Rosen Roundup & Cultural Review
Without heart and without nose, BAM's new Cyrano falls flat
It’s the New York Times Critics’ Pick that everyone’s talking about. It’s the fresh reimagining of an age-old love story, with a larger-than-life central character who’s famous visage precedes his own name. It can’t possibly disappoint, can it?
Martin Crimp’s new version of Cyrano de Bergerac, the French play written in 1897 by Edmond Rostand, is certainly as advertised. It’s brave, intelligent, and potentially revolutionary in its stage design. But if you’re going to strip away the costumes, the set, the swords, and the prosthetics from the story, and lay bare the revealing core, that core better be something special. The Jamie Lloyd Company’s Olivier-winning production reveals a core that is missing the heart and the meaning of Cyrano, as well as what we love about theatre.
Director Jamie Lloyd has claimed in previous interviews that he believes the essence of Cyrano is really his insecurity – something we can all relate to. Yet even if this is true, even if this was the essence of the character, he gives us a Cyrano with whom it is impossible to sympathize. James McAvoy, bringing all his blustering energy to this role, is not simply without physical deformity; he is quite clearly the alpha male on stage in every way. He is bigger, stronger, sexier, fiercer, and smarter than anyone else in view. He is fueled by anger and a dangerous passion that is reminiscent of his transformative shape-shifting monster in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split (2016), but not a human being hopelessly in love.
Somehow every other character on the stage heralds him as a hero, citing an invisible good-nature that the audience is supposed to accept or imagine, in addition to the nose. There is no insecurity or vulnerability suggesting any real pain. There are tears, but from where they come is unclear, perhaps because the love on which the whole play balances is nowhere to be found.
“I love words, that’s all” is a phrase which at one point is intricately and emphatically plastered across the backdrop of the play’s action. It appears to be an accurate representation of the director’s true feelings, being that he has chosen to have the actors play not to each other, but to the audience for the majority of the performance. They face us, yet talk to one another – which would work if they were reacting to one another, but instead we get strong acting and emotion that exists inside a vacuum. The love that is supposed to blossom between characters is nonexistent and is replaced with beautiful language and one quite erotic monologue that leaves the play lacking. There is no connection, and no one is moved. As the old saying goes, “it’s not what you say, but how you say it.”
We have trouble buying into this version of Cyrano de Bergerac because no one on stage seems really to be affected by anything. It’s clear from the very start, as the character Montfleury’s sandals-and-sweatshirt-styled Hamlet tells us all too clearly – he doesn’t really care. When Cyrano begins berating him from the audience and threatening him to leave the stage, he’s not truly scared or intimidated, and neither does he truly care about his performance being undermined. The rest of the play follows suit, too self-indulgent to spark any excitement in the spectator.
The performances are too carved out and perhaps too lived-in, so that the shadows of the real people who inhabited the roles fade away and all we are left with are clever choices and language which is so interested in how it sounds, it forgets what it is even saying. Actors mistake muscle for effectiveness, and critics mistake this seriousness for power.
The merit of this production is found in many things – the imaginative design and minimalist structure, the modern themes and clever rap-poetics, the casting, the brave reshaping of such an outdated tale, as well as the commitment of the creative team to such precise and thoughtful choices. It’s tremendously impressive, but none of these things are why we go to the theater. We go to be moved, to feel, and be affected by real human beings having an experience right in front of us.
In our post-pandemic theatre, it is not enough to have intellectuality, there must also be truth – emotionally and philosophically.
In this way, Cyrano leaves theatergoers’ stomachs empty. Like a delicious meal that is smelt but that never actually comes. Every scene is a tempting, mouthwatering item on a grand menu, but of which the kitchen, they regret to inform you, is all out. Maybe I just caught the restaurant on a bad night. Or maybe this restaurant that is getting so much attention and notoriety, is not being discussed accurately. After all, this Cyrano has no nose; maybe it’s time we all acknowledge it.
Cyrano de Bergerac runs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater until May 22. Tickets start at $45 and are available at https://www.bam.org/cyrano.
Evan Rosen is a playwright and actor living in Brooklyn, NY. He is a co-founder of the acting troupe, The Brooklyn Playhouse, and his latest play “Don Chimnee’s… The Montgomery Test” will premiere this summer at the New York Theater Festival. He has studied film at the University of Michigan and acting at the Terry Knickerbocker Studio. Evan can be reached at [email protected]
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