Review: Cyrano de Bergerac by Austin Shakespeare
by Thomas Hallen
Austin Shakespeare has a large burden to shoulder, and many expectations to live up to. Any city's primary Shakespeare theatre must do the Bard justice and provide enough variety for the Bard-averse. I saw Cyrano on the third Saturday and returned home to read the reviews, and I find I hotly disagree with all three that CTXLT has linked to. This review is both dissent and discussion of a major artistic product from a significant theatre, a theatre we regard highly in a town, whether people realize it or not, that is full of them.
I will spare the customary plot summary (one of many services Wikipedia renders) and get to the meat of the argument.
I commend the ensemble and the design team. The show is undoubtedly pretty, and the production values – set, sound, and costumes -are just where they need to be. The ensemble rounds things out very nicely, with some lovely turns by Le Bret, the head cook, Ligniere, and Lise. The ensemble goes a long way to making the opening sequence work, although outside of film, that whole bit is near impossible to get right. It's not 100% here, but it's good nonetheless.
The production's first and arguably greatest problem is their choice of the Hooker translation. You may remember that City Theatre not four months ago produced Cyrano using Burgess' RSC translation. The two are night and day. Hooker is elementary and clunky, jettisoning beauty and artistry, presumably for accessibility. I'm not sure I heard a single rhyme the entire show. Accessibility is admirable, but guts the lyricism of the show. I was let down at least a dozen times when a fabulous Burgess delivery was lobbed gracelessly by Hooker.
The choice of Marc Pouhé as Cyrano was, of course, a no-brainer by Austin Shakes. The man has presence and remarkable clarity, and last year's Othello whetted audiences' appetites. From start to finish, Pouhé failed to fire me up. Pouhé speaks very well, but it cannot be stressed enough that in the classics, speaking well is not sufficient. He failed to connect with the bravado and pathos of Cyrano, falling instead into a flat middle path. He could certainly identify the variations, but somehow did not commit to them. He had very little fun with the nose monologue from Act I. In Act II at Ragueneau's shop, he was frigid about his imminent meeting with his secret love, asking the time with no urgency at all. When he took over for Christian under the balcony in Act III, Roxane's line, “Your very voice is changed” meant little, as his voice had not. The moon-man sequence from Act III was literary. In Act IV, his attitude towards the battle was muddy, and he essentially dismissed Christian's death entirely.
Questionable direction hampers actors as surely as poor text, and Ciccolella makes some baffling calls. No fewer than three times the actors rushed through critical moments, arguably the most critical ones of the play: 1) When Christian finally gets Cyrano to admit he loves Roxane; 2) When Christian is dying and Roxane is falling apart over his body; and 3) When Roxane realizes in Act V that it was Cyrano all along. At these moments, the actors didn't take even half a second to register these choices and revelations. They just burned through, rendering these peaks impotent. Yes, the play is long. No, these moments are not the ones you rush through.
Furthermore, Ciccolella upstages actors repeatedly. Christian (Keith Paxton) is unforgivably upstaged twice. First, in Act IV when Roxane tells him she'd love him even if ugly, he is facing upstage, robbing us of his reaction. Another, earlier and more ridiculous, Christian is introduced in Act I FACING UPSTAGE. This for a character whose primary trait is his good looks.
In Act V, when Cyrano takes 'Christian's' letter from Roxane (Amber Quick) and makes as if to read it, Pouhé or Ciccolella chose to have Cyrano open the letter and, as it seemed, to read the first paragraph from the page before lowering it and going from memory. Cyrano, in this moment, does not need to read a single word off that page – he has repeated them every day in his mind for fifteen years. Having the letter open, in typical reading posture, makes it harder to believe that Roxane notices he's not really reading it, and makes her revelation a conceptual jump. Having Cyrano actually read a syllable of it robs us of the power of the character's devotion.
In Act V, Cyrano is seated the entire time. Granted, he is hurt, but at that moment, Cyrano is wrestling with his passions at their barest and justifying his entire life. To have him seated neuters him. His life, not to mention his entire final monologue, is a history of defiance. A seated Cyrano is a Cyrano in submission.
Michael Miller as De Guiche also left plenty to be desired. Miller chose to portray Cyrano's foil as a snivelling fop. Miller does not carry any authority or steely confidence, particularly when promoted to colonel in Act IV. His recounting of his glorious triple charge in battle is made practically on the defensive. He's more clown than villain. Miller and Ciccolella forget that Valvert is the fop, not De Guiche. City Theatre's Heath Allyn was a much more human and razor sharp De Guiche, with good humor to boot.
I could go on. But suffice to say that while entertaining, Austin Shakespeare's Cyrano does not stand up to informed scrutiny. I'd love to know what the other reviewers liked so much, but alas, they provided few or no concrete examples, so I must presume that their reviews were based on gut feeling. But we as a city can do so much more than elicit a vague, knee-jerk, generalized warm fuzzy sensation. It appears that we've taken Hollywood film director Michael Bay to task for mindless spectacle but forgotten that Austin theatre is not immune from that same affliction.
701 West Riverside Drive
Austin, TX, 78704
Thursday through Saturday: 7:30pm
(Preview November 19)