- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2004

Not much has changed since 1897, when Edmond Rostand wrote “Cyrano de Bergerac,” the classic romantic play that posed the prickly question “Do only the beautiful deserve love?”

Then, as now in this time of “The Swan” and “Extreme Makeover,” the answer sadly appears to be “yes.”

That’s the belief of Cyrano (Geraint Wyn Davies), the witty, heroic defender of great swordplay and wordplay who also happens to have a prominent nose. His homeliness goads him to outfight and outthink everyone he meets in an effort to overcome what he considers an obscene deformity. Tragically, Cyrano also believes that his too-prominent profile makes him a romantic pariah, undeserving of love from a beautiful woman, his cousin Roxane (Claire Lautier).

In matters of the heart, he banishes himself to the sidelines, ever the yearning swain.

His perceived handicap is so great in his mind that Cyrano goes one step further in self-denial. When Roxane confesses that she is in love with the comely Christian de Neuvillette (Gregory Wooddell), Cyrano pledges to protect him from harm. Cyrano also agrees to help Christian woo Roxane using the one asset he lacks — the ability to seduce with silken language.

This is expressed in the famous scene where Roxane melts as Cyrano, pretending to be Christian, stands in the freeing darkness beneath her balcony and confesses his feelings in torrents of language that pelt her like kisses — a scene that Mr. Wyn Davies carries off with tenderness and panache.

Ironically, Mr. Wyn Davies exudes such dash and nobility as Cyrano that after the first five minutes you find yourself thinking “Nose, what nose?” His swoon-worthy, star-making turn in the title role — it could make you swear off pretty boys like Brad Pitt forever — is just one of the surprises and delights of the Shakespeare Theatre’s boisterous production, directed with goose-feather silliness and high spirits by artistic director Michael Kahn.

It’s as if someone pumped nitrous oxide into the theater, so giggly and woozy are the goings-on. Much of this can be attributed to Barry Kornhauser’s free new English adaptation, a crazy-quilt of rhyme schemes ranging from Alexandrines (Mr. Rostand’s original choice) and iambic pentameter all the way to couplets and internal rhymes. In its barefaced slinging of puns, the loopy result owes as much to Warner Bros. cartoons and borscht belt comedians as it does to Shakespeare and Moliere.

Any play that contains the stanzas “What of Roxane? How pleasantly would it surprise her/ come the morning, to find you here as fertilizer?” cannot be all bad.

Thanks to Mr. Wyn Davies’ elegant and kind performance and contributions by an outstanding cast, “Cyrano” is not empty yuks. It is an intensely moving treatise on not only the alchemic powers of love, but also the beauty found in sacrifice. Cyrano’s already poignant devotion to Roxane is further heightened by his willingness to love without personal gain, to sacrifice. That this nobility is mixed up with loathing makes Cyrano all the more human and compelling.

“Cyrano” is a play fueled by love, hate, and language, and you need a cast who can pull off both the passion and the linguistic demands of the script. Mr. Kahn has outdone himself with this cast comprised of newcomers and Shakespeare Theatre veterans. Marty Lodge is both compassionate and laconic as Cyrano’s mother-hen friend Le Bret, while Mr. Long is the picture of preening noblesse oblige as de Guiche. As Ragueneau, David Sabin exudes warmth and gusto as a man with epicurean tastes in French pastry and satiric songwriting.

Miss Lautier makes a lovely Roxane, one whose attractiveness is elevated by her appreciation for a fine turn of phrase. Her beauty deepens as her love for Christian grows from falling for his outward appearance to cherishing his soul — a turn that is everything Cyrano wished for, if only he were the object of her devotion.

In the end, “Cyrano” is a play about love. Romantic love, love of country, of honor, of duty all figure prominently in Rostand’s wry tale of a swashbuckling hero who wears his flaw like a shield that repels what he wants most. And that is love — a love bigger than his nose, his twisted ego, his heart.

****

WHAT: “Cyrano” by Edmond Rostand, new adaptation by Barry Kornhauser

WHERE: The Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Aug. 1.

TICKETS: $16 to $66

PHONE: 202/547-1122

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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