Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier
When: through Nov. 10
By ANNE SPISELMAN
If what you remember most about Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac is the tragic Cyrano-Roxane-Christian love triangle, the current production at Chicago Shakespeare Theater will come as a surprise.
Using a translation/adaptation by Anthony Burgess, director Penny Metropulos shifts the emphasis away from the romantic plot and fixes it firmly on the character of Cyrano and his relationship to the rest of the world. She’s immeasurably helped in this by the virtuoso performance of Harry Groener as he of the pronounced proboscis, demonstrating as he did in “The Madness of George III,” directed by her in 2011 at CST, that he’s an actor of consummate skill and heart.
The play, though written in the late 19th century, is set between 1640 and 1654. We first see Cyrano at the Theatre Beaujolais, after hearing much gossip from the gathered patrons about his feud with the actor Montfleury (Richard Baird), who has defied his order not to appear for a month. Unleashing a torrent of witty repartee as sharp as his swordplay (thanks to fight director Rick Sordelet), Groener’s soldier-poet relishes his role excoriating almost everyone but also reveals the bitterness beneath the bravura. Led by his nose, as it were, he’s the victim of his own negative self image, believing no one can ever love him, despite evidence to the contrary from the ladies at the theater that’s pointed out to him by his friend and colleague, Henri Le Bret (Sean Fortunato), Captain of the Gascony Cadets.
Cyrano’s complex combination of reckless bravery and insecurity, perfectly captured by the sardonic, understated Groener, influences everything from his rout of the 100 men who attack the poet Lignière (Ray Chapman) to his insistence on insulting and alienating the powers that be, especially the Count de Guiche (Aloysius Gigl), who’s appointed Colonel of the Gascony Cadets. His antipathy stems mainly from the Count’s less-than-honorable advances toward Roxane (Julie Jesneck), the cousin Cyrano has secretly and silently adored since childhood.
The most familiar plot line kicks into gear when Roxane summons Cyrano to an early-morning meeting at Ragueneau’s (Ross Lehman’s) pastry shop. Arriving early and counting the minutes, he hopes she’ll show affection for him, but she comes to tell him of her love for the beautiful baron, Christian (Nick Dillenburg), and to enlist his protection for the new cadet in his regiment.
Cyrano, of course, promises, and after patiently deflecting taunts about his nose, befriends his young rival who, tongue-tied in the presence of his beloved Roxane, gets eloquent help in the letter-writing and balcony-scene love-making department.
But as the dynamics develop in Metropulos’ production, they’re as much about the friendship between Cyrano and Christian, particularly during the siege of Arras, as about either man’s passion for Roxane. One reason for this is Jesneck’s disappointingly superficial, one-dimensional Roxane. There is little chemistry between her and Dillenburg’s handsome, noble but not terribly interesting Christian, and she doesn’t betray any of the ballyhooed intelligence that would make her worthy of Cyrano’s unwavering passion. Even in the last scene 14 years after Christian’s death on the battlefield, when Cyrano makes his final weekly visit to the convent where she’s shut herself up and Roxane realizes the truth and what it means to recognize the beauty inside, all she manages to convey is her anger at him.
That — and the director’s statement in the program notes that she doesn’t view “Cyrano de Bergerac” as a tragedy — may be why, rather than being moved by Cyrano’s monumental self sacrifice to preserve Roxane’s belief in Christian’s undying love, I found myself thinking how stupid — and, indeed, vain — he was. His romantic gesture at Arras basically ruined the rest of her life and his own, except for the satisfaction he presumably got from being able to see her regularly. While Groener’s death scene was convincing in its low-key realism, the play came to an oddly unsatisfying conclusion.
Still, there’s plenty to admire along the way, from the many supporting actors swirling around Groener’s articulate and brilliant Cyrano to the soaring set by Kevin Depinet and sumptuous costumes by Susan E. Mickey, not to mention the makeup and wigs by Melissa Veal. “Cyrano de Bergerac” is far from Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s best show, but I suspect Groener’s performance will be remembered for years.