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Contra Costa Times, August 23, 2005


Shotgun players' 'Cyrano' relevant

-- By Susan Kuchinskas


It turns out that a 17th century swordsman/poet has plenty to say to modern men and women living in the era of American Idol. And the Shotgun Players' Cyrano de Bergerac wrings every bit of relevance out of this French play about unrequited love.

You may know the basic premise: a guy with an ugly schnozz and a way with words agrees to write the ardent letters that let a handsome young rival woo the woman he too loves. Edmond Rostand wrote Cyrano in 1897, but a contemporary translation by Charles Marowitz keeps all the courtly flavor while giving enough punch to the language that its humor and passion seem of the moment. The Shotgun Players play this one straight: swords, banners and boots. The actors even trained in swordplay, and there are several realistic-looking duels and fights.

The outdoor amphitheater at John Hinkel Park, a hidden Berkeley treasure, gives the actors plenty of room to stride about, and they make good use of it, sometimes playing from the audience or disappearing up the hill. Director Joanie McBrien conflated some of the characters to fit the troupe, and it's always fun to see the actors reinvent themselves as each plays several minor characters.

The real Cyrano would have fit right into today's Berkeley. He was a writer, satirist and poet who, when he wasn't insulting everyone from the nobility to phony artists and pretentious academics, wrote utopian science fiction.

As played by Clive Worsley, Cyrano is an anti-hero for our time: cynical, bitter, lonely, thwarted by his own uncompromising idealism. Gwen Larsen's Roxane, the object of his adulation, is a sweet young thing. It's probably unfair, given the script, to wish her character's intellect could be dialed up a bit. Although she's described as intelligent and literate, Roxane seems more a lover of fancy phrases than a serious and discerning woman equal to Cyrano's wit. It's too easy to understand why Cyrano would believe she'd spurn him in favor of Christian, a handsome airhead played by Andy Alabran.

Cyrano is too honest for his own good -- except where it counts. He makes enemies everywhere with his sharp tongue, but he can't bring himself to declare his love for Roxane. Instead, he puts his words into Christian's mouth, where they quickly charm her.

Refusing to betray his sense of honor -- and his pride -- Cyrano lives out his life in poverty, with only a couple of true friends who constantly plead with him to tell Roxane the truth. He almost convinces himself, with his fervid soliloquies in aid of Christian, that he should meet life boldly. But when it comes to love, he cannot.

There's plenty of comedy around the central tragedy. In one of the funniest scenes, Christian tries to goad Cyrano into a duel by interrupting every sentence Cyrano begins, perverting each into a reference to his nose. Only as he dies does Cyrano learn the play's central truths: Be yourself, be honest and seize the day. These are lessons many of us still are attempting to master, and the Shotgun Players' Cyrano is a fine tutorial.

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