Cyrano de Bergerac
Kevin Brustuen | Sunday Mar. 1st, 2020
Written in 1897 by Edmond Rostand, a French writer from Marseilles, Cyrano de Bergerac is a play set in France in 1640 during the Thirty Years’ war, one of the most destructive wars ever. After the Siege of Arras, the bloody war was brought to a close by the Treaty of Westphalia, a treaty between European powers that set the borders of Europe, which eventually led in no small part to World War One nearly 300 years later. Rostand wrote Cyrano, a play loosely based on a real person who lived at that time, not only for his own pleasure, but also to fight against the prevailing culture at the end of the 19th century, filled with self-serving goals of personal enrichment and hypocrisy, often at the expense of perceived virtues of a time long past. Montana Shakespeare in the Parks now brings Cyrano de Bergerac to life on the Ellen Theatre stage from March 20-29.
When one thinks of Cyrano de Bergerac, images similar to the Three Musketeers come to mind: adventurous sword fighters with feathers in their hats. There are indeed some great fight scenes in this production, including “The 100,” during which Cyrano fights alone against 100 enemies. This sword fight is showy, dramatic, and fun to watch, but not all Cyrano shows include this “100” fight scene, as it’s too easy for it to overshadow the important underlying themes of the play. Indeed, the director of Cyrano, Kevin Asselin, commented that he is “concerned that the sword fighting not overshadow the text, that people not become overawed by the sword fighting, to the point that they lose sight of the underlying themes and the intricacies of the plot.”
Because of the brilliant sword fighting scenes, Cyrano de Bergerac is seemingly a swashbuckling adventure story with a moralistic ending, but Asselin points out it is much more than that, with themes that run deep in humanity’s consciousness. It’s a story about self-image, friendship, loyalty, integrity, tragic circumstances, unrequited love, poetry, deception, deceit, courage, and discovering truth. As one watches the play, it becomes clear that Cyrano is a Don Quixote type, a person somewhat out of touch with current society, who is attempting to uphold ideals from an imagined romanticized distant past that may not have actually ever existed.
The character Cyrano is known for his nose, a large unsightly protuberance that causes people to gasp and look away, frightened by the deformity. Protruding out in front of Cyrano, it is unavoidable, and becomes symbolic of our insecurities and doubts. Like all of us do with our self-doubts, Cyrano covers for his unsightly appearance with other outward manifestations meant to distract from his defects, specifically his courage, brilliant sword fighting, loyalty to his friends, bravado, all lived and delivered with flamboyant recklessness. Underneath all this cover, however, is a brilliant mind filled with poetry and an ability to compose and deliver beautiful couplets and verse even as he conquers his opponents with his sword.
This adaptation strives to minimize the swashbuckling adventure-story side of Cyrano but rather focuses on heightening the text, bringing the language more to the foreground, opening up the patterns of the underlying themes so we can more easily see ourselves as we grapple with our own demons of insecurities, self-image and lack of confidence.
Asselin, who is also the Executive Artistic Director for Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, has chosen to use an adaptation written by James Devita who based his version on various original texts translated by Gertrude Hall, Gladys Thomas and Mary Guillemard, Charles Renauld, and Henderson Dangerfield Norman. This Devita adaptation of Cyrano was first shown at the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin in 2017, for which Asselin was the fight choreographer. Asselin talked about how the American Players Theatre’s adaptation is being adapted again, specifically for Montana Shakespeare in the Parks performance: “Jeff McCarthy, playing Cyrano, is well-versed in text and acting; so Jeff studies the texts, suggests possible changes to the text, and I [Asselin] and Devita and McCarthy discuss these possibilities every few days,” Asselin says. They then work together to adjust and modify the lines and the scenes to more closely reflect Asselin’s vision. Asselin does not want to lose sight of the main central psychological focus of Cyrano, that is, hiding one’s insecurities, or the veil we all wear to hide our insecurities from the world at large.
One of the joys of Montana Shakespeare in the Parks winter shows is the talent that fills out the cast. This year’s show brings two actors from New York City with extensive Broadway experience.
