Wednesday, April 21, 2021

When words fail us: IRT's 'Cyrano' proves to be tonic for these muted pandemic days

The Count eyes an apprehensive Roxane, while Cyrano conceals himself.
Few late-19th-century hits that continue to grace our stages have the same florid embrace of love's enduring dream as Edmund Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac." The triumvirate of Wilde, Ibsen, and Chekhov occupies distinct spots elsewhere on the dramatic spectrum.

Trimmed down in title and production alike to "Cyrano," a Belgian adaptation of the romantic drama is the latest production on Indiana Repertory Theatre's sensibly reduced season of virtual presentations. Up for nearly a week now, it can be viewed online via ticketed admission through May 9. 

With its three-actor cast directed by artistic director Janet Allen on a stately wooden courtyard set designed by Russell Metheny, the show has the severity and plain, almost allegorical appeal of love blocked, sublimated through romantic projection, and belatedly fulfilled only at a spiritual level. The characters are flesh-and-blood in portrayal, but also stand for perpetual human urges and obstacles about intimacy. WFYI cameras once again highlight the dramatic tension adroitly and employ just the right, slight amount of close-up views to sustain the theatrical illusion.

Modeled after a real-life figure in 17th-century France, Rostand's Cyrano is a master warrior and wordsmith, two roles that may seem oddly joined to us, but represented an ideal as set down in that Renaissance guide to male manners, Castiglione's "Courtier." The work is believed to have been well-known to Shakespeare and influenced his dramatic characterization of men of stature.

Cyrano and Christian discuss their wooing plot.

But the rewards of such a twin distinction are withheld from Cyrano because of his over-large nose. The disfigurement has proved as colossal in his imagination as it may be in real life, especially given his intense attraction to his cousin Roxane. Her infatuation with a new recruit to the cadet company he leads is the latest blow to his romantic quest, compounding his nasal self-consciousness. But Cyrano's regard for her leads him to promise to protect the handsome Christian, partly as a way to block the amorous drive toward her of a vain, foppish nobleman, the Count De Guiche.

Ryan Artzberger conveys the dashing quality of Rostand's hero, and, even more crucially, his vulnerability and crippling self-doubt when it comes to romance. Fitted with a prosthetic nose by Becky Scott for this role, Artzberger still draws on the charisma that often make his performances absorbing to watch. That's the case here: Confident swordsman and poet that he may be, Artzberger's Cyrano is at sea about dealing with his handicap, and seems desperately wounded by it. The actor's familiar command of a nervous giggle comes in handy here and there as his character struggles with barriers to fulfillment.

Perhaps the most moving scene is Cyrano's long, well-paced dialogue with Melisa Pereyra as Roxane, in which the cousins' mutual affection clearly has quite different orientations. Their emotional connection is indelible, while at the same time they are uncomfortably linked by Roxane's obsession with Christian. Pereyra's performance shows Roxane to be a strong-minded woman, a believable cynosure of all eyes, yet able to be fooled by the romantic imposture devised by Christian and Cyrano. The strength of character Pereyra's Roxane shows in the play's last scene is quite moving.

The dying Cyrano sees his beloved for the last time.

Christian is chief among the roles taken most competently by Jeb Burris, who is also required to project the scheming nobleman Antoine, pursuing his romantic designs upon Roxane from an accustomed position of privilege. Linda Pisano's costuming goes far to make Burris credible in both roles. Christian has to be genuinely inarticulate around Roxane while not seeming a dumb bunny; he's a model of naive valor that falls apart in matters of intimacy. Burris brought off the character's need for borrowed eloquence aptly, helping raise the poignancy of Cyrano's devotion to Roxane while he seems to speak for his awkward young rival. 

Despite the fancy flourishes of language, gesture, and clothing, IRT's "Cyrano" resembles a secular morality play, with staging that distantly evokes what traveling theater troupes once presented at court or in town squares after the fashion of the company that visits Elsinore in "Hamlet."  In this case, though the heart-piercing is intense at the play's end and the body count roughly proportional, the affirmation of love's durability is loftier and more zestful. Your home computer screen will radiate light more dependable and life-affirming than what the goaded King Claudius calls for in Shakespeare's tragedy.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]


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