Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Cyrano de Bergerac
Guthrie Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Sisters of Peace, The Beldenville Troll, Mother Courage and Her Children, School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play


Robert Lenzi and Jay O. Sanders
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
After almost four years as Artistic Director of the Guthrie Theater and helming six productions on the Wurtele Thrust Stage, Joseph Haj makes his directing debut on the McGuire Proscenium Stage with a dazzling staging of Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac. Working from two of the earliest English translations from the original French, one by Gertrude Hall and another by Gladys Thomas and Mary F. Guillemard, along with his own working knowledge of French, Haj adapted the play for a production at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill in 2006. After further revision, that adaption now graces the proscenium stage, where it overflows with beautifully crafted language, daring swordplay, painfully unrequited love, and that most ineffable quality, panache.

The classic tale is set in the year 1640 in Paris, at a garrison in the French town of Arras, then under the control of the Spanish Netherlands. It tells of Cyrano, a genius at poetry and a menace at swordplay. He is unafraid to face any and all adversaries but becomes a total coward when it comes to love. The reason for that is his extraordinarily large nose, about which he dares anyone to whisper the slightest word, at risk of meeting the tip of his sword. He is certain that no woman could love him with a face like that—at least not the woman he dreams of, whom he as adored since they were children together, his cousin Roxane. Roxane confesses to him that she is in love with Christian, a handsome new recruit to the corps of cadets in which Cyrano is an officer. When she asks Cyrano to protect Christian from the hazing of the other soldiers, his heart aches, but his love for Roxane forces him to agree.

Cyrano learns that Christian is smitten with Roxane as well, but the young man is tongue-tied with women, unable to express his affection in anything but the most doltish language. Cyrano recognizes the irony—that he has the gift of poetry but not the physical beauty to win Roxane, while Christian has the gift of outer beauty but lacks fluency with the language of romance. Cyrano conceives of a partnership, where his words and Christian's face join forces to win Roxane's heart. It is clear that this cannot end well, at least not for Cyrano. In the end, fourteen years after the grim realities of the siege at Arras where both Christian and Cyrano do battle with the enemies of France, Roxane and Cyrano face the truth of what transpired between them, and what has been lost.

Though it ends on a melancholy note, there is much comedy in Cyrano de Bergerac, primarily in the first scene, with Cyrano's verbal duels exuding wit, and his good friend Ragueneau, baker to the poets, knowingly looking away while reciting his latest poem, the better to allow the starving poets who cavort in his shop to steal his pastries. There is humor also in Christian's hopeless attempts to construct his own expressions of passion, saved in the nick of time by Cyrano's linguistic largesse. Roxane's Duenna, like Juliet's nurse in Romeo and Juliet, is another figure who adds humor to the story. Between the abundant humor, the vitality of dueling blades, the sweetness of its romance, its stark depiction of war's deprivation, and the wisdom of lessons to be learned, Rostand endowed Cyrano de Bergerac with everything a play could hope to offer. It is not surprising that it was a huge success upon its premiere in 1897, and continues to be popular among producers and theatergoers to this day.

Haj presents Cyrano as a work of beauty, allowing both the comedy and the rough edges of the story their due, but focusing on the Cyrano-Roxane-Christian relationship as the core of the work. Upon entering the McGuire, the audience is met by McKay Coble's ornately crafted stage set, a monumentally sized curio cabinet two stories high with a balcony to access the upper level of drawers and cabinet doors, which are intricately painted in red and gold, suggesting both enormous wealth and the value placed in housing one's prized possessions in chambers which themselves are to be prized. This image of abundant splendor is soon turned on its head as the play begins, for drawers are pulled out of the curio cabinet and turned on end to become benches, while cabinet doors become the stage on which a foppish actor becomes the target of Cyrano's viperish wit. In act two, the cabinet is turned around and its unfinished, rough-hewn rear side serves as a fitting backdrop for the anguish at the garrison at Arras.

To populate the ingenious set, Jan Chambers has designed opulent costumes for the first act, set in theaters, cafes and villas, drawn down to ragged uniforms at the garrison, and finally, the stark black and white of nuns' habits in the convent that becomes Roxane's home. Rui Rita's lighting and Elisheba Ittoop's sound designs likewise contribute to a production that ravages the senses.

