Profiles in Courage: Cyrano and The Apple Cart, review’d

Eric Hissom is emotionally erect. (Carol Pratt/courtesy Folger)

By the power vested in him by nothing more than his wildly protruding ego, Cyrano de Bergerac runs a blowhard actor off the stage at rapier point. So begins the Folger Shakespeare Library’s sparkling and soulful new adaptation of the romantic classic, and of all the outlandish scenarios it demands that leading man Eric Hissom imagine, this might be the most farfetched: As Cyrano, the guardsman of uncommon cheek and uncanny beak, a genius almost as fast with a sword as he is with a quip, Hissom is so effortlessly charming and authoritative it seems impossible he could ever find himself staring down a hostile audience.

He’s so good, in fact, you almost can’t believe that this Cyrano’s inconveniently 3D schnoz would much impede him in romance. But of course, the pickle he finds himself in ultimately has nothing to do with the fleshy cucumber sticking out under his eyes. For Cyrano, the rub is his lack of confidence that he’ll persuade his second cousin Roxane to see beyond her—uh, his—nose, an eloquent and enduring metaphor for the self-doubt that can cripple even the most capable among us. Surely you know already that Cyrano’s peculiar blend of shame and generosity leads him to ghostwrite love letters on behalf of one Christian de Neuvillette, a duller but handsomer fellow soldier who pines for Roxane, too.

That’s duller, mind you; not dull, and not craven. This interpretation, particularly Bobby Moreno’s affable performance as Christian, leaves open the possibility that he might in fact be the more tragic character, a man who feels as deeply as his long-nosed peer does, even though Cyrano’s talent for turning emotion into lyricism eludes him. One of the many enchanting elements of Edmond Rostand’s 114-year-old play is the warm bond he allows to exist between those rivals: the face of love and its voice, each hoping for the other’s success if he can’t have her for himself.

Michael Hollinger translated Rostand’s verse anew from the French and worked with director Aaron Posner to craft this elegant adaptation, finding a perfect balance between filigree and pith. To invert a lament they give to poor Christian, they are very, very good with the language thing. It’s mostly prose now, but the way these men have illuminated the play’s themes and key moments with elegiac stage pictures and balletic action is poetic indeed. Witness the breathless economy with which they stage Cyrano’s defeat of the 100 swordsmen who come for him near the end of Act 1, or the way Steve Hendrickson, in an avuncular performance as Cyrano’s friend and superior officer Le Bret, massages the interval of 15 years that precedes the play’s final scene, scattering flower petals in autumnal hues as he speaks.

The cast list has been trimmed, but nothing here feels reduced: Everything about the production seems lavish and rich, from Daniel Conway’s set (which actually makes the stage’s thick, annoying columns seem to disappear), to Devon Painter’s regal costumes, to the megawatt energy emanating from the entire company of players.

All this and music, too! Hollinger wrote two original songs for this production, which Hissom sings and plays (quite beautifully, too). And since I’ve been known to gripe about half-assed stage fighting, I note with admiration that the swordplay here (arranged by Dale Anthony Girard) is fast and thrilling enough to make you duck.

Cyrano may have introduced to the English lexicon the word that forms his (spoiler!) epitaph—that’d be panache—but this vivid new take is powered by almost, but not quite, the same substance: swagger. Simply put, it’s the most purely enjoyable enterprise to advance across a D.C. stage since Posner and Hissom (and others) revived Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia here at the Folger two years ago. And if it isn’t quite as incandescent an offering, it falls short only by a…minute, statistically insignificant extent.

Hollinger, Cyrano’s translator, also wrote the very funny Cold War spy farce Red Herring, which Washington Stage Guild put up in March. One of that show’s leads, Britt Herring (no relation), is among a handful of things the company’s new show, a revival of George Bernard Shaw’s The Apple Cart, has going for it.

The other thing? A brain in a jar.

I’ll explain: Pamphilius, a royal aide described only as “middle aged” in the stage directions of this parliamentary parable from 1928, here floats pickled in brain juice, with a column of ascending bubbles and a light-up effect when he speaks. And why not? We are, after all, in The Future as imagined 83 years in the past, and the brain is a fun liberty taken in a stodgy show that could’ve used a lot more like it. Liberties, I mean. Not disembodied brains.

What Shaw imagined was a state beholden to a corporate megalith (called, uh, Breakages, Ltd.), wherein King Magnus (Herring, sporting a regal goatee) must avert a power grab by his cabinet spearheaded by Proteus, his prime minister. (That’s Conrad Feininger, giving the show’s other outstanding performance.) The king’s handlers won’t even allow him to read verbatim the speeches they write for him: “Your Majesty has a way of unrolling the manuscript and winking,” Proteus observes.

Midway, Shaw introduces the potentially very funny notion that the United States, having irreparably botched the whole of-the-people-by-the-people thing, wants to rejoin the British Empire. To modern eyes at least, that looks like more fertile satirical ground than anything we’ve seen up till that point, but Shaw then completely drops the joke. The Apple Cart was the first play he wrote after collecting a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925, and the honor seemed to embolden him to try increasingly outre formal experiments. Not all experiments succeed.

Crow all you want about Shaw’s prescience, with his forecasts of political gridlock and a government wherein shareholders wield more influence than the electorate—such as it is, given that voting representation in this England is at about seven percent and the leaders are afraid to do anything they can’t explain in a sound bite to their dwindling constituencies. Oh, he mentions the Chunnel, too. Prophetic, sure, but it all just lies there, making a show that clocks in only a hair north of two hours feel infinitely longer. Aside from the fact that he’s better-looking and more quick-witted than his ministers, there’s very little to indicate why we should be on the king’s side, or to suggest he’s any more trustworthy a custodian of the citzenry’s best interest than his elected cabinet members.

It’s an unfair fight, but now Shaw must compete with all the more trenchant political satires that’ve followed his—everything from various works of Vaclav Havel to (seriously) RoboCop. His big-show closing joke is to suggest that even the king is ruled—not by his cabinet, but by his wife! Har har. Har.

These reviews appear in slightly altered form in this week’s Washington City Paper.

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