Beauty and eloquence seem an unmeetable twain in Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac, in which the title poet thinks so little of his own over-proportioned nose that he woos his beloved only on behalf of a handsome other. Contemporary playwright Jo Roets has adapted Rostand’s classic, which called for dozens of players, into a pared-down show for just three actors. The Theater at Monmouth presents a tender, affectingly conceived production, in repertory, under the direction of Tess Van Horn.
From the opening sequence of this Cyrano – with letters and hats taken wistfully from trunks – the staging makes clear the retrospective framework Van Horn has chosen for the narrative: with Roxanne (Marjolaine Whittlesey) remembering how her secretly besotted cousin Cyrano (Christopher Holt) gave his words to Christian (Tim Kopacz). This hindsight bathes the proceedings in the fond light of nostalgia: the focus of this Cyrano is on emotion rather than action.
And as its love-sick hero, Holt makes that emotion quietly but arrestingly felt. His sweet, soft sadness as Roxanne bursts his brief bubble of belief that she is in love with him; his elated and bittersweet smile as he listens to Roxanne gush over “Christian’s” words – Holt plays these moments low but suffused in feeling. He is at his best in these poignant moments, but also excels in the jauntier scenes of swordplay, valor, and verbal jousting.
As his beloved, Whittlesey is luminous in cream and pale rose and well-versed in physical theater; she has a profound sensitivity and an extraordinarily expressive face. Lighting design and staging conjure breathtaking moments with her as she reacts to love’s language – especially the balcony scene, when Roxanne is washed in loving golden light, and Whittlesey’s face registers nuance after nuance of rapture at the words of unseen Cyrano, spoken so softly and caressingly by Holt in the grey-blue dim.
Portraying everyone else between Cyrano and Roxanne, Kopacz has quite a job, and the young actor is game, nimble, and convincing in bringing fresh ethos and particularity to each – Cyrano’s friend LeBret has a slight limp; laughable DeGuiche hauls his chest in the air with peevish self-righteousness; and Christian is poised, vain and affable – kind of a sympathetic 17th century metrosexual bro.
Together, the trio executes beautiful, whimsical staging choices that are pitch-perfect for the tenor of a memory-play, as when Roxanne reads a love letter, drops it in swoon, and is brought another, and another, and another, each fresh from the quill of the fervidly-scribbling Cyrano. The fine movement onstage focuses and deepens an adaptation that necessarily pares down the language of the original. Likewise, both the production’s memory-play framework and its abstract set – Meg Anderson’s weathered wooden trunks, slender trees, and backdrop of roiling sky – serve to further disembody the story, which hovers amid light, sky, and bare trees as something timeless and archetypal. The effect is beautiful, if sometimes a curious environment for the gloriously sharp particularities of Cyrano’s wit.
And while much of Rostand’s original rich and raucous verbality is necessarily culled, Roets maintains key moments of what Cyrano would call his verbal panache, most notably in his famous monologue of nose insults, and in the fine-edged sequence when he fences with DeGuiche while narrating in acerbic, aerobic rhymed verse.
But the highlight of this inventively staged adaptation of Cyrano is the warmth and feeling conveyed and received through Cyrano’s words. As Holt gently speaks to Roxanne from the shadows, the beauty of both beloved and lover is incandescent.
Cyrano, by Edmond Rostand; adapted for the stage by Jo Roets | Directed by Tess Van Horn | Produced by the Theater at Monmouth, in repertory | Through Aug. 19 | Visit www.theateratmonmouth.org.