Since the Blackfriars Playhouse opened in 2001, I’ve been to nearly every play performed there by the American Shakespeare Center’s resident and touring companies. Because they perform in rotating repertory, that’s a lot of plays. None of those plays has been bad. A few, I have to admit, lacked energy for one reason or another, or had an unfortunate weak spot in the cast. Most have been wonderful. Several have been truly outstanding. But I have to say that of all those plays, this season’s production of Cyrano de Bergerac might be the best. I saw last night’s opening and it is superb.
This isn’t Shakespeare, of course, but it does what Shakespeare does best, which is delight with language. The play was written in 1897 by the French playwright Edmund Rostand and this production is from a translation by Anthony Burgess. What makes it wonderful for the Blackfriars is that it is set in a Paris theater in 1640 that functions much as the original Blackfriars did—a thrust stage, audience interaction—and makes reference to and even quotes Shakespeare plays. The story is familiar: Cyrano, he of the big nose, loves beautiful Roxane, who in turn is attracted to the handsome but hopelessly shallow Christian. Resignedly, because he knows Roxane can never love him, Cyrano agrees to help Christian by writing lyrical love letters and feeding him flowery lines to speak to Roxane.
While the play is fantastic, thanks to the Burgess translation, what makes this production so noteworthy is the performance by Tyler Moss in the title role. Everyone here turns in wonderful performances—Anna Marie Sell is a stellar Roxane, Adam Jonas Segaller does fine work in several roles (you have to love that doubling they do in the ASC), and Jonathan Maccia is a believable Christian—but the spotlight, so to speak, is almost always on Tyler Moss, who plays Cyrano so passionately that I was moved despite the absurdity of it all. As befits Cyrano’s famous genius, Moss speaks rapidly throughout the play, but with such clarity that not a line is lost, even when the ashamed Cyrano is hiding his schnoz under the wide brim of his hat. In this theater, where the actors are nearly in your lap, the audience can practically feel facial expressions and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a performer more in tune with his character. Moss makes Cyrano real, which makes for a thrilling night at the theater.