“Cyrano de Bergerac” is named for its hero but the poster for the Guthrie Theater’s “Cyrano” shows three characters. And that’s no coincidence.
“In a good production of ‘Cyrano,’ you have to love all three of those characters,” said Joseph Haj, who adapted Edmond Rostand’s play and directed the Guthrie production. Haj is referring to the prominently schnozzed poet/swordsman Cyrano (Jay O. Sanders), his beloved Roxane (Jennie Greenberry) and his friendly rival for Roxane’s hand, dapper Christian (Robert Lenzi), who asks Cyrano to craft words to help him woo Roxane.
“I’ve seen productions that treat Christian as a dolt and I think that’s not what Rostand intended,” the Guthrie artistic director said. “In the same way that Cyrano has this disfigurement, if you will, Christian — who loves Roxane as much as Cyrano does — simply comes apart in the presence of women. Unable to communicate. So it has to be a triangle. Christian cannot be a cipher. We tried to build a production where we care about all three characters deeply and where they all love each other and feel responsibility to each other. I think if you get that right, good things happen to the play.”
Another key is not to make Roxane come off as the “prize” in a whose-sword-is-bigger battle between two dudes.
“Roxane is an intellectual, someone who has turned down a million guys who have been attracted to her,” Haj said. “She thinks she’ll have a life of the mind with Christian and she, frankly, objectifies him when she first meets him because he is beautiful.”
Haj knows what he’s talking about. He had a lot of time to think about the play, since he first adapted “Cyrano” for PlayMakers Repertory Company in 2006, before the North Carolina theater hired him as artistic director. Although he admires the two adaptations favored by most contemporary theater companies, including an Anthony Burgess version that premiered at the Guthrie in 1971, Haj wanted to try to write something “more muscular, with more movement.”
Working with dramaturge Carla Steen, Haj tinkered with “Cyrano.” But he believes his adaptation remains faithful to what Rostand wrote 122 years ago. It’s part of a vein of French literature that goes back centuries to “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Beauty and the Beast,” stretching into the 20th century with the assertion from “The Little Prince” that: “It is only with the heart that one can see truly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“For years, the French have loved this question of: Where does beauty actually live? That’s a forever story,” Haj said. “I think all of us can register how we take a ‘blemish’ — whatever it is: our hair, our weight — and it becomes such a descriptor for ourselves that it makes us feel we are unworthy of love, unworthy of connection. If we were different from what we are, we think, then someone might care about us.”
The Guthrie hopes those themes resonate as strongly today as they did back in 1897, when legend has it that opening-night audiences met Rostand’s play with applause lasting more than an hour, refusing to leave the theater.
“I just love it,” Haj enthused. “It’s romantic. It’s funny. It’s swashbuckling. It’s a tragedy. I remember when we finished the read-through, Charity Jones [who plays two roles] said, ‘That’s a lot of play.’ ”
Cyrano. Nose. Best
There have been a variety of riffs on “Cyrano,” from a racially insensitive “Mister Magoo” to “Family Guy.” And a lot of great actors have played the big-nosed title character, from Kevin Kline to Gerard Depardieu (nominated for an Oscar for his Cyrano in 1991) to José Ferrer (who won an Oscar in 1951).
Most versions use some aspect of the “Cyrano” story but just about all include some take on the famous “moonlight” scene, with Cyrano feeding romantic lines to tongue-tied Christian. Or, as the title character puts it in “Cyrano de Woody Woodpecker,” “Relax. Just say what I tell ya.”
From cartoon characters to Serious Actors, there’s something for almost everyone in our “Cyrano” rankings, rated by the nose:
There are no fake noses in this charming, gender-flipped update. Janeane Garofalo is the Cyrano, here dubbed Abby, who romances a hot dude (Ben Chaplin) with the help of a friend played by Uma Thurman. The Cyrano, Christian and Roxane characters are blended in a way that freshens the triangle romantique, with the comedy pulling off the trick of making a story enacted by three extremely attractive people feel like it’s not all about appearance.
“Cyrano de Bergerac” (1950)
José Ferrer won an Oscar for a performance that comes off a little too actor-y now (what’s with the English accent, performer who was from Puerto Rico and plays a Frenchman here?). But Ferrer’s elegant, genuinely funny Cyrano grows on the viewer. And he shines in the scene when Cyrano demonstrates his wit by reeling off a string of put-downs of his own nose. THREE NOSES
“C,” Theater Latté Da (2016)
Style points for Theater Latté Da’s handsome adaptation, with music by Robert Elhai and lyrics by Bradley Greenwald (who also played Cyrano). But the show struggled to hit all the elements of the massive story.
If all three corners of the romantic triangle are meant to be important, Steve Martin’s adaptation is a failure, since Daryl Hannah’s title character is colorless and Rick Rossovich’s Chris is handsome but virtually personality-free. As a result, the stakes don’t feel especially high. But Martin — whose character is redubbed Charlie — is excellent in the high-comedy scenes, particularly in his 20 zingers about his own schnozz. (Fun fact: In real life, Rossovich’s nose is much larger than Martin’s.) TWO NOSES
“The Ugly Truth” (2009)
The Cyrano is model-handsome Gerard Butler, which is insane. But the comedy gets points for innovation since its Christian character (Katherine Heigl) ends up with Cyrano. In the absense of the famous insult scene, we get a sequence, expertly paced by director Robert Luketic, that involves Heigl and a sex toy (since his “Win a Date With Tad Hamilton” also boasts a “Cyrano” element, Luketic is something of a Cyrano recidivist). TWO NOSES
“Cyrano de Bergerac,” Theatre de la Jeune Lune (1998)
The late critic Mike Steele, ordinarily a Jeune Lune devotee, said the production lacked romance, which is kind of a problem in a romantic comedy. Even worse? Steele wrote that there was no wit to the production, where “There’s no dominant tone beyond playfulness, and things get sticky when they get close to the bone, into that area where real love, soul and humanity get exposed. More often than not, this production undercuts those moments or confuses them.”