In fifth grade, playwright Aaron Posner wrote letters for his friend to a girl he had a huge crush on himself. His friend was cuter, Posner was crushed, but his writing skills sure came in handy. Decades later, he adapted Cyrano de Bergerac with a retelling that is right on the nose.
“It’s a story I have loved as long as I can remember—it always really resonated for me,” says Posner,. “Even though it’s a classic story, the insecurities and impulses I always thought felt contemporary.”
In 2011, Eugene-born Posner teamed up with Michael Hollinger to translate the 19th century drama to a modern, more intimate Cyrano for today’s theatergoers. Now playing at Portland Center Stage, the show's punchy dialogue and a smaller (all NW) cast makes for a more vernacular version without compromising the integrity of the story.
Still set in 17th century France, the romantic comedy also still revolves around the eponymous protagonist. The swordsman with a big nose (and an even bigger wit) loves the beautiful Roxane who loves the cuter Gascon Christian, so Cyrano writes love letters for him to her—sound familiar?
Same great story, but this Cyrano, played by Andrew McGinn, comes off just a tiny bit more sarcastic. Swordplay and wordplay still abound but more accessible language makes the insults more understandable, staccato and stinging. Here’s a taste:
Cyrano: I have but one powerful friend, Who hangs here at my side.
De Valvert: Wait—If your friend is so powerful, maybe you’d like to test your “metal” against my own.
Cyrano: I’d be glad to. But you wouldn’t like the test results.
The clever smack talk, side-splitting swordfights, and loads of nose prose keep the pace from dragging. At times the stage combat flies too fast for the jokes to sink in, but no one can complain of boredom. Music helps to slow things down for the romantic scenes: PCS musical director Brian Gunter (who also plays Cyrano’s friend Le Bret) composed acoustic songs that make some room for sentiment.
Posner’s adaptation also cut the cast down to size; nine roles made the production affordable for small theaters but also enhanced some of the intimate scenes. With smooth set transitions and minstrel-style songs, Posner says Portland’s production achieved the “simple theatricality” he was going for.
Posner says a smaller cast means the onus is on storytelling—and on the audience members themselves—to expand the setting beyond the theater's confines, from a bakery to a balcony to the battlefield. “Our imaginations can fill in the blanks.”
Cyrano runs April 10 through May 4 at Portland Center Stage