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Theatre in Review: Cyrano de Bergerac (The Jamie Lloyd Company/BAM Harvey Theater)

James McAvoy. Photo: Marc Brenner

Director Jamie Lloyd can't get Cyrano de Bergerac out of his system. Ten years ago, he staged a generally straightforward, workmanlike production of Edmond Rostand's classic drama at Roundabout Theatre Company, featuring a fanciful and inventive version by Ranjit Bolt. Its most jarring feature was its star Douglas Hodge, whose Cyrano was less a defiant defender of style and wit than a frequently filthy layabout given to infantile bursts of rage. Hodge also sported a nose so large it looked as if a small woodland animal had taken up residence on his face. (Interestingly, this production is not referenced in Lloyd's otherwise extensive program bio at BAM.)

The nose is gone in Lloyd's current staging -- it is still a major plot point, but we don't see it -- along with many other things one associates with Cyrano de Bergerac. This is a modern-dress approach, without conventional scenery or props; instead of the usual swordplay and clinches, the actors often stand in a line, delivering their dialogue while looking out at the audience. (If you've seen some of John Doyle's productions, you'll be familiar with the method.) If Hodge created an anti-romantic Cyrano, everyone here is determined to stamp out any hint of the original's moon-drunk poetry. To this end, Lloyd uses Martin Crimp's text, which converts Rostand's melodrama into a study of self-involved men exploiting the woman they say they love. Indeed, Crimp's text is a semi-original that makes several significant alterations to the plot. The production presents the strange spectacle of a director wrangling with a drama that he seems to love and loathe equally.

The battle is both fascinating and, at times, dismaying. In 2019, Lloyd brought to Broadway a stunningly effective production of Harold Pinter's Betrayal, with a stripped-back set by Soutra Gilmour, clinical lighting by Jon Clark, and a sound design, by Ben and Max Ringham, that allowed for starkly naturalistic performances. The same techniques have been applied, disconcertingly, to Cyrano de Bergerac. Gilmour provides a shallow white box for the production's first half and a broad set of stairs for the second, Clark blasts the stage with a cold white institutional wash, and the Ringhams' sound design amplifies every murmur. This doesn't guarantee intelligibility, however; James McAvoy, as Cyrano, rushes through the character's famous catalogue of nasal euphemisms, leaving one straining to hear his witticisms.

If Hodge's Cyrano was beset by furies, McAvoy takes a more purposeful approach: he is an artist first and a lover second and, by his own admission, he is reliant on his enemies, internalizing his anger and pouring it into his writing: "I need that hate/Need them to isolate/me SO THAT I CAN CREATE." (The capitalized letters are in the text.) Offering his jaded, but not inaccurate, view of the contemporary literary scene, he says, "I'm well aware I don't stand much of a chance/Here in the literary world of 17th century France/Money -- cronyism -- fear of giving offence/Poets on juries awarding cash-prizes to their friends./As for our 17th century theatre -- well -- don't you agree/It's become just fly-paper for mediocrity?/Sure, you can set the bar quite high/But still the writers stick on it and die." In passages such as these, Crimp's writing glitters, and McAvoy uses the playwright's words to build a character of unshakable integrity and inner torment.

And when McAvoy's Cyrano gets down to the business of wooing Roxane by proxy, in the name of the dim cadet Christian, he spares himself nothing, imitating Eben Figueiredo, who plays Christian, and throwing out his usual wicked wordplay for direct, urgent statements from the heart. It's simultaneously an act of concealment and nakedness, delivered with scorching intensity and rendered in words both simple and powerful enough to erode the hardest resistance. At least on this point, McAvoy is delivering what may the most distinctive Cyrano to be seen in decades.

McAvoy is lucky to have as co-star Evelyn Miller, whose Roxane is piercingly intelligent and radiant enough to break anyone's heart. An earnest university student, attending lectures with titles like "Women and the Male Gaze in Early Modern Poetry," she doesn't suffer fools, noting "I am so, so bored with not being taken seriously by men." She is well aware of the world's ugly ways; regarding the villainous de Guiche's plot to marry her off to the aristocrat Valvert, she offers this tart summation: "I marry Valvert, Valvert leases me back to de Guiche. Job-share for them -- sex-slavery for me." And when Cyrano and Christian's deception is at long last revealed, her response is withering: "One incredible lie/Are you saying, manufactured by two men?" In too many productions, Roxane is reduced to a simpering ingenue. Not here, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Still, Roxane's stature is diminished, even more than usual, by her passion for Christian, who, as played Figueiredo, is an ordinary-looking fellow of below-average intelligence and a manner so weak-minded that he at times seems mentally frail. Compared to the extremely fit and handsome Cyrano of McAvoy, whose disfiguring nose is only notional, this Christian's appeal is so difficult to grasp that Roxane seems a little soft in the head. Matters are further muddled by an argument between Cyrano and Christian that leads to their indulgence in a little on-the-battlefield necking, a choice that, days later, I'm still struggling to parse. (I guess their scheming is so passionate it passes the love of women.) And, to make the point that Roxane is a victim of designing males, Crimp dispenses with the convent where Roxane retires, instead contriving a sordid fate for her as an alcoholic and a kept woman. Ironically, this production abuses Roxane as badly as do Cyrano and Christian. In reworking the geometry this famed romantic triangle, Crimp and Lloyd bend it out of shape, making it seem overly contrived.

Among the supporting players, Michele Austin brings blasts of high style and common sense to Ragueneau, the baker and littérateur. (Describing her recipe for lemon tarts, she wonders, slyly, "But if I use ingredients from a distant nation/Am I then guilty of -- what shall we call it? -- cultural appropriation?") Tom Edden, last seen here as an elderly, disaster-prone waiter in One Man, Two Guvnors, oozes corruption as de Guiche. Adam Best makes something bracingly sane out of the relatively small part of Le Bret, Cyrano's close friend.

It's a strange collection of debits and credits and how you might react to it is anyone's guess. If you love the original in all its florid glory, this determinedly caustic approach and frankly ugly design may prove fatally off-putting. (It's much too noisy, with hip-hop music played at ear-splitting levels before the first half and during intermission.) If you're interested in a fresh approach to a dusty classic, you may be intrigued by the colloquial text and incisive performances. (Then again, you may feel that Crimp has gone too far in terms of modern slang, decorating the text with 44 uses of "fuck" and 36 of "shit." In a play about the glory of language, the lazy use of the most obvious of epithets is well-nigh inexcusable.) And if you wish to see a Belle Époque drama viewed through a 21st lens, revealing a poisonous sexual politics, this is the attraction for you. To my mind, Lloyd wrestles the play to a draw; his ideas are interesting, his results inconclusive. --David Barbour

(21 April 2022)

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