Wayback machine, updated: ‘Cyrano,’ ‘School for Lies’

Refreshed classics at Portland Center Stage and Theatre Vertigo bring a giddy back-to-the-future tint to the theater season

Crank up the DeLorean, kids: we’re headin’ back in time. All of a sudden it’s Wayback Machine season on Portland stages. It started with a pair of American classics, Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer at Shaking the Tree and Arthur Miller’s The Price at Artists Rep. Then, on Friday night, Cyrano opened at Portland Center Stage and The School for Lies at Theatre Vertigo. And the history party isn’t over: this Friday, Post5 unveils a new production of Twelfth Night, and on April 24 the young Scuttlemagoon Players (is there a more vividly named troupe in town?) open a fresh adaptation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal.

So far, it’s been a highly entertaining time trip. Center Stage’s Cyrano is a brash contemporary version by Michael Hollinger and Aaron Posner of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 French play Cyrano de Bergerac, one of the last gasps of grand Romanticism on the theater stage. Hollinger and Posner have loosened the language and considerably shortened the original, which can stretch into the wee hours of the morning, to a swift and compact two and a half hours. The School for Lies is the excellent David Ives’s very free adaptation of Molière’s The Misanthrope, tossed off in rhyming couplets with a sly modern twist. Cyrano charmed and moved me in spite of itself, as a good production of this outlandish tale inevitably does. The School for Lies was one of the funniest, most bracing evenings of theater I’ve enjoyed in a long time.

 *

Taylor and McGinn: drunk on words. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Taylor and McGinn: drunk on words. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

“A shabby little shocker,” music writer Joseph Kerman famously called Puccini’s opera Tosca, and in a lot of ways he was right, but in the end, who cares? – the music and the drama carry the day. In a way, Cyrano de Bergerac fits the same mold. It’s oddly structured, far-fetched, and dripping with adolescent bravado and Romanticism. Its hero is less tragic than pathetic (as are Romeo and Juliet), and its heroine is maybe a little more dim-witted than she really ought to be. Cyrano is one of those memorable plays that isn’t great but is extraordinarily effective, and when done well it can be a huge amount of fun as it roils your emotions. Most of the evening hinges on Cyrano himself, that great, bulbous-honkered, battling bounder of a poet. In Cyrano (the character really existed in 17th century France, and was noted as a writer and a duelist) Rostand found a sort of mythological hero, a Greek demigod capable of extraordinary feats and cursed with an all-too-human weakness: an inability to see beyond the freakishness of his own nose.

Hollinger and Posner have cut the original’s cast of thousands to a nice neat nine, four of them (Darius Pierce, Chris Harder, Gavin Hoffman, Damon Kupper) making up a tip-top chorus that steps nimbly in and out of several roles, providing plot propulsion, soldierly camaraderie, the odd bit of swordplay, backstage palaver, and a good deal of comic byplay. These four are key to the revised piece, and their adeptness at providing full character (or at least, caricature) in fleeting passages makes the thing feel bigger than it is: the effect of Kupper in a servant’s dress is infinitely removed from that of Harder in a nun’s habit. They are abetted ably by Leif Norby and Brian Gunter in deft turns as, respectively, the imperious womanizer De Guiche and as Le Bret, soldier and de facto narrator of the tale. That leaves the crucial trio at the center of the action: Colin Byrne as Christian, the handsome but tongue-tied young soldier; Jen Taylor as Roxane, the beauty whom Cyrano adores, and who is smitten by Christian; and Andrew McGinn as Cyrano himself, the beautiful soul in the ugly package who becomes Christian’s mouthpiece in his bid to woo Roxane. Was ever there such a noble fool?

The script, and Jane Jones’ crisp direction of it, provides a big contemporary wink at Rostand’s original, breezing through scenes with a quick comic remove before it settles into the meat of the matter. For the first half of the first act things stayed light and self-amused, and I wondered if the whole thing was going to stay a sort of comic meta-commentary on the dripping Romanticism of the original. But gradually things deepened, and the production revealed a good, practical adaptation for modern audiences, losing some of the sweep and grandeur of the original but maintaining its basics and staying devotedly with Rostand’s intentions in the clutches.

Norby and Taylor: unwanted attentions. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

Norby and Taylor: unwanted attentions. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv

The magic of Cyrano is that the old swashbuckler’s pain and sacrifice seep deeply into your own soul as you’re watching the play, and you are moved – I’m moved – by the pitiable sadness of it all. McGinn’s performance as Cyrano, at turns rustic and quicksilver and taunting and achingly open, make it easy to fall into the alchemy. And Taylor’s Roxane is bright, brave, and witty, not so much the ideal of perfection on a pedestal that Cyrano sees as a real, attractive, potential lover and friend. I’m a little less taken with the way the script seems to present Christian as a buffoon, a dolt in a gorgeous package. I like to think of him rather as a good soldier and good man who is formidable in his own way but is simply not right for Roxane: It’s her late realization that the soul is more important than the flesh that provides the poignancy to the play, and if Christian is so obviously no match for Cyrano, her inability to see that makes her seem a little dim, too.

