“Oh, well sir, what a nose of his! When a man sees this, he abuses to cry aloud, ‘No!’ It’s too much!”
In any case, it’s hard to cry – because this is how, unfortunately, the title character of “Cyrano de Bergerc” is usually portrayed, both in the first English translation of the play, a year after its premiere in Paris in 1897, and since then more or less.
But in a version that opened at the BAM Harvey Theater on Thursday, “Cultivated Freely” by Martin Crimp – so free it almost amounts to a new play – the floral sentences and ancient dictation of Edmund Rostand’s Abel Epoch verse drama, at least in the same way. Processed in English, finally completely swept away. Cyrano is now presented quite differently:
“It is said that when he enters through the vagina of his mother / nose stands first as a painful reminder.”
This is not your Grand Mer’s Sirano. Replacing Rostand’s impressive Alexandrines with more bouncy rhythms, his tongue-in-cheek with simple speech and the perfect rhyme in those so slanted that they serve as a slanted response, Crimp casts the action into a world intoxicated by the language as it is actually spoken. It is also a world in which, as the baker of his lord (now also a poet) predicts, “there is going to be a new power of words.”
Is there ever! And that’s just one of the reasons this production, directed by Jamie Lloyd and starring James McAvoy in an almost truly spectacular performance, is a victory. Another is that new words reveal new people.
Yes, the main story still wears the same triangular shape you might remember from the Broadway revival (14 since 1898), cinematic adaptations (like Steve Martin’s 1987 film) and at least four musicals (including the current one starring Peter Dinklage). The beautiful Roxanne still falls in love with the piece of Christianity, barely verbal, that in order to satisfy her lust for poetry relies on Cyrano to script his courtship. And Sirano is still in love with Roxanne, though he never risks saying so because of this prominent bow.
But in none of the many versions I have seen, even the best ones, does the story seem alive or its characters completely human. The verse of the rainbow, no less than the skies and pantalons, all too often turns Sirano into a bouncy Fop, which is exactly what he is not. Roxanne, trapped in her sculptures, has no sex or agency; Christian has no emotion other than what Sirano provides. When their friends and followers and even their enemies melt into an indistinguishable mass of films, watching a play usually feels like a historical competition, or a three-hour animated exhibition in Versailles.
There is nothing historical or animatronic in Lloyd’s production. The action, though still taking place in 1640, is taking place simultaneously at any time and now. (The Thirty Years ‘War of the 17th Century and the Algerian Revolution of the 20th continue both; the ambient sound is both French Baroque and Beatbox.) The simplicity of the characters’ speech matches the minimal design of Sutra Gilmore: Blond Wooden Stages. For the set, costumes you’d think you saw at Greenpoint last night. No feather pens, no feathers, no accessories.
And no, no, no, no.
That is, without a prosthesis. We are asked to consider not only what ugliness means and where a person resides, but how playing on words must give him confidence. Thus, this book has the crude reality of something invented in place, which is, as it happens, one of Sirano’s greatest skills. Only now, when he fights the sword while improvising a song, the song is as hard as rap and the sword is just a hand microphone.
Managed by McAvoy, both are amazing weapons. In his role, Cyrano’s passion is almost secondary to a manic sense of entitlement, partly in response to his physical self-hatred (a bit of a stretch with McAvoy, but let’s let him have his own private demons) and partly in response to what he described, in an interview with Laura Collins-Hughes in the Times , As a matter of production in “Toxic Masculinity.”
It is therefore no coincidence that McAvoy, who first played the role in an acclaimed London run interrupted by the plague, brings with him a cloud of superhero power from film roles like Charles Xavier in the “X-Men” series. For the first time in any version of “Sirano” I saw, the character’s impromptu brio, his girlfriends, his violence and even his plan to seduce his lover by a proxy, are all tied together in an unattractive package. When at some point he thinks Roxanne has summoned him to declare her love, his face is red with joy; It’s the same red we see in his rage.
I do not intend to reduce the production’s emphasis on beauty, but it’s a more complicated kind of beauty than we are used to. The scene where Sirano interrogates Christian has never felt so erotic, not only because of Sirano’s enthusiasm for his delivery but also because of Roxanne’s acceptance. As re-imagined by Crimp, and played by the stunning Evelyn Miller, Roxanne is completely independent in mind, even if not in income; She is sexually truthful, happily manipulative, flattering to men’s privilege but always sees it. Needless to say, in this version it does not end in a convent.
Christian (Ibn Figardo) is also not the toy soldier of most productions. As his dependence on Sirano grows, so does his reluctance and confusion. These lead to a shocking moment that nevertheless seems completely natural – and even necessary, completes the triangle.
This and a few other big changes in the story may feel like gimmicks to purifiers. They may also resist the Babylon of accents and bend the movements and smear the consonants in the play on speech.
Not Me: The tingling throbbing in McAvoy’s neck, and all the other sounds played by the incredibly diverse cast, including Michelle Austin as his renewed reggae and Veneeka Dadhria as the bubbling beatboxer, opened my ears to a story I knew all too well. Had I been occasionally stopped by Crimp’s more mysterious condescension – a messenger of a borscht belt? – I spent most of the two quick acts of the production fully engaged in its humor, pathos and rage.
And especially his rampage in words. This is a world where Cyrano can say “my role / expose my soul / then crawl back into my lone language hole,” makes you hear his hopelessness in the overflowing length of his lines. It’s a world where “I’ll rip his tongue off” is a bad curse from death. Would not you like to live there?
Cyrano de Berzerk
Until May 22 at BAM Harvey Theater, Brooklyn; bam.org. Running time: two hours and 40 minutes.