By Elaine Liner
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Edmond Rostand's 19th-century French play remains one of the great romantic tragedies, full of poetic, universal themes of love, deception, self-hatred, chivalry and hope. But with its five long acts of flowery verse and swordplay, the original text rarely gets stage time anymore. In 1997 actor Frank Langella gave Cyrano a much needed face-lift by trimming the script and retitling it Frank Langella's Cyrano, which, if Rostand were alive today, would certainly put the playwright's nose out of joint. Now requiring just 11 actors instead of 50, the play unfolds in just over two hours. This revised version was a hit on the New York stage and now is a favorite pick for regional theaters, including Plano Repertory Theatre, where it's running as the first show of this theater's season.
The Plano production, directed by Ryan J. Pointer, comes within a nosehair of being pretty good. But too many things go wrong technically and artistically, and--sniff, sniff--even the guy sporting the big proboscis isn't really on the nose in his portrayal. For one thing, actor Mark Shum isn't wearing the huge prosthetic snoot required for the title role--it's wearing him. Looking like a cross between Bob Hope's ski slope and the thing Lucy Ricardo stuck on her face to meet Bill Holden, Shum's putty honker has a disturbing grayish pallor and a tendency to droop below his chin. In Steve Martin's fine 1987 film adaptation, Roxanne, Martin's fake nose was a wildly exaggerated bird's beak, but at least it was friendly in its fleshiness. Shum's faux nose looks like he's birthing a baby elephant from between his squinty eyes. It's distracting.
Shum also comes off too angry to be adorable. Cyrano needs its nose-wearer to be a mensch under that monster snout. The audience has to fall in love with him. Tortured by his own unspoken feelings, Cyrano helps a tongue-tied friend, a handsome young soldier named Christian (Stephen Tickner), to win the heart of Roxane (Amy Storemski) by feeding him elegant dialogue and ghostwriting his love letters. Roxane quickly is won over by Cyrano's poetry as delivered by Christian, unaware that she's fallen in love with the wrong man. When Christian dies in battle, Cyrano is faced with a heartbreaking dilemma. Should he reveal his deception and possibly win Roxane? Or will he gallantly keep the secret and preserve Christian's romantic legacy?
Because of an uneven performance by Shum, who tends to shout his dialogue too gruffly, the Plano Rep production makes Christian, not Cyrano, the man the audience roots for. Actor Tickner looks movie-star handsome, but he also imbues Christian with a quiet grace. This Christian is not at all the thick-headed doofus he's usually made out to be. He's a hunk, but not a lunk. When Christian is mortally wounded in battle and collapses into Roxane's arms, it's the most emotionally wrenching moment in this production, beautifully acted by Tickner and Storemski. We can't imagine at that point that Cyrano is the better man.
In the supporting cast, good work is done by Robert Rain, who makes a powerful De Guiche, the regimental leader who is Cyrano's nemesis. Scott Milligan shows an Oliver Hardy-like flair with three small comic roles as an actor, priest and soldier. James Gilbert, Elizabeth Van Winkle and Matt Tomlanovich also are strong in parts that have just a few lines. Nice fencing work, too, from fight choreographer Robin Armstrong, billed as the "violence designer."
On the technical side, this Cyrano has problems as plain as the nose on anyone's face. Scott Kirkham's set--two blocky storefronts joined by a suspended walkway--appears amateurishly constructed and haphazardly painted. Kirkham's lighting design casts dark shadows on areas of the stage where important speeches take place. Michael Robinson's costumes are a hodgepodge of contemporary fringes, ruffles and leathers, making it hard to pinpoint the time or place of the play. And why the Gidget flip for Roxane's hair? Should a 19th-century heroine really be wearing perky barrettes?
Most annoying technically is the intrusive sound design by J. Keith Emmons, who seems to have mistaken this period stage play for a 1950s Douglas Sirk film. Under nearly every important soliloquy rises a soundtrack that soars to deafening levels. In the famous balcony scene, Roxane listens to Cyrano, who is hiding in the shadows pretending to be Christian wooing her with honeyed words. Here we can barely decipher the poetry over the strains of "Clair de Lune" and then, inexplicably, Edith Piaf warbling "La Vie en Rose." Suddenly, we're not in a theater anymore, we're waiting for an order of quiche at La Madeleine.