Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, December 2007
I confess that I have never seen or read any version of Cyrano de Bergerac before entering the Copake Grange on December 1, although that is hardly necessary since the basic plot of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play has entered the American vernacular. Everything from cartoons to feature films have made good use of the tale of the unattractive though articulate lover who lends his voice to the handsome but dim-witted suitor for the hand of the fair Roxane, or whoever the femme du jour may be.
I was not even aware that there really WAS a man named Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655) who was a great writer (science fiction, no less!) and a great swordsman, but who did not have an especially big nose.
Rostand’s famous play contains many true facts from the real Cyrano’s life: He did have a female cousin married to Baron de Neuvillette, and the Baron was a comrade in arms with Cyrano at the siege of Arras in 1640. Beyond that it is mostly fiction. Dramatic license, I think they call it.
The stage version being presented by Walking the dog Theater in Copake is an adaptation of Rostand by Flemish author Jo Roets which places the love triangle of Cyrano, Christian, and Roxane front and center. In fact the plot is rendered completely triangular as performed here by just three actors, as it was when originally staged by Roets’ troupe, Blauw Vier. The new twist Wtd gives the play is that Cyrano and Christian are played by women (Melania Levitsky and Benedicta Bertau, respectively) and Roxane is played by a man (David Anderson). Bertau is the Producing Artistic Director of Walking the dog, Anderson is the Executive Artistic Director, while Levitsky is a long time member of the troupe, all of whom are trained in the Michael Chekhov method of acting.
But this is not another Panto. This is a serious production of Roets’ pared down and linguistically lovely adaptation, and I could not even really discern a gender-political statement being made in the cross-dressing. These were simply the three best actors for the roles. I cannot imagine the play being presented by this troupe any other way.
This production, directed by Lenard Petit, was first presented by Walking the dog in Hudson this past summer, but it did not get the audience it deserved so the Copake Theatre Company graciously agreed to give them a second venue to present it this holiday season. If you, like me, are not a big fan of dancing nutcrackers, golden dreydls, ghosts in chains, or little boys in pink bunny suits, you should definitely make this your holiday theatre treat. And hurry, because it is only running one more weekend.
Levitsky is the only actor to play just one role. She is Cyrano throughout, with a lovely long, swooping proboscis. In the opening scene she shows it to us from every angle and gives us a run down of ways that different people might describe it. Roets’ version does not focus on Cyrano’s self-loathing and insecurity as much as Rostand’s. We understand why Cyrano does not feel free to woo Roxane for himself, but see little of his internal agony over his own appearance. Instead we feel acutely the pain of unrequited love as he can only watch from afar the blossoming passion between Christian and Roxane.
Anderson makes Roxane a beautiful and charming but shallow and heartless young woman. He is genuinely beautiful without much artifice save a wig of blonde ringlets, a good shave, and some rouge. He is not pretending to be a woman or being a man in drag, he is an actor playing a role that happens to be female. None of the performers are dressed or made up in a way to disguise their true gender, you just accept them as actors playing characters.
Bertau takes on a variety of male roles, and in a few scenes Anderson plays men or women other than Roxane. Bertau is, of course the dashing and tongue-tied Baron Christian de Neuvillette, and the repulsive Baron Antoine de Guiche who schemes for Roxane’s hand but never comes close to winning her heart. The butt-backward walk Bertau has developed for de Guiche is hilarious, and she makes each change of character clear with changes in posture, vocal inflections, and very minor costume changes (a different hat, a cape worn slightly differently.)
The final scene between Levitsky and Anderson is deeply moving and beautifully played, a delicate flourish at the conclusion of a grand passion.
I find the Copake Grange a fascinating and rustic venue. It was built by someone (and there are many such builders) who believed that a stage is merely a raised shoe-box at one end of a big room, but this particular shoebox is attractively paneled with wonderfully mellowed wood and has the most charming old footlights. I would not be surprised to learn that they were original to the building and had been converted from gas to electricity sometime in the 20th century. The stage also has an interesting side apron that has been oddly bisected by the wall CTC has erected to separate the lobby from the theatre. It is a most peculiar configuration which would be much too confusing to try to explain, you just have to see it.
This “Cyrano” is played inside the nearly naked box of the stage on Helen Suter’s playful set. Three hanging curtains up center allow for wonderful peek-a-boo antics and quick changes by the cast, notably when Cyrano fights 100 men single-handed. A lace drape gives us the position of Roxane’s balcony window, a disk attached to the back wall indicates sun and moon, and unpainted wooden boards and step ladders of various sizes become everything from the counter at Raguenau’s bakery to foxholes on the battle field.
No one really changes costumes. Each actor wears a basic, serviceable ensemble throughout and makes minimal changes to indicate different characters. The lighting options on the Copake stage are fairly minimal too, but Christine Wopat has done a nice job of using the available equipment to set mood and locale.
This “Cyrano” is an ideal opportunity to introduce a young person to this story, for it runs a mere hour and forty minutes with an intermission, and is lively and funny enough to engage a youngster’s interest and hold it through the serious scenes. I wouldn’t make a big deal about the cross-dressing, just say that women are the playing men and a man is playing the woman, and leave it that. If your children ask why, just say “Why not?”
The Copake Theatre Company presentation of Walking the dog Theater's production of Cyrano runs Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through December 9, at the historic Copake Grange, Empire Road at Route 7A, Copake, NY. The show runs an hour and forty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for ages 10 and up. Tickets are available by calling 518-325-1234.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007