Now playing through Sept. 1 in the Solvang Festival Theater is Ranjit Bolt's brilliant new translation of Edmond Rostand's sentimental extravaganza, Cyrano de Bergerac, directed by Roger DeLaurier with sets by Dave Nofsinger and costumes by Frederick Deeben.
Derrick Lee Weeden stars as eloquent, heroic, pathetic Cyrano, Cara Ricketts as the seemingly out of reach Roxanne, Gregory Linington as haughty DeGuiche and Tobias Shaw as the handsome and tongue-tied Christian. Rounding out the cast are Peter Hadres, Erik Stein, Elizabeth Stuart, George Walker, Billy Breed and Paul Henry.
Rostand’s masterpiece remains in repertory more than a century after it opened (1897), and it is clearly a case of “by popular demand.” Its popularity transcends the specifically French beauties of Rostand’s verse — Bolt’s translation is actor, and audience-friendly, not “poetic” in the usually disagreeable sense — and extends far beyond an appreciation for the playwright’s deft Gallic wit.
For one thing, the lead role is to the great actor, especially European, what Sergei Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto is to the great pianist. We flock to the theater to witness the ultimate in over-the-top histrionics. It doesn’t matter if the speeches make sense, so long as they make stirring music.
For another thing, we never seem to be able to get enough of the kind of character we believe Cyrano to be: the perfect romantic hero, if it weren’t for the nose. There is a straight line to be drawn from the character of Cyrano de Bergerac through Jean Cocteau's Bête in Beauty and the Beast to The Monster in Hal Hartley's 2001 movie No Such Thing. All are what Jorge Luis Borges dubbed "necessary monsters," the kind that we have had to invent according to our needs.
Cyrano, with only his gigantic nose to visually separate him from the rest of mankind — in this, being a cousin to the Hunchback of Notre Dame, for Victor Hugo was Rostand’s idol — is less obviously a monster than the other two. Bête is covered with fur and has fierce tusks, although he is always respectably and even fashionably dressed. Hartley’s Monster, too, wears a decent business suit over his craggy, scaly body. Yet, like them, Cyrano’s deformity makes him an exile, passionately longing for the normal life he can never have.
Cyrano's nose is a great temptation to the makeup artist, and they usually yield — why not? — in a play bursting with excesses of all kinds. But there was an historical Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-55) and contemporary portraits show a fairly big probiscus, but nothing to base a five-act play on — nothing to turn the bearer into a freak. (It has always seemed to me, anyway, that the character would be more interesting, psychologically, if his nose were only on the large size, and only he perceived it as a grotesque tower of flesh and cartilage. We could all identify with that, I think. In our adolescence especially, we are convinced that the world can see only our flaws.)
Finally, we embrace Cyrano for the same reason its original audience did — its unabashed, kick-out-the-jams romanticism. It was hardly a coincidence that Rostand’s first successful play was called The Romantics. Cyrano opened in Paris when the Parisians were surfeit with the graphic, sordid realism that dominated the theater at the time.
They turned with shouts of joy to Rostand’s hero and gave the first actor who played him, Coquelin, a solid hour of curtain calls the first night. Of all the true things T.S. Eliot said, nothing is more to the point than, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” We can get that at home.
Rostand was the embodiment of Geoffrey Scott’s definition of the romantic: “[Romanticism] is most often retrospective, turning away from the present, however valuable, as being familiar. It is always idealistic, casting on the screen of an imaginary past the projection of its unfulfilled desires.”
The translator, Bolt, is the nephew of the playwright Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons) and the son of a literary critic. He was a stockbroker for eight years and hated it. Desperate to get out, he decided that translation was his ticket, and he was right. He has become the most important literary translator now working in England.
Cyrano de Bergerac plays at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday at the Solvang Festival Theater, 420 Second St. For single tickets and show times, call the box office at 805.922.8313 or click here.