Fort Worth — The signature drink on offer from Amphibian Stage Productions’ lobby bar is called “Mon Panache”—a fully French shout-out to Edmond Rostand’s original play Cyrano de Bergerac, which premiered in Paris in 1897. Cyrano’s “panache” is, literally, the feather in his cap—a sign to his enemies that the Big Guy is here and ready for all comers.
But the word “panache” also has come to mean the brand of bravery, style, wit and general je ne sais quoi that makes this character unforgettable—and in the world premiere of Cyrano, Brenda Withers’ and Jason O’Connell’s small-cast, modern(ish) reworking of the classic, it’s all there: the feather, the style, the one-of-a-kindness of the man himself, even if, in this update, he’s dressed in stagehand black with a bandanna around his head. Ryan Matthieu Smith’s costumes are essentially modern-dress, but accessorized with scarves, sweaters and hats that instantly transform the five-actor cast into crones, nuns, soldiers and more.
Cyrano is an ingenious and heart-wringing update of the old story, enlivened by a breezily literate script that streamlines the language and updates the banter—and gives us a sense of how Rostand’s original lines would have landed for the audiences of his own day.
True to the original, Cyrano is packed with enough comedy, tragedy and romance for a whole festival of shows. Under playwright Jason O’Connell’s thoughtful direction both joy and sorrow are given equal time—and the cast (John-Michael Marrs as Cyrano, NYC sensation Kate Hamill as Roxane, with Greg Holt, Anastasia Muñoz and Mitchell Stephens) is simply terrific moving through the demanding script, which asks them to go from serious to funny in a flash—and to create vivid characters of all genders, ages and social status.
Cyrano, of course, is the tale of a 17th-century French writer, soldier and satirist with a gigantic nose. In Paris, he’s everyone’s hero and best friend. He loves the beautiful Roxane but won’t tell her, because of, you know…the nose. Roxane loves Cyrano as a friend (they grew up together) but tells him she’s fallen instantly, madly in love with Christian, a young soldier in Cyrano’s regiment. Roxane asks Cyrano to be Christian’s friend and protector. Christian asks him to help him woo Roxane. Alas, poor Cyrano!
In an interview with TheaterJones [read it here], the two playwrights described their retooling of the play as “floating between ‘then’ and ‘now.’” There’s a playful framing device that gives the play a toehold in our modern world—but then sheer imagination takes over, as we’re thrown into the passion and extravagance of old Paris.
Marrs (recently seen as Darcy in Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice at WaterTower Theatre) creates a charismatic mashup of old-school bravura and Sensitive New Age Guy as Cyrano. He’s a big presence on stage with an even bigger voice when it’s needed—but can cradle Roxane in his arms with that odd, modern-day aura of “I’m her bro but I wish it were more.” Funny, eccentric, brave—we’d have a beer (well, un verre de vin) with this guy any day.
Hamill [read TJ’s interview about her own adaptations here] is little but fierce as Roxane, reminding us that Rostand’s original character never was the timid 19th-century ingénue. Her Roxane is clever, passionate and willful—wrong-headed, even, in loving Christian before she knows him at all. She can play impetuous girl and mature woman, and together Hamill and Marrs convey connections their characters don’t entirely understand: there’s a tender moment of dance (movement director Kelsey Milbourn gives us grace notes throughout) whose warmth lingers to the end.
Holt is spot-on in several small but crucial roles, notably as the arrogant commander De Guiche, a rival for Roxane’s love, and as the poetical baker Ragueneau, who cares more about his (bad) rhymes than selling pastry. Muñoz is magnetic as Cyrano’s steady, sensible friend Le Bret, wingperson extraordinaire—and as Roxane’s older chaperone, an acid-tongued and impatient Parisienne who doesn’t suffer fools/men gladly.
And Stephens is an unexpected but very satisfying Christian—physically slighter than the Gaston-hunky fellow we’re used to seeing, but with the appealing bounce of a very young man. Withers’ and O’Connell’s script gives Christian some funny lines as he tries to sort out Cyrano’s motives—and shows us his good-guy core as he figures out that despite their physical attraction, Roxane loves him most for his words and letters—all created by Cyrano, not the word-challenged Christian. (In a lovely moment onstage, Roxane catches at “Christian’s” letters from the battlefield, falling like leaves, too many to count.)
Seancolin Hankins’ theater-in-the-round set features an beautiful French-marquetry floor and perches galore used for entrances, exits and theatrical declamations. (There’s a bit of borrowed Shakespeare here and there, which wouldn’t be unusual in the 17th-century theatrical world.) David Lanza’s sound design, down to the tinkling bell of the baker’s shop, is quietly in tune with the piece; his Debussy excerpts, not “period” at all, feel just right. And Kenneth Farnsworth’s lighting is atmospheric, and wistfully effective in a moment where Cyrano creates the shadow of his legendary nose.
This new Cyrano feels substantial but not too long, as if the Rostand original were flicking its sword and saying, “Ah no, mes amis, not so fast”—and fighting back against being too drastically changed. Somehow, despite the modern-day jokes and carefully shorn script, Cyrano is still Cyrano. Kudos to O’Connell and Withers for some very creative anachronism—and for valuing the essentials, both literary and emotional, that have kept this story onstage for the past 120 years.