feels strained in places, when Cyrano keeps complaining about his hands. (Interesting that he rarely, if ever, directly complains about his deafness—but any idiot looking at the beauty in his hands can tell that they are one of his best assets.) A subsidiary character or two seem a bit underwritten (and underplayed). And there were a few too many your-bad-poetry-smells-like-farts jokes for my taste.

But, on the whole, this Cyrano is a dazzling accomplishment, a terrific adaptation which takes the essence of Rostand, makes Cyrano's physical issues so much more dramatically interesting than a big nose, throws in a dash of modern-day tech, and puts the whole thing in the hands of a very capable crew of actors, whose hands are more than up to the challenge.

Cyrano plays at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles through June 10, 2012. For tickets and information, see www.FountainTheatre.com.

The Fountain Theatre and Deaf West Theatre present the world premiere of Cyrano written by Stephen Sachs, inspired by Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand. Set Design Jeff McLaughlin; Lighting Design Jeremy Pivnick; Costume Design Naila Aladdin Sanders; Composer/Sound Design Peter Bayne; Video Design Jeffrey Elias Teeter; Media Equipment/Consultant Media Fabricators; Prop Design Misty Carlisle; Fight Choreographer Brian Danner; ASL Masters Tyrone Giordano and Shoshannah Stern. Production Stage Manager Sue Karutz; Assistant Stage Manager Terri Roberts; Technical Director Scott Tuomey; Publicist Lucy Pollak. Produced by David Kurs, Laura Hill and Deborah Lawlor; Directed by Simon Levy.

Cast:
Monty, Voice of Bill - James Babbin
Cyrano - Troy Kotsur
Chris - Paul Raci
Jim - Chip Bent
Voice of Chris and Ensemble - Al Bernstein
Roberta, Voice of Ensemble - Martica de Cardenas
Bill - Bob Hiltermann
Voice of Cyrano - Victor Warren
Ensemble - Eddie Buck
Ensemble - Maleni Chaitoo
Ensemble - Daniel Durant
Ensemble, Deaf Poet - Ipek D. Mehlum
Roxy - Erinn Anova

Photo: Ed Krieger


- Sharon Perlmutter




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