Edmond Rostand, Adapted by Josh Costello
Aurora Theatre Company
From its premiere night in 1897 Paris when the audience was still applauding an hour after the final curtain fell, through multiple stagings on the Great White Way starring some of Broadway’s finest, and after hundreds of productions worldwide in multiple languages, Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac to this day remains a wildly popular and much beloved play based loosely on the life of title character who in fact famously sported in the early 17th century a large nose and a swift sword. To the long list of both rhymed and blank verse translated adaptations of the original work in French now comes a gorgeously flowing version by Aurora Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Josh Costello in which both the delicious and delightful humor and the inspiring bond of a love triangle’s deep friendship reign in beautiful clarity. With a script that hones a sometimes-crowded stage down to just the most essential, five principals, Aurora’s Cyrano flourishes under Josh Costello’s witty, whimsical touches as a director with a cast that is to a person acutely adept in making his translated words sing.
There is no Cyrano without his bubble-blossoming nose, and William Thomas Hodgson wears his with unabashed pride and a sparkling sense of self-deprecating humor. Employing many affected voices, grand gestures, and hilarious aplomb, his Cyrano spills forth a litany of the insults that he has in the past received concerning his monumental feature. But woe to “any other man that breathes” who makes a remark about that “gourd,” “umbrella,” “sign for perfumery,” or “roomy perch” for birds with their “tiny claws” which precedes him wherever he goes. When the rather ridiculous Count De Guiche can only come up with “very big” as an insult, that is still more than enough for Cyrano to draw his trusty sword and to make an even larger fool of the feathered fop who has dared to insult his prodigious possession (the Count splendidly played with high-pitched-voice buffoonery by Ron Campbell).
When his loyal friend Le Bret (Adrian Roberts) introduces to Cyrano a meek lad-of-a-man named Christian, the poor guy stumbles awkwardly through the introduction where he cannot help but respond to Cyrano’s lead-ins without using some variation of the word “nose” (“It is good we meet” … “nose to nose”). The hilarious scene is much like that once on seen a Vaudeville stage with George Burns’ set-ups for Gracie Allen’s innocent silliness and is just one of several that send the audience into titters as Cyrano finds ways to make his nose the brunt of others’ discomforts.
For Cyrano, his nose is the primary barrier prohibiting him from declaring his unbounding love for his friend since childhood, Roxanne. But when they meet and she begins to tell him that she in love with “one who knows not” and one who is “a poor man who all this time has loved timidly from afar and dares not speak,” Cyrano trembles with anticipation that it must be he. When he hears it is rather the handsome but tongue-tied cadet he has just met, he is crest-fallen. Still, he presses her, “Suppose he were a fool?” Though she says, “Then bury him;” Cyrano can take no relief. Soon afterwards the love of his life asks him to protect the love of her life, Christian, as he becomes a new cadet in Cyrano’s military unit – a request the disappointed but ever-devoted Cyrano cannot refuse her.
When Cyrano does vow as promised to Christian his friendship, the puppy-faced Steven Flores declares Christian’s own love for Roxanne while bemoaning that “I am lost [to her] if I but open my lips.” Cyrano suggests that “together we can make a hero of romance” … “my phrase, your face.” That pledge sets up a deluge of letters and spoken words coming from his own heart but sent and/or word-for-word parroted by a cadet who can barely muster a stumbling phrase of “I love you” as his own spoken words to win the heart of a Roxanne who both craves not just beauty but also wit in a man.
The triangle of tangled love and forever friendship between Cyrano, Christian, and Roxanne is readily believable not only in the words rendered by script, but more importantly by the stellar performances of William Thomas Hodgson, Steven Flores, and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, respectively. Hodgson’s Cyrano particularly shines superb through his suave and sincere delivery of the play’s oft-poetic lines. He is also cunningly impish and devilish in his moments of trickery against his frivolous foe (finally to turn friend), Count De Guiche. When he tries (quite successfully) to convince the gullible Count he has just landed like a fallen star from the moon, his Cyrano proves with romp and relish how he first projected himself up to the moon through seven clever scenes sending audience members into rounds of appreciating laughter. But tomfoolery falls to the side when he is near Roxanne. The words and tones of delivery of this Cyrano would work well for Shakespeare’s Romeo, even as he is always so careful that they are sent not as a declaring lover but as a life-long friend.
As Roxanne, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong is ever elegant in manner and word and always sincerely gracious in gratitude to her friend, Cyrano. She flutters and flits at the mention or sight of Christian, but she is fighting fierce in her own wit and will to ensure his safety, even to join him in battle. Her portrayal of Roxanne deservedly can be deemed the epitome of a heroine made legendary through the decades of countless stage productions.
While the usual crowd scenes in the Parisian La Marais or on the battlefields of Arras have been eliminated in Josh Costello’s latest take of a trimmed-down Cyrano, as director he makes great use of the closely distanced audience as a plaza’s onlookers, especially employing the clownish Count to engage members to help him apply eye liner or aid in his undressing before being chased and thrashed about by the sharp sword of Cyrano. Particularly funny the matinee I attended was Ron Campbell’s Count’s pompous but playful back-and-forth teasings with a front-row of ever-giggling students.
Even though Carlos Aceves’ scenic design centers mostly on a metal structure with rounding stairs to a balcony for Roxanne to take on her Juliet-like positioning, the simplicity works wonderfully for the Aurora’s intimate space when coupled with the beautifully colored and shadowed lighting conceived by Kevin Myrick. The mood of the era is set by the harpsichord-rich music composed by Chris Houston while the offstage echoes of crowds, nature, and battles his sound design provides fill in scenes that we do not actually see but can readily imagine. The capstone of the production’s creative efforts is the colorful costuming designed by Maggie Whitaker, each attire eye-catching and era-defining.
As a person who has seen various, excellently produced versions of Rostand’s classic over the years, I left Josh Costello’s adapted and directed Cyrano with a heart full, a smile large, and a spirit totally satisfied. Kudos go to him, this cast, and the entire creative team of Aurora Theatre Company for a Cyrano that sings, sizzles, and soars.
Rating: 5 E
A Theatre Eddys Best Bet Production
Cyrano continues through May 7, 2023, in production by Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. Tickets are available online at https://auroratheatre.org or by box office phone at 510-843-4822.
Please note: Masks are required by all patrons inside the theatre.
Photo Credits: Kevin Berne