Cyrano de Bergerac may be the greatest Shakespearean play that Shakespeare never wrote.
Such a statement is in no way meant to slight Edmond Rostand. The French poet and playwright was, at the time of his election in 1903, the youngest member ever admitted to the prestigious Academie, and managed to craft Cyrano at the ripe old age of 29—the guy was no slouch. But when we think of what makes Shakespeare’s masterpieces so revered—the lyricism of the language, the richness of the subtext, the intertwining of comedy and tragedy—we’re talking about the same things that make Cyrano de Bergerac so brilliant as a tragic romance. It’s Theater with a capital “T,” but it’s also more. It’s a uniquely human kind of poetry.
Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of Cyrano captures everything that is both intimate and epic about the play, but it all revolves around Patrick Page’s extraordinary lead performance in the title role. Cyrano is well-known in Paris for his wit, his poetry, his sword, his temper—and, of course, his unusually long nose. But unknown to all is his love for his gorgeous cousin Roxane (Tari Signor), a love he’s unwilling to profess since he’s convinced his appearance would make his love ridiculous to her. And it’s not as though Roxane doesn’t attract other suitors—the powerful Comte de Guiche (Remi Sandri) desires her despite his being married, and the tongue-tied young soldier Christian (James Knight) also professes his love. When Roxane expresses to Cyrano that she returns Christian’s attraction, he is at first crushed, until it occurs to Cyrano that he can serve as the eloquent voice of Christian’s love.
Much of the story is familiar even to those who have never seen the play—whispered lines from under a balcony, a string of self-proffered nose insults by Cyrano—but the complexity of that story is less widely appreciated. It’s not simply the tale of an ugly duckling who loves a swan; it’s about changing understanding of the nature of love. Cyrano professes love of Roxane not just for her beauty but for her soul, based on her kindness to him during their childhood friendship. But Roxane’s infatuation with the handsome Christian betrays a shallowness that Cyrano secretly fears, just as Christian’s willingness to be ghostwritten by Cyrano betrays his own lack of sincerity. Rostand constructs an unusual love triangle in which all three characters are dynamic, leading to a multifaceted tragedy of people who become worthy of love only when they have learned their lesson too late.
It’s a lovely, heartbreaking story, performed with what Cyrano himself would happily describe as “panache.” Page’s Cyrano is a force of nature, a man who has turned himself into a larger-than-life character as a defense mechanism against his insecurity about his appearance. As adept with a comically exaggerated French accent as he is with a sword, the actor shows a remarkable sense of comic timing, a nasty edge and a romantic heart in one package, all delivered with a commanding voice. Signor complements him beautifully as Roxane, while Knight adds puppy-dog earnestness as Christian. And Charles Morey skillfully directs the entire extensive cast through complex choreography and swings of tone between broad comedy and gentle soliloquies.
It sometimes seems unfair that PTC is able to mount visually dazzling productions no other local theater company could approach, but it is one of the simpler staging touches that gives this Cyrano the most soul. During an epilogue set in a convent during the autumn, red and orange leaves flutter from the rafters periodically, a poignant visual cue marking missed opportunities of lost years. As grand as the emotions and themes may be in Cyrano, Rostand always brings it back around to something as fragile and singular as a falling leaf. That’s not just a great evening at the theater. That’s downright Shakespearean.