But the human actors must project the heart of this tale and must rise above the beauty of surroundings, just as Cyrano demonstrates that the inner expression of the heart offers, in the end, a more powerful and durable love than the thrill of physical beauty. Jay O. Sanders, a veteran actor with Broadway and Off-Broadway credits, makes his first Minnesota appearance as Cyrano, and brings magnetic life-force to the poet-soldier, whether it is dashing out brilliant verse to subdue his critics, engaging in two-handed swordplay, dispatching assailants like lined-up dominoes, or mooning painfully over the impossibility of his love. His Roxane, Jennie Greenberry (wonderful in Haj's Pericles a few seasons back), is perfectly matched. She is indeed beautiful, but moreover, exudes intelligence enough to appreciate the power of words as a partner to the passion of physical attraction, and grit enough to endure when the going gets rough, in her own way as brave as Cyrano.

Robert Lenzi, as Christian, has the handsome looks to believably have drawn Roxane's attention, but not the gravitas to ever be a real competitor with Cyrano. He is good-hearted and sincere but lacking in depth. Perhaps this is how it should be. Though the plot turns in ways that never allow it to happen, it seems plain that, in time, had all gone "well," Roxane would have become dissatisfied with Christian, for he is no match for her.

In other roles, Ansa Akyea brings joy-de-vivre to the baker Ragueneau, and Remy Auberjonois is appealing as Cyrano's friend Le Bret. As Count de Guiche, a frustrated suitor of Roxane who holds power over Cyrano, Cameron Folmar downplays the villainous aspect usually given to this role, making him human in a way that plays as more authentic. In two small roles, Charity Jones is delightful as the Duenna, and brings calming wisdom to her portrayal of Mother Marguerite. The remainder of the large cast give rousing performances in multiple roles.

Jack Herrick has composed jaunty music for this production, which includes a couple of songs that are fair entertainment in themselves but do nothing to propel the play, which, though action packed, does get a bit long at two hours, forty-five minutes. It has been the case in every Cyrano I have seen that the final scene, though essential to bring the story full circle and reach its deeply satisfying conclusion, feels a bit plodding after the intensity of the garrison scene that precedes it and the boisterous first act. Audiences will be rewarded for their patience in this autumnal scene.

Haj has done a splendid job in his directorial debut on the McGuire stage. His Cyrano de Bergerac is a treat for the eye and the heart, a solid production that reminds us to look beneath the surface of all things, and especially people, when we assess their worth, while entertaining us with flashing swords and wordplay.

Cyrano de Bergerac, through May 5, 2019, at the Guthrie Theater's McGuire Proscenium Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $29.00 to $78.00. Seniors (65+) and full-time college students, $3.00 - $6.00 per ticket discount. Children age 12 - 17, $10.00 discount in Areas 1 and 1A, 50% discount in Areas 2-4. Active Military, veterans and their immediate families, 15% discount. Public rush line for unsold seats 15-30 minutes before performance, $20.00 - $25.00, cash or check only. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or go to GuthrieTheater.org.

Playwright: Edmond Rostand; Director/Adapter: Joseph Haj; Set Design: McKay Coble; Costume Design: Jan Chambers; Lighting Design: Rui Rita; Sound Design: Elisheba Ittoop; Composer: Jack Herrick; Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Voice and Text Coach: Robert Ramirez; Fight Director: Kara Wooten; Movement Consultant: Maija Garcia; Intimacy Consultant: Lauren Keating; Stage Manager: Katie Hawkinson; Assistant Stage Manager: Michelle Hossle; Assistant Director: Seonjae Kim; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Design Assistants: Lisa Jones (costumes), Ryan Connealy (lighting), Julie Zumsteg (sound).

Cast: Ansa Akyea (Ragueneau), Remy Auberjonois (Le Bret), Robert O. Berdahl (Cuigy/Third Poet/Sixth Cadet), Kaitlyn Boyer (First Lady/Second Cadet/Sister Claire), Nate Cheeseman (Marquis/Musketeer/Fifth Cadet), Fernando Collado (Second Cavalier/Fourth Poet/Second Page/Spanish Voices), Cameron Folmar (Count de Guiche), Jennie Greenberry (Roxane), Charity Jones (Duenna/Mother Marguerite), Robert Lenzi (Christian), Joel Liestman (Montfleury/Customer/Sentry), Mark Mazzarella (First Cavalier/Fourth Cadet/Musical Page), Andrea Mislan (Actress/Lise/Nun), David O'Connell (Brissaille/Second Poet/First Page), Jason Rojas (Bellerose/First Poet/First Cadet), Jay O. Sanders (Cyrano de Bergerac), Eric Schabla (Valvert/Third Cadet), Christine Weber (Buffet Girl/Sister Martha).


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