The word panache entered the lexicon at the finale of Edmond Rostand’s 19th century French drama in verse “Cyrano de Bergerac.” British writer Anthony Burgess preserved that panache in his 20th century translation and adaptation. And panache aplenty remains in director Penny Metropulos’s production of “Cyrano,” based on Burgess, now at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. But that panache is served up with a twist of irony so tart that it dissipates some of the romance of the original.
One example of that irony comes in a line from the play’s famous balcony scene, where the hunky young baron Christian (Nick Dillenburg, typecast as Handsome) woos the out-of-his-intellectual-league Roxane (Julie Jesneck). No wordsmith, Christian has enjoyed some success with Roxane up to this point only because he has been parroting the words fed to him by the title character, who is himself in love with his cousin Roxane but is certain that she is repelled by his extravagant nose. In the balcony scene, Christian decides to speak to Roxane in his own words. Cyrano, knowing that the tongue-tied Christian will fall flat in his effort, replies, “Speak for yourself, sir.”
The irony is that Cyrano, as accomplished with words as he is with swords — which is to say extraordinarily accomplished — is the one who fails to speak for himself, frozen by his fear of rejection. Is Cyrano correct about how Roxane would judge him? That question will be addressed at length in the play — and at three hours long, the Chicago Shakes production has plenty of time to explore it — but perhaps the more apt question should be: Even with a perfect nose, how likeable would Cyrano be?
Harry Groener, whose nuanced performance as Cyrano is reason enough to see this show, portrays his character warts and all. In the end, we see Cyrano not so much as a lovesick underdog but as a flaming narcissist. Cyrano enters Act I as a killjoy, closing down a play within the play, as Parisians gather in 1640 at the Theatre Beaujolais to watch the actor Montfleury (Richard Baird in a very funny turn) emote from within a cloud. Cyrano has decreed that Montfleury should not perform; he does not trust theatergoers to make their own judgments.
When Cyrano learns that 100 thugs are waiting to ambush the poet Lignière, he appoints himself as the inebriated poet’s protector, facing up to the entire throng and slaying a half dozen. The line between guardian and overzealous crusader becomes uncomfortably thin. Despite his ample talents, Cyrano comes off as something of a loner and a bully.
As good as Groener is, “Cyrano” is not a solo show, and it works best when Groener is matched with complementary actors, especially Sean Fortunato as Henri Le Bret, Cyrano’s only confidant. Ross Lehman, as pastry cook Ragueneau, leavens the proceedings nicely. But Jesneck seems to be in another production, enunciating Roxane’s words as from a 1930s movie.
Audiences can feast their eyes on sumptuous sets designed by Kevin Depinet and period costumes in autumnal colors by Susan E. Mickey, while costumed musicians (Dave Belden, Elliott Delman and Regina Leslie) entertain their ears. Credit goes to fight director Rick Sordelet for the convincing swordplay and to wig and make-up designer Melissa Veal for the 40 hairpieces used in the production and for that important prosthetic, the nose that never quits.
Cyrano de Bergerac
Through Nov. 10, 1013
Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave., on Navy Pier
Tickets $48–$78 at (312) 595-5600 or chicagoshakes.com
Photos: Liz Lauren