Long before singles misrepresented themselves in their Tinder profiles or cribbed others’ memes online, there was Cyrano de Bergerac— the man who would be Romeo, if not for that monstrous appendage.
You know the guy: Musketeer type, profuse poet, besotted of Roxane, big honkin’ nose. Comedian Steve Martin popularized him for mainstream America with 1987’s tender, tears-of-a-clown film Roxanne.
In whatever incarnation, the story is about a man gifted with rapier wit, heroic bravery and pure passion – beloved by all but unloved (at least in the way he craves) by any – cursed with celibacy — because of a fatal flaw. The work declares that nobody’s perfect and everybody’s insecure about some aspect of their being.
Boy, does it declare it. Edmond Rostand’s original play roars with melodramatic bluster, written in verse and reflecting the outsize ego of playwright, director, actor all rolled into one critic of society, the insightful Cyrano. As with Shakespearean dialogue, its cleverness is layered thick, making even the most enlightened audience member feel inadequate.
But the Mask and Bauble Dramatic Society’s production of Cyrano, a 2011 adaptation by Michael Hollinger and Aaron Posner, is refreshing in its magnanimity. Not only is it delivered in colloquial English, it’s infused with a rich hierarchy of humor – the jokes on the page compounded by a reservoir of winks and “thinks” from these smart college kids.
Because, after all, there’s a phallus on that guy’s face.
The character Cyrano is a showy, erudite French cadet secretly in love with his distant cousin, the virtuous Roxane and most eligible bachelorette in town — in fact, the only bona-fide woman onstage. But there’s a war going on, and men have their priorities: make war, not love. The character Roxane is often reduced to an object of desire; here, even the villainous commander of the troops, the Count de Guiche, intends to win her. But Roxane is taken with the “new guy,” Christian, a red-blooded meathead, which pierces Cyrano to the soul. Rather than wither in defeat, he rises to the challenge of puppet master and decides to use Christian as a vessel to woo her – ghost-writing epistles and coaching him on romance, while directing his own tragic love triangle.
Enter Greg Ongao (Cyrano), Taylor Rasmussen (Roxane) and James Callaway (De Guiche). They are a trio of actors who wow with technique.
Anticipation builds during an overwrought preamble before the audience gets a glimpse of Cyrano, but we are abundantly rewarded when Ongao plants himself onstage. Ugly?! Ongao is luminous and will take your breath away. The depth of his dagger eyes and patter of his elocution, synched with heartful pitter-patter, speaks volumes. And speaking volumes is exactly what he’s tasked to do – so many lines! But he performs with more gusto than the character is endowed, balancing Cyrano’s perfect insecurities with an infectious, and genuine, romanticism. (His balcony serenade in Act 2 is the height of bold and true.)
The proceedings only get better once we whiff the refined nectar of Rasmussen. This lady is no object. She is the full-bodied formula of what a woman should be: brainy, cocksure and captivating. I would classify her as the adult here. She’s a lusciously powerful performer. Funny. Firm. Flawless. Every nuance in tone, gesture and expression are delightfully on point.
Callaway also anchors the cast with his mature, memorable presence. A solicitous cat-and-mouse scene between him and Rasmussen is an evening highlight. He turns a haughty “heavy” de Guiche into a comic foil and then a sage with a spin of the prize wheel.
The entire frat-pack cast displays great promise, notably Ben Sullivan, who multitasks as voluptuous nurse Desiree and utility jester, and Benjamin Lillian, commanding as Capt. Le Bret, BFF to Cyrano and in the thankless role of narrator. “Thankless” because who wouldn’t prefer at this stage of life to be the romantic lead or a caricature type that can be overplayed for laughs – yet Lillian’s natural thespian pedigree shines through with dignified cool.
It figures that the venue, Poulton Hall Stage III, sits a heartbeat from Georgetown University’s linguistics department and that this production was directed by linguistics major and graduating senior Nicholas Norberg. Every pun pops. Swordplay is but a sheath for the boisterous wordplay. “Insults to a nose” might get you snorting. And while some of the dialogue threatens to bore, Norberg enlivens the pulse with modern inflections and staging that utilize each corner of stage, so that a simple, cogent set design by Makayla Kessel seems to engage as a pinball machine. Joong Won Pyo’s lighting design also gets the job done and is a seamless accent to Molly O’Shea’s sound effects.
And I’d be remiss not mentioning nursing student Lura Auel, whose makeup work is the show’s crux. Of course, she’d have to be an expert in anatomy to get that nose just right. What is it about a nose and its metaphor as truth-teller? From Pinocchio to “I smell a rat” to “clear as the nose on your face” – even the deceit of a transformational nose job – this protuberance ferrets out wisdom. Could explain the lasting power of Cyrano: the hypocrisy of a poet purporting to be all head and heart when we all know passion drives poetry and that Man not only can’t keep “it” in his pants, “it’s” a telltale sign on his face. Talk about wearing one’s organ on one’s sleeve. Oh, dirty jokes abound between the lines of this youthful joust!
Interestingly, the legacy of Mask and Bauble is that of underground theater so rebellious that the first couple of stages were shut down (the troupe has now graduated to Stage III). Alumni include none other than John Wilkes Booth, Don Ameche, John Barrymore, Eileen Brennan and the recently departed Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Knowing this upon entering the 70-seater-plus black box, I couldn’t help but relish the empty benches onstage. When on a dare a patron clambered onto one and had to be disciplined by Norberg, who was in the house and dressed to the hilt with first-time producer Annie Ludtke, I applauded their swift justice.
Because, ultimately, Cyrano is about the universal inner struggle between wanting attention and not wanting to be judged. That never-can-win contest between lust and love – Cyrano and Christian are two sides of the same human drive, like a Jekyll-Hyde coin toss. Which is the purest motive: that which is moral or primal? And why can’t we be it all and have it all? Or are we, in spite of ourselves, the “full package” and just can’t face it?
The upshot: This effervescent production — part Don Quixote, part Les Mis and running on eight testosterone-charged pistons — is a real humdinger. See it with someone you lust.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including a 10-minute intermission.
Cyrano plays through February. 27, 2016, at Poulton Hall Stage III, Georgetown University-1421 37th Street, NW (at the corner of P Street, next to UPS store), in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 687-3838, or purchase them online.