By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
It’s not just about the story, it’s also about the way you tell the story. The French playwright Edmond Rostand gave us the story of Cyrano de Bergerac 115 years ago, and he told in it in French rhyme — this great tale of unrequited passion, beauty and ugliness, and the virtues and dangers of being larger than life.
The play itself, which centers on a cocky, eloquent swordsman whose Renaissance-man flair competes with his ungainly, bulbous nose, sprawls, beginning in a theater, eventually moving to a theater of war, and finishing in a convent 15 years later. Cyrano opened Wednesday in a sterling, illuminating new translation by Michael Hollinger, the Philadelphian who is tantamount to playwright-in-residence at the Arden Theatre Company, where the play unfolds seamlessly under Aaron Posner’s direction.
The new translation had a prior run at Washington’s Folger Theatre last spring under Posner’s tutelage; for this stint he’s back at the Arden, where he was a co-founder 24 years ago. He directs Cyrano, which has a terrific cast, with a sensibility that makes you feel as though you’re sharing the stage as an onlooker, aided by Daniel Conway’s fixed courtyard set, Thom Weaver’s meticulous lighting, James Sugg’s incidental music and, of course, Hollinger’s translation. (The creator of the prosthetic nose is uncredited.)
I first met Cyrano in a translation by American poet Brian Hooker, who wrote his 1923 version — the standard through the last century — without rhyme. It told the story but was plodding. I caught the Hooker version most recently at Houston’s Alley Theatre, where a too-lethargic production made it even more creaky. But a newer melodic, rhyming translation by Anthony Burgess had by then captured me on Broadway and at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, and I thought it was the end-all.
Not so. Hollinger, long-time fluent in French, may seem as reckless as Cyrano to take on a 19th-century literary French text — but like Cyrano, who killed a hundred men as they attacked him, he slayed it. His mostly rhymeless version bubbles with dialogue that honors the play’s period (17th century) and dishes as easily as, say, the ladies on The View.
“Must I teach the whole world how to mock a big nose with a little wit?” an exasperated Cyrano (Eric Hissom, top notch and perfectly timed) cries, revving up dashing swordplay choreographed by fight director Dale Anthony Girard. “I’m just not very good at the language thing!” blurts handsome Christian (the excellent Luigi Sottile), nine easy words that set up the plot, in which Cyrano writes love letters in Christian’s name to Roxane, the woman each loves.
The girlishly sweet and fickle Roxane — for her, the wooing words of love are love — is Jessica Cummings; her style is just right, her high cheekbones seal the deal. She’s the sole female in a nine-member cast and like seven of them, plays more than one role. The others are joys to watch — Scott Greer (especially as Roxane’s put-upon nurse), Benjamin Lloyd as a nemesis, and Justin Jain, David Bardeen, Doug Hara and Keith Randolph Smith. It is, in fact, all a joy to watch — funny, touching, pathetic, kinetic. A story well told.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, email@example.com, or #philastage on Twitter.
Cyrano: Presented by Arden Theater Company, 40 N. Second St., through April 15. Tickets: $29-$45. Information: 215-922-1122 or www.ardentheatre.org.