When: Through Nov. 10
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand, on Navy Pier
Tickets : $48-$78
Info: (312) 595-5600;
Run time: 3 hours, with one intermission
For years now, Chicago Shakespeare Theater has been expanding the range of its repertory with classics that take its audience beyond the 38 works attributed to the Bard by drawing on everything from the plays of Alan Bennett to the musicals of Stephen Sondheim.
“Cyrano de Bergerac,” Edmond De Rostand’s sweeping tale of unrequited love endured with the most heroic “panache,” clearly fits the Shakespearean-like criteria. Grand in scale, it is a play with an intense focus on language (from the poetic spirit of romance, to the barbed edges of satire and comic rage), a slew of larger-than-life characters, a playful adoration of the theater world itself, flamboyant sword fights, and shifts in time and place that take us from a theater stage to a pastry shop, a battlefield to a convent garden.
In her lavish new production of “Cyrano,” director Penny Metropulos (who did such a memorable job with Bennett’s “The Madness of George III” in 2011), captures the splendor and deceit and showmanship of the play. And as Cyrano, which is a true bear of a role, her leading actor, Harry Groener (brilliant as the title character in “King George III”), once again demonstrates his masterful way with language, as well as his impressive physical grace, including a fearless way with Rick Sordelet’s thrilling fight choreography. But something absolutely crucial is missing: The heartbreaking emotion.
Cyrano, of course, is the alternately self-aggrandizing and self-flagellating nobleman-soldier whose grotesquely large nose has warped his life. But he IS capable of love. Not only is this Cyrano’s adoration of his beautiful young cousin, Roxane (Julie Jesneck), barely palpable, but his sense of hopelessness somehow never fully registers — even in that wholly self-sacrificing moment when he offers to “ghost-write” exquisite love letters on behalf of Christian (Nick Dillenburg), the young “pretty boy” Gascony cadet she adores.
Part of this can be attributed to Anthony Burgess’ clever yet at moments almost shrill translation (originally used for the subtitles of a 1990 French film version starring Gerard Depardieu). Part of it has to do with the sheer lack of chemistry among any of the actors, including Jesneck and Dillenburg. And part of it has to do with Jesneck’s rather chilly, overly “liberated” portrayal of Roxane. The words and ideas are made clear here, but the heart is left strangely unmoved, even in the play’s final scene, which must leave the audience close to tears.
The production itself is immensely beautiful — from Kevin Depinet’s dark, wood-beamed set with its heavy chandeliers and steep staircases artfully lit by Jesse Klug, to the resplendently textured and tinted costumes by Susan E. Mickey and the superb character-defining wigs and makeup by Melissa Veal.
Several of the supporting actors do winning work: Sean Fortunato, winningly real as Cyrano’s plain-speaking best friend; Wendy Robie as Roxane’s mischievous, sweets-loving chaperone; Aloysius Gigl as the unctuous (and married) count, also hot for Roxane; Ross Lehman as the cuckolded pastry chef; William Dick as a monk and Brendan Marshall-Rashid as a fleet, handsome marquis.
The crucial moment in every “Cyrano” takes the form of a riff on the “Romeo and Juliet” balcony scene. And while it has its comic moments, it ultimately should rip you apart. Here it is almost cartoonish — a good indication of why this handsome production proves unsatisfying.