Nose It All

Jason O'Connell and Brenda Withers on their Cyrano adaptation, opening at Amphibian Stage Productions, and featuring John-Michael Marrs and Kate Hamill.

published Friday, February 9, 2018

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Brenda Withers and Jason O'Connell


Fort Worth — The sword. The wit. The swash. The buckle.

The nose.

But above all, the heart.

Who can it be but Cyrano himself?

Amphibian Stage Productions opens its season with the world premiere of a different Cyrano, a small-cast reworking of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 mega-hit Cyrano de Bergerac written by Brenda Withers (Matt and Ben, The Quixotic Days and Errant Nights of the Knight Errant Don Quixote) and actor Jason O’Connell (Off-Broadway: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream), who also directs. In the hours before the play’s first preview, TheaterJones met them onstage for a pre-show chat.

Both playwrights were raised on Long Island but met in Texas, as young actors with the Texas Shakespeare Festival in Kilgore. “He played Hamlet and I played all the maids,” Withers deadpans. “Well, half the maids.” They’ve remained good friends through the years as both their acting careers took off, with O’Connell writing stand-up and “sketch” comedy for himself and Withers teaming with other playwrights, including her friend Mindy Kaling on Matt and Ben, and Jonathan Fielding (an Amphibian artistic associate and co-founder) for Northside Hollow, which the ’Phibs staged in 2017.

Amphibian artistic director Kathleen Culebro, delighted to have snagged O’Connell to direct the company’s TBA first show of the season, remembers “I sent Jason some finished scripts [to consider], and a Cyrano that neither of us much liked.” But the idea of Cyrano stuck. It’s one of Culebro’s favorite plays and, says O’Connell, has been on his actor’s “bucket list” for a long time. But he’d never thought about directing Cyrano de Bergerac—much less writing a new adaptation.


Take the A Train…

“Literally on a walk to the subway last fall, talking on the phone to Kathleen in Texas,” remembers O’Connell, “we went from ‘let’s find another version, let’s write a new one, would you like to co-write with someone—and do you know this great playwright Brenda Withers?’ Why yes, I do know her, she’s a genius. And suddenly something that seemed ‘here’s a crazy idea’ became an intriguing and real possibility.”

Two months later, Withers and O’Connell had a working script for a five-actor Cyrano—though they never wrote in the same room (or, at times, the same state). Withers remembers they used Brian Hooker’s classic (and very literal) translation to learn the “architecture” of the play—but came up with a style of their own, and similar ideas on how the play could lose some verbage without losing its soul.

“I hope we’ve struck an organic balance between contemporary, conversational phrasing and the poetry and lilt of how the characters speak to one another,” says O’Connell. “There’s a wonderful playfulness, and all the elements of this Cyrano feel as if they’re floating between ‘then’ and ‘now.’ Seancolin Hankins’ set design—I am so happy with it, he’s brilliant—feels like an old-school theater, but the music is quite different. There’s a modern-dress aspect to the costuming, but touched with flourishes that feel period.”

Cyrano, of course, is both a comedy and a romance, the story of a 17th—century French soldier, poet and man-about-Paris who can do anything—except tell the woman he loves how he feels.

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
John-Michael Marrs plays Cyrano to Kate Hamill's Roxane

“He’s the greatest writer, the best friend, the finest swordsman, the wittiest heckler,” says O’Connell. “But he has this nose. And so, for the greatest truth in his heart [his love for the beautiful Roxane], he can only reveal it under a mask, a shield. It’s a universal story: all of us—men, women, young, old—simultaneously think of ourselves as worthless and as the greatest, smartest person in the room.”

Withers says she’s come to see that Cyrano “doesn’t just have great roles for guys, it has great roles, period. Rostand sets up Roxane as a counterpart to Cyrano. Like him, she’s very smart and crafty, and she loves poetry, truth and beauty as deeply as he loves those things. She also falls in love with Christian’s beauty in much the same way Cyrano [who thinks he’s ugly] falls in love with her. But it’s pretty progressive to think that Rostand in the 19th century created an ‘ingenue’ role where [the young woman] is intelligent, makes choices, affects the plot and is very independent.”

In the 120 years since its first performance, says Withers, Cyrano seems never to have “gone out of vogue”—and the play continues to speak to us.

“Right now, the idea of integrity and truth being under attack is very relevant,” she notes. “And this story talks about it without having to hit us over the head politically. It talks about how it affects our lives every day.”

O’Connell jumps in. “Cyrano’s integrity is everything to him—he can’t play along, curb his mouth, or compromise himself.” Cyrano’s truth-telling costs him—but we love him for it.


Moon, June, Spoon…

Don’t expect rhyming couplets (as in Rostand’s original)—though O’Connell notes they’ve put in one joking reference to the play’s original style. “When Cyrano gets really angry at a particular moment he suddenly blurts out six or eight lines in rhyme and then stops himself—why am I doing that?”

Amphibian’s production features New York-based actor-playwright Kate Hamill as Roxane, with some fine and familiar local actors: John-Michael Marrs as Cyrano, Greg Holt, Anastasia Muñoz and Mitchell Stephens. The cast is perpetually changing parts and tackling characters of different ages, genders and class.

In Hamill, O’Connell’s partner, he had a ready-made model for adapting the classics. Hamill’s riffs on Jane Austen and other 19th-century novelists have earned critical and audience raves in New York and around the country. In fact, O’Connell found his Cyrano for this production when he came with Hamill to see WaterTower Theatre’s production of her Pride and Prejudice.

“John-Michael Marrs was playing Darcy, the part I was playing [at Primary Stages] in New York,” O’Connell grins. “And normally, I can’t be fair to the person who is doing ‘my role’; it’s the kiss of death. But I loved him—he was great!”

Withers is an old hand at playwriting partnerships, but this is O’Connell’s first time as a co-author—and his first time, professionally, wearing both the director and writer hats. “As the director, it’s tricky. This script is different from things either Brenda or I would write on our own,” he says. “And you fall in love with the things you’ve written—so when the ax has to fall….”

Withers, who flew down from New York the day of the show’s first preview, says it was important to have a single vision”—O’Connell’s—as the production moved into rehearsal. “I’ve been in rooms where the actors look to the director, and if they don’t get the answer they want, turn and look at the playwright. It can make things difficult.”


By a Nose…

What is it about the Cyrano story that continues to attract the next generation of writers, actors and audiences? O’Connell, who as a kid was crazy about Steve Martin’s 1987 movie Roxanne (not knowing it was based on a theater classic) says the play’s astonishing mix of humor and tragedy—and the depth of its emotions—keeps it from feeling too sentimental.

“We had the final dress rehearsal last night,” he says. “And I cried all through the second half, even though I know all the mechanics—how the actors are playing it and what tech things are going wrong. But it still has the power to surprise and move me.”

Withers agrees. “Every time I’ve come back to this story—even when we were just working on the script last fall—it gets me every time.”


Cyrano opens Friday, Feb. 9 and runs through March 4. Thanks For Reading

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Nose It All
Jason O'Connell and Brenda Withers on their Cyrano adaptation, opening at Amphibian Stage Productions, and featuring John-Michael Marrs and Kate Hamill.
by Jan Farrington

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