If you love Cyrano

The Guthrie Theater’s production of the beloved play Cyrano de Bergerac opened on March 22 on the Guthrie’s McGuire proscenium stage (rather than its Wurtele thrust stage). So far as I can tell, the production has not been widely reviewed yet. Speaking to Guthrie publicist Marita Meinerts Albinson yesterday, I was reminded that Terry Teachout will not be out here to take the play in for the Wall Street Journal while his wife awaits surgery for her illness. I can’t come close to standing in for Terry, but I want to bring the production to the attention of interested readers in Terry’s stead. I think he would love it and that if you love Cyrano, you will want to see it.

I’ve been going to plays at the Guthrie since its first season in 1963. It has hosted many outstanding actors over the years and I’ve seen at least a few of them, going back to Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, among others, in those early years. I have never seen an actor who moved me as Jay O. Sanders did in this production. He is a brilliant Cyrano.

With a text adapted and directed by Guthrie artistic director Joseph Haj, the production has all the traditional Guthrie virtues. The staging is terrific. The set is perfect. The cast is excellent. The costumes are magnificent. The makeup is important to a realistic Cyrano; the makeup is impressive as well.

I loved the production’s fidelity to playwright Edmond Rostand’s conception. We are in France during the time of the Thirty Years’ War. The Siege of Arras appears as required in the play’s concluding act. The production is not “updated” in any important sense.

The play’s famous balcony scene is the moment when Cyrano bares his soul and reveals the lover’s heart that he otherwise keeps concealed because of the deformity of his oversize nose. Cyrano’s transformation as rendered by Jay O. Sanders in this scene caught me up short. It is so striking. Seeing this Cyrano transformed at that moment transforms the production itself into something like the best theater I have ever seen. Sanders is an astounding actor.

The production is the first Haj has himself directed on the Guthrie’s traditional proscenium stage. He resists the limitations of the proscenium stage, bringing characters in from the back of the theater and down the aisle and bringing the characters down from the stage to the front. In the first act I kept looking over my shoulder. Were those late arrivals or new characters entering?

The production runs nearly three hours. Sanders pours himself into the part. He must speak well over half the lines, many in speech form and in elevated language. Cyrano’s ballade is rendered in French, which Sanders doesn’t even speak, and is recited while Sanders is otherwise engaged in swordplay. The part must be exhausting, yet Sanders utterly dominates it.

We stuck around for a post-play discussion moderated by Guthrie dramaturg (you can look it up) Carla Steen with Sanders and Jennie Greenberry, the production’s lovely Roxane. I inferred from their response to the questions they fielded that Haj has a deep understanding of the play’s consideration of the relation among the soul and love and beauty (physical and spiritual). Steen writes in the playbill that “Haj believes that Cyrano’s central theme is the consideration of where beauty resides…” He obviously deserves great credit for this production and he probably deserves credit for casting Sanders as well. Sanders is the man; he gives the audience the best that theater has to offer.

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