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by Kilian Melloy
Monday Jul 16, 2018
Andrea Goldman and Jeremiah Kissel in 'Cyrano,' continuing through Aug. 11 at Gloucester Stage Company
Andrea Goldman and Jeremiah Kissel in 'Cyrano,' continuing through Aug. 11 at Gloucester Stage Company  (Source:Gary Ng)

Jason O'Conell and Brenda Withers refresh (thought they don't exactly reinvent) the classic 1897 play "Cyrano de Bergerac," penned by Edmond Rostand.

"Cyrano," running through Aug. 11 at the Gloucester Stage Company, follows the plot and characterizations of the original play, but takes some real delight in contemporizing the dialogue and adding in some knowingly anachronistic flourishes. Under direction of Robert Walsh - a longtime Actors' Shakespeare project stalwart - this New England premiere production also incorporates some of ASP's signature techniques, particularly in terms of lighting and staging. Then there's the use of a small cast: Five actors portray all the play's roles, a challenge that opens the door to some winking comedy even as it underscores the technical prowess of the cast, and Walsh's direction handles the demands of portraying so many characters with so few people both ably and comfortably.

The play starts off with a more or less literal bang, and things get a little meta - they also get a little classical, in terms of a story contrivance that introduces the entire cast in a configuration that is both a group pietĂ  and a presentiment of things to come, being echoed in a lovely, bookended close.

Paul Melendy and Jeremiah Kissel in 'Cyrano,' continuing through Aug. 11 at Gloucester Stage Company  (Source:Gary Ng)

Between times is the familiar story, but told in a whip-crack fashion, with the wry, ironic sensibilities of 21st century rubbing up against the classical romanticism of the classic play (love, war) and its inherently comic - though ultimately tragic - central device: The eloquent hero, Cyrano (Jeremiah Kissel, bringing a gracious stoicism to the role) is so insecure about his looks (he has a large, or at least ugly, nose) that even though he is smitten by Roxane (Andrea Goldman) he actively helps a rival, the shy young Christian (James Ricardo Milord) court her. It's Cyrano who lends his words - and sometimes his voice - to Christian's efforts at courtship.

Cyrano and Christian are both military men, and they are under the command of a foppish nobleman called DeGuiche (Paul Melendy) who, like just about everyone else, is entranced by Roxane's smarts and beauty. It's within DeGuiche's power to toy with Cyrano and Christian, and he does so, eventually sending them to the front in France's war with Spain. Hunger and danger don't quell Cyrano's quill, though; he writes a torrent of elegant love letters to Roxane.

The historical Cyrano de Bergerac was a celebrated and influential writer and, if various biographical sources are to be believed, led something of a dissolute life. His actual life - what's known and supposed about it, anyway - could be the basis for a more historically accurate play, but the themes of "Cyrano" have stood the test of time for good reason. It's all about judging a person for the content of his character rather than the size of his schnoz.

'The 100 Man Battle': Paul Melendy, Erin Nicole Washington, Andrea Goldman and James Ricardo Milord and Jeremiah Kissel (back to camera) in 'Cyrano,' continuing through Aug. 11 at Gloucester Stage Company  (Source:Gary Ng)

O'Connell and Withers master a contemporary tone with their dialogue, but more gratifying are the ways in which they update other elements of the play - such as, of course, the celebrated duel near the start of the play between Cyrano, a fluent swordsman, and Valvert (another contestant for Roxane's hand). Valvert, played by Melendy, has little to do aside from being trounced both in combat and in verbal wit by Cyrano, who mocks him for the paltry wit of his insult about Cyrano's nose. Cyrano thrashes Valvert with his swordsmanship, while simultaneously unreeling a number of much funnier, more biting nose-centric gags that take a modern approach designed to appeal to contemporary audiences.

More lively sword work follows when Cyrano takes on a band of 100 mercenaries waiting to jump him, and single-handedly vanquishes them. It's quite the throw-down, with the entire cast - including Erin Nicole Washington, who plays Lebret, among other characters - scrambling around on Jenna McFarland Lord's set (which serves as seaside cliffs, estate garden, and war-torn field, among other settings), while Russ Swift's lighting and David Wilson's sound design amp up a notch or three. Elisabetta Politic's costume design leads the way in another arena; the play's wardrobe is poised between antiquity and today, incorporating influences from past and present.

There's such a hurly burly going on that it can be a little hard to follow the character switches, even though they are often done in such a broad manner as to be unmistakable. (The costuming is key here, as is - in one instance - a deliberately laughable fake potbelly.) At other moments, the particular choices about who plays which role seem more pragmatic and artistic; one actor's doomed character is scarcely dispatched before he's back in nun drag, and while there's plenty of cross-gender casting going on, the effect in this instance is distracting.

But speed and laughter are the interlocking keys to this production, and if you get a little lost along the way it doesn't prevent you from arriving at the destination the authors, and the director, have in mind. "Cyrano"'s many constantly moving pieces add up to comic dazzlement.

"Cyrano" continues through August 11 at Gloucester Stage. Tickets and more information at http://gloucesterstage.com/cyrano/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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