A Cyrano for our time

"Cyrano' at the Arden (1st review)

4 minute read
Hissom as Cyrano: A complex character in a modern idiom.
Hissom as Cyrano: A complex character in a modern idiom.
A writer's task, as Henry James put it, is to understand the whole when he perceives only a part; to see fully when she discerns only indistinctly— to go from the thing to the meaning of things. "Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost," James added.

Or as a mentor of mine put it: On my way up the New Jersey Turnpike, I should drive past Fort Dix— nine miles east— and my proximity to the air particles alone should saturate me with a sense of battle, new-recruit idealism and gunnery-sergeant sufficient to enable me to write a war novel of the caliber of The Naked and the Dead.

That's how I imagine Michael Hollinger's life. This playwright teaches at Villanova, which was founded by the Augustinian Order in 1842 —and thus in 1996 he wrote Incorruptible, a play about a group of entrepreneurial monks who create a thriving business selling holy relics.

Hollinger studied the viola and once contemplated a career as a professional musician— and thus in 2006 he wrote Opus, about the tensions within a string quartet (in his words, "four chairs, five people").

He is fluent in French— and now he has translated and adapted Edmond Rostand's most famous play, Cyrano de Bergerac.

Guiding the audience

I don't mean to suggest that the background informing Hollinger's works is trivial or incidental. He's clearly steeped in "experience." But other people with similar or even loftier credentials would not likely turn out such well-crafted, rhythmically beautiful, humorous, emotionally resonant and convincing dramas.

In Cyrano, Hollinger has taken an 1897 play, with five acts and nearly 50 distinct roles, and created a modern work of two acts with the roles distilled into parts for nine actors. He elevates the role of Cyrano's confidant Le Bret to that of a narrator guiding the audience through the action.

Hollinger removes the original's many allusions to French society and norms and lets the audience enjoy modern equivalents, reflected mostly through language. He drops the blank verse (which dominates most prior translations), except strategically, to emphasize a point, sometimes underlining it with rhyme. Even Hollinger's title is more direct: Cyrano.

Good puns and bad

The first scene, for instance, takes place at a play-within-the-play. Cyrano, who is a playwright among his other talents, throws Montfleury, a burly and blustery actor he doesn't like, from the stage. Rostand wrote (in one translation), "I shall mount the stage now, buffet-wise,/ To carve this fine Italian sausage— thus!"

As phraseologies go, that's not bad. But Hollinger is pithier and adds a pun: "I will carve this ham."

Hollinger's prose takes many twists. It's tight, as when Cyrano laments how he "laid down his guard in a garden." It's pun-awful, as when Cyrano, feigning inebriation and calling to the moon, claims he is "drunk on moon-shine."

It's antic in a way that I imagine playwrights become when they chat among themselves. When Montfleury lumbers behind the curtain to escape Cyrano's wrath and saber, the hero laughs and proclaims, "Exit, pursued by bear," referencing a famous stage direction from Shakespeare.

Actors' holiday

Most of all, Hollinger's prose is thoroughly modern in idiom. The day after Cyrano dispatches 100 thugs who had attacked him the previous night, his colleagues in the Gascony Guard want to hear all about it. He demurs. "Tell us. Tell us everything, even if it didn't happen," they demand. As he continues to balk, they shout in unison, "Stor-EE! Stor-EE! Stor-EE!"

In short, Hollinger gives his actors plenty to work with. As Cyrano, Eric Hissom takes advantage of the abundance with a magnificent performance of a complex character.

Competence vs. fawning

Cyrano is skilled in so many fields— chiefly poetry, wordplay and swordsmanship. But maybe they're all the same field after all. In a morally bankrupt society, where fawning is prized over competence, he is stalwart ("I want to reduce the number of bows I have to make in a day," he says, when asked why he won't suck up to authority).

Cyrano merely lacks an ordinary face (that nose!) and the confidence that the woman of his dreams, Roxane (Jessica Cummings) will see past it to his true qualities.

Aside from Hissom, only Keith Randolph Smith as the ever-present Le Bret plays one part. The remaining actors take up many roles, often admirably, with the exception of Scott Greer, who is distinctive and compelling in each of his six characters.♦

To read another review by Robert Zaller, click here.

What, When, Where

Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano. Translated and adapted by Michael Hollinger; adapted and directed by Aaron Posner. Arden Theatre production through April 15, 2012 on the Arden’s F. Otto Haas Stage, 40 N. Second St. (215) 922-1122 or www.ardentheatre.org.

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