Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday Evening on the Upper West Side: Hudson Warehouse presents "Cyrano" in Riverside Park

At the end of tonight's performance of Cyrano by the Hudson Warehouse at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument in Riverside Park, we found ourselves fighting back tears, a testimony either to the sentimentality of an old fool or the high quality of the play we'd just seen, since it was also filled with laughs and amazingly good action sequences.
Directed by Hudson Warehouse founder Nicholas Martin-Smith, whose work we last saw a year ago in the company's innovative Hamlet, the adaptation of Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac (a play many people mistakenly believe is much older than its 1897 date, probably because of the play's 17th century setting) by Joe Hamel, who played the title role with, well, panache.

It's always great to be in this neighborhood, where we spent our summers (three blocks away from here) in 1980s, and it was nice to be out of the house on a night that wasn't so oppressively hot that we were forced to stay home and watch Everybody Loves Ramen reruns.

Cyrano is a play which most people think they know, but don't really. We suspect that most of the people who unwittingly came upon the play in progress as they were about to walk through the monument with their dog, stroller or skateboard saw the impossibly long-nosed fellow and knew it was Cyrano.

But the play is actually more than the simple story of an ugly but articulate man writing love letters (expressing his own true feelings for a hopeless love) as a favor for his handsome but inarticulate friend.

It's a rich brew with a large cast of characters, a few of them quite distinctive in their own right, and here played expertly with a cast which always works as a unit, working together - yes, taking their star turns and getting their individaul laughs, but ultimately in service of presenting a believable world and moving the story forward.

The numerous fight scenes, with swords, of course, as well as a variety of other weapons including fists, are breathtakingly skillful and hilarious. The seemingly endless battle when Cyrano legendarily took on a hundred opponents is a tour de force choreographed by fight director Jared Kirby, who's a genius at this sort of thing.

There was a historical Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655), a playwright and duelist, and the story is based, very loosely, on his life. He was a witty and contentious man (though he reserved his most venomous satire for the man who'd been his lover for thirteen years) who did have a female cousin who lived with his aunt in a convent, did fight in a lesser battle at Arras during the Thirty Years' War between the French and Spanish, and he had a large nose - but not all that big.

The phallic nature of Cyrano's nose has always been difficult to ignore, and queer readings of the play have concentrated on how hard it is to conceal one's true self and deepest feelings. Cyrano tries to hide his love for Roxane; Christian tries to conceal his lack of verbal ability; and Cyrano has a complex and contradictory reaction to what makes him different from other people: he can both make fun of himself a thousand times better than anyone else can (as in the wonderful variety of witty self-directed insults he suggests to dullard Valvert in the duel early in the play) yet demand that his friends make no references to his most distinguishing characteristic or face his wrath.

The pathos of his hopeless love for Roxane, as well as Christian's own inability to get Roxane to love him for his true tongue-tied self, as well as the gallant nature when each in turn is willing to sacrifice his own best interests for those of a friend, gives the play its depth, but the comedy that permeates the work - in the form of characters like the baker/steward Bagueneau (played with brilliant comic timing by Ron Dreyer, who made a great Puck last summer in Midsummer Night's Dream) and others among the soldiers, servants, monks and nobles, as well as the verbal dexterity of the protagonist, is never lost until Cyrano's death at the play's conclusion.

Joseph Hamel was a winning, friendly, volatile and extremely funny Cyrano, but his hidden melancholy side is there all the time. It's a demanding role, full of style, but the actor made it look effortless.

To the character of Roxane, Amanda Jones brought dignity, vivacity and a slight petulance (it is, after all, kind of annoying to constantly ask for witty protestations of love from someone you apparently care about); in addition to her beauty, she had the depth that made you understand why two men are in love with her.

Matt Fraley's Christian was appropriately clueless at times, but it was always clear to the audience what a kind and sensitive person Christian is. With the audience rooting for Cyrano, it's sometimes hard to make Christian as sympathetic and noble as this actor does.

As the play's nominal "villain," De Guiche - who it turns out, as we suspected, is a pussycat after all - David Palmer Brown was outstanding. He's both blustery and phumphering, dynamic and distracted, and he gets the most flamboyant costume with the long wig. It's really interesting for us to see actors we saw last season like Brown (who was Polonius in Hamlet) or Tyler Hall (here, the Friar as as well as a dashing Bertrand; last season he was one of the multiple Hamlets) or Matt Fraley (who was either Rosencrantz or Guildenstern) and Ron Dreyer again.

Other terrific cast members included Emily Rose Parman as a gentle and earthy Lise; Vince Phillip as a sensible, loyal Le Bret; Valerie O'Hara as Roxane's dithery but protective duenna Marguerite; and Chel Shipley, Ryan Patrick Lingle, Roger Dale Stude and Coulby Jenkins as musketeers and various roles.

That some of these actors have worked together before, and with the director, probably makes these Hudson Warehouse productions so special. In his director's notes in the program, Nicholas Martin-Smith, discusses his realization that what his parents shared in their fifty years together was "true love," a friendship carried in a very simple way, without ego, and how that realization compelled him to direct and produce this Cyrano.

He and the cast succeeded in conveying that "true love" - not only in the passions of Cyrano, Roxane and Christian, but in the strong feelings of friendship and camaraderie among the entire ensemble.

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