It could be that Cyrano is one of those pieces that works best when you’re 17 years old, like La Boheme or Carmen or Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis. Yet a show that can make you feel again as deeply and unashamedly as you did when you were 17 serves a great purpose. And Cyrano, with all of its heartbreaking panache, achieves that in aces. Three cheers and a flourish of a feathered hat to that.

 *

Dunkin and Cordell: can this be love? Photo: Gary Norman

Dunkin and Cordell: can this be love? Photo: Gary Norman

Vertigo’s The School for Lies is, quite simply, a hardboiled delight. I walked in not knowing much about it, except that it’s by Ives, a playwright whose work I like a lot, and it’s a very loose adaptation of The Misanthrope, one of those satiric classics to benefit in English from a superb translation by the great Richard Wilbur. Ives’s updating doesn’t replace the Wilbur so much as sit confidently beside it, a brasher and bawdier interpretation of the same (or, given Ives’s freewheeling liberties, let’s say similar) material. Molière subtitled his play The Cantankerous Lover, and Ives’s version dips deeply into that delicious duality.

The School for Lies is delivered in iambic-pentameter rhyming couplets, and in Ives’s version it’s a rough-and-tumble poetry, a brash barrage of rude entendre and cheeky wit. Director JoAnn Johnson and her ensemble (like Cyrano, it has nine actors) handle the turns with gutsy aplomb, letting the rhythms accentuate themselves without falling into singsong. Everything’s syncopated and artificially heightened: exaggeration’s the name of the game, but it’s exaggeration with a shape. Johnson’s keen understanding of the material is essential to this production’s success: School is contemporary but classic, as a satire its comedy is more of the head than the heart, a mastery of style is essential to it, and Ives’s script manages witty nods not only to Molière but also to Shakespeare and the Restoration comedy that his title suggests.

When Vertigo moved to the little Shoebox Theatre I worried a bit about how the company’s shows would fare. It’s a tiny space, with fewer than 40 seats, and its intimacy requires a precise and honest relationship with the audience, which is close enough to touch. For this show, at least, the match seems perfect. Yes, everything’s played big. It’s also played with crisp control, and for the audience, the closeness is part of the allure: In a play “where even the artifice is artificial,” as Ives writes, you can see every line of makeup, catch every flicker of the eye, practically count the stitches in the seams of every dress.

Ives’s bilious hero, Frank (played here with droll belligerence by Nathan Dunkin) is a little like Cyrano, though an upside-down version of that Romantic swooner: he sees a world of fools and sycophants, and believes himself superior to compromises and compromisers. He excoriates all dissemblers, railing like Hugh Laurie’s curdled House against art and artifice, whether it be bad poetry (a pox on Oronte’s head!) or foofie food (let’s send the tray of canapés flying!). That Dunkin does so in modern black-leather motorcycle mode while the rest of the cast is dressed by costumer Casey Ballard mostly in period finery (and Heath Koerschgen, as the foppish and curiously mispronounced Clitander, in an absolute excess of wiggery) only adds to the sardonic fun.

Koeerschgen: bewigged, bothered, and bewildered. Photo: Gary Norman

Koeerschgen: bewigged, bothered, and bewildered. Photo: Gary Norman

Dunkin is matched barb for barb by Stephanie Cordell’s seductively imperious Celimene, the wealthy widow whose snarky slanders could cost her everything, and whose sudden affections for Frank, at the beginning at least, are served on a platter of lies. Celimene is a woman who understands the politics of position and wealth, but who can’t quite control her impulses to play a dangerous game of truth and consequences. Cordell brings her impishly and excoriatingly to life. Koerschgen, Tom Mounsey as the politic and lovestruck Philinte, and Holly Wigmore as Celimene’s wicked stepfriend Arsinoé also sparkle in this solid cast.

The capper on this rollicking production is the deus ex machina that Ives so providentially provides, and that director Johnson so obviously understands. This sudden confluence of coincidence that ties things up so neatly isn’t a desperate means of wrapping up loose ends. On the contrary, it’s one final fling of artificiality, a glorious and generous joke shared with the audience, a wry reminder, in the form of an impossibly perfect ending, that life is all too often the very opposite. Without giving too much away, I’ll just point out that the dénouement includes a Clark Kent/Superman-style transformation moment. Let’s leave it at that.

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