Monday, October 29, 2012

Revivals, Part I: Cyrano de Bergerac & An Enemy of the People

 Douglas Hodge and Clémence Poésy star in Cyrano de Bergerac

Many famous actors have had their fling at playing Edmond Rostand’s hero Cyrano de Bergerac, but the best one I’ve ever seen, hands down, is Christopher Plummer in the 1973 Broadway musical Cyrano. In his second go-round with the role – he’d sampled it as a young actor at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, the same season he played Hamlet – he was mesmerizing, and hilarious. (Runner-up would be a tie between José Ferrer in the 1950 film version and Steve Martin in the updated 1987 movie Roxanne, which is my favorite version of the material.) The most recent Broadway Cyranos have been disappointments: first Kevin Kline in 2007 and now the British actor Douglas Hodge, in the new production at the Roundabout. Kline made the bizarre choice to underplay the role of the seventeenth-century wit, poet and soldier, who, feeling he can’t court the girl he adores, his cousin Roxane, because of the size of his nose, provides her handsome suitor Christian with the words to win her heart. The flamboyant Cyrano is surely one part you should never underplay. Hodge doesn’t make that mistake, and physically, at least, he meets the challenges of the character’s celebrated panache, especially in the first-act scene where he engages in swordplay with the disdainful Valvert (Samuel Roukin) while he composes a poem. (He completes the last line as he deals his opponent the triumphal thrust.) It’s Hodges’s vocal work that comes considerably short of the mark. He does well with the famous speech to the dullard Valvert, anticipating the swordfight, in which he demonstrates a dozen ways in which a man of imagination might approach the matter of insulting his nose. Hodge has a voice like scraped stone, and he knows how to use it cleverly. But this Cyrano is rendered in verse, yet Hodge insists on playing against the meter. Worse, he has a fondness for delivering his lines in a sentimental tremolo that cuts Cyrano’s romantic stoicism. He doesn’t appear to have understood the character – or else (as I suspect) he’s simply indulging himself.

Samuel Roukin and Douglas Hodge
Cyrano de Bergerac is the most famous drama ever written in Romantic style, and it’s certainly the best, though it’s a throwback: Rostand penned it in 1897, nearly two decades after Ibsen’s A Doll’s House dragged the theatre, kicking and screaming, into the era of realism and modernism. For all their virtues, almost none of the playwrights who inhabited the actual Romantic era, like Schiller in Germany and Hugo and Dumas fils in France, had Rostand’s soaring command of language. (The glowing exception is Goethe.) It’s a pity that Ranjit Bolt, who wrote the new translation, insists on turning Rostand’s glorious lines into banalities, and often anachronistic ones. (“Bring it on,” “What’s that about?” and “No shit!” sound awfully silly in a seventeenth-century setting.) I was never crazy about the Anthony Burgess version that usurped the position Brian Hooker’s far superior one held for most of the twentieth century, but it’s a masterwork by comparison.

The English director Jamie Lloyd has staged the play beautifully, and the designs (sets and costumes by Soutra Gilmour, lighting by Japhy Weideman) are certainly worthy of the material. The set is a tiered stone façade that stands in easily for all of the various environments: when the play goes to war with Cyrano, Christian and their Gascon comrades in act four (just after intermission), it slides forward and becomes a bridge with archways underneath, and for the final act it rolls almost all the way downstage, autumn leaves drift down from the flies, and suddenly we’re at the convent where Roxane has retired since Christian’s death in battle. The scene shifts are tremendous fun. Impressive as the battle scene is, Lloyd is at his most resourceful at the convent, where he gets depth from the triple arches and varied height from the ingenious positioning of a chair and a bench.

Lloyd has assembled a first-rate ensemble for the supporting parts (the standouts are Patrick Page as the Comte de Guiche, perhaps the only melodramatic villain in the canon who mellows and deepens toward the end, and Max Baker as Cyrano’s best friend Le Bret). The problem is the three leads. In David Leveaux’s 2007 production the exquisite film actress Jennifer Garner played Roxane, and she was so uncomfortable with the language that I was embarrassed for her. This time around the role goes to Clémence Poésy, who was Fleur in the Harry Potter pictures, and she isn’t much of an improvement. She’s a Frenchwoman affecting an English accent, and her thin, tense voice sounds oddly affected, as if she were trying to pluck the words out of her throat with pincers. Kyle Soller plays Christian as a dolt, which is different from playing him as an earnest lover who doesn’t possess the language to woo the elegant, educated lady of his dreams. (Daniel Sunjata struck exactly the right balance in 2007.) This Cyrano is enjoyable, but too often you receive its virtues through the filter of this inadequate trio.

Kathleen McNenny, Richard Thomas & Boyd Gaines in An Enemy of the People (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s “new version” of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, in a Broadway production by the Manhattan Theatre Club, is the latest case of a translator who has deluded herself into thinking she can top up a classic text. But she does no more harm to the play than the director, Doug Hughes, who throws it to the winds late in the first half by surrendering to histrionics – yelling, declaiming, door slamming. Ibsen used the conventions of nineteenth-century melodrama to undermine it; Hughes takes Ibsen straight back to melodrama. The play – perhaps the only Ibsen that is routinely read by high school English students – is about a doctor in a Norwegian spa town who discovers that the water that flows to the local baths, the town’s gold mine, are poisoned. He is naïve enough to believe that his fellow citizens will be grateful to him for pointing out the danger, but of course they turn against him. In the current production the doctor is played by Boyd Gaines, and his brother, the mayor, by Richard Thomas, and Gaines gets to chew more of John Lee Beatty’s fine scenery than Thomas – especially in the public meeting scene at the top of the second half, where he stands on a table and embarks on a tirade that, I confess, I stopped listening to somewhere in the middle. Even hammier are Gerry Bamman as the printer for the town newspaper and Michael Siberry as the doctor’s sinister father-in-law. The show gets worse and worse as it goes on; Hughes is generally an expert at staging but even that skill deserts him here. An Enemy of the People isn’t one of Ibsen’s masterpieces, but it’s a compelling, intelligent piece of work. At moments of particularly high dudgeon in this production, I let my mind wander back to the gripping one Jack O’Brien shot for TV in 1990, with John Glover as the doctor and George Grizzard as the mayor. They proved that it isn’t necessary to make Ibsen’s play look hopelessly old-fashioned. 

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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