Jeff McCarthy, playing Cyrano, has appeared in numerous Broadway shows, including The Pirate Queen, Urinetown, Side Show, Grinch, Beauty & The Beast, Smile, Zorba, Les Misérables, City of Angels, as well as in a number of Off-Broadway productions.
Ken Jennings, cast as LeBret, like McCarthy, also is a familiar face on Broadway, with roles in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Urinetown, Side Show, London Assurance, Grand Hotel, Mayor, and All God’s Chillun Got Wings.
Also returning to the Bozeman stage is Aila Peck, Riley O’Toole, Joe Faifer, Kalen Watson, and Erik Pearson, all of whom have toured with Shakespeare in the Parks. Other cast members include Bozeman Actors Theatre actors Cara Wilder, Colton Swibold, Kirsten Daniels, Steven Harris Weiel, along with numerous other local favorites.
Shakespeare in the Parks has hired Vincent Schicchi to create the nose for Cyrano to wear. Schicchi is a well-known figure in Hollywood for over 25 years doing state-of-the-art makeup and creating creatures and prosthetics for actors in Hollywood as well as Broadway. His work has been seen in Requiem for a Dream, Spiderman, Men in Black 3, The Good Wife, Happyish, The Americans, Forever, SPY and Ghostbusters (2016). Making a nose that fits this version is not simple. Director Asselin sends a description of his vision for the play and for the nose to Schicchi, who in turn builds an initial model of that nose to send to Asselin for inspection and approval. Suggestions and improvements go back and forth until Asselin and McCarthy, playing Cyrano, are satisfied that Cyrano’s nose can be adequately seen from even the back of the balcony of the Ellen Theatre where the play will be performed. The nose must be able to be seen from anywhere, but yet it cannot be seen to be a comedic effect, as Steve Martin’s nose was in his 1987 movie Roxanne, a modern comical take on Rostand’s Cyrano. A total of twelve noses will be constructed and sent to Shakespeare in the Parks for McCarthy to use during the performance and rehearsals.
“Panache” is a word that is very important to this play. Panache is known as a “loan-word” from French, with no English equivalent. In English, the best we can come up with to define it is to say it embodies an ethic which includes gallantry, romanticism, valorousness, reckless courage, confidence, boldness, and flamboyance. It does define Cyrano himself, as his entire manner is one of reckless bravado, intrepid fool-hardy courage, and a sort of old-fashioned gentlemanly conduct meant to maintain one’s honor at all costs. The large white plume that Cyrano wears in his hat remains unsullied, a representation of Cyrano’s own panache, something he’s ready to put his life on the line to protect. It’s fitting then that the very last word in the play is also the very last word Cyrano utters on his deathbed: “panache.” As Cyrano lays dying, he says:
“I enter my last lodging, sweeping the bright
Stars from the blue threshold with my salute.
A thing unstained, unsullied by the brute
Broken nails of the world, by death, by doom
Unfingered – see it there, a white plume
Over the battle – a diamond in the ash
Of the ultimate combustion –
In the end, Cyrano remains focused on his unstained reputation and honor; even at his dying breath his panache alone, lives on.
This is the first time Shakespeare in the Parks is presenting their winter show (the Blackbox Series) at The Ellen Theatre in downtown Bozeman. To mark this special occasion along with the opening of Cyrano de Bergerac, a special preview celebration performance will be held on Thursday evening, March 19. Included with the ticket for this special event is a chance to meet and mingle with the actors, catered reception, post-play dessert, and of course, the performance itself. For tickets to this special preview event, please contact Shakespeare in the Parks’ Sonja Bahr at Sonja.firstname.lastname@example.org or call 406.994.3944.
Regular Cyrano de Bergerac performances are on Friday and Saturday nights, March 20th, 21st, 27th and 28th, all at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees are on the 21st, 22nd, 28th and 29th at 2 p.m. Tickets are available on the Ellen Theatre’s website, https://theellentheatre.secure.force.com/ticket, or call the Ellen Theatre’s box office at 406-585-5885.