Cyrano de Bergerac is having a pop culture moment lately. It's been 400 years since the real Cyrano lived and more than 100 since Edmond Rostand made his life into an 1897 play, but the skilled writer who, believing himself ugly and therefore unlovable, uses his talents to help another man woo his love was just the subject of a musical film starring Peter Dinklage. Now, British director Jamie Lloyd's fresh take on Cyrano de Bergerac is making its American premiere at the BAM Harvey Theater, three years after debuting to acclaim in London. It's different from the lavish period film in every way, and it's worth the trip to Brooklyn.
Lloyd's Cyrano lives comfortably in anachronism. Classics purists will still find the rhyming-couplet poetry of Rostand’s play intact, but Martin Crimp's freewheeling adaptation will also delight the Gen-Z crowd: 19th-century verse gives way to 21st-century spoken-word poetry and rap, including plenty of red-hot roasts. Think Hamilton, but faster (yes, it’s possible) and with no accompaniment but a single beatboxer (Vaneeka Dadhria). To that point, Lloyd has stripped Cyrano de Bergerac down to its bare essentials: no props, no period sets or costumes, only a torrent of words. Lloyd’s reasoning? Words are powerful, needing nothing else to make them effective when crafted well.
Nothing else besides a deft wordsmith, of course, and here it's the intoxicating James McAvoy in his New York stage debut. As the lovestruck yet insecure Cyrano, he delivers ferocity, vulnerability, and passion in quick succession, and you’ll want — and need — to hang on every word that Crimp has given him. Ferocity comes first: He introduces himself by leaping downstage and challenging another character to a "swordless" swordfight (no props, remember) at a Hamlet performance. But McAvoy wields a microphone like a weapon and has a sharp enough tongue to rival any blade. (He also unleashes insults at the middling Hamlet actor — Adrian Der Gregorian, a great actor parodically playing the part as a "misunderstood," artsy bro at a poetry slam. If you know, you know.)
But lest that first scene make you think Cyrano is all anger, he divulges his love for the beautiful, intelligent Roxane (Evelyn Miller) to a friend five minutes later. Suddenly, this self-assured showstopper in leather is as flustered and giddy as a schoolboy with a crush. Cyrano can be a tough protagonist to root for, with his self-destructive pride, lofty way of talking, and constant deception, but the versatile McAvoy brings unexpected humility and humor to the character.
And you can't help but be enamored by the balcony scene toward the end of Act 1, the show's most arresting sequence. Cyrano feeds dialogue to Christian (a sweet Eben Figueiredo) to woo Roxane, but inadvertantly ends up speaking for Christian himself under cover of darkness. With Roxane's back turned, Cyrano delivers his love confession, a seductive monologue, straight to the audience. No matter how far you're sitting from the stage, McAvoy makes the moment feel truly intimate, an admirable feat in an 897-seat theatre. Ultimately, the only flaw in McAvoy's casting is that it's difficult to imagine him wanting for admirers, especially since he doesn't wear the honking prosthetic nose that supposedly makes him ugly. (It's worth mentioning here that Lloyd also gives Cyrano and Christian some serious homoerotic chemistry, creating a true love triangle.)
Although McAvoy's presence commands constant attention at every turn, don't overlook Miller, who gives a quietly strong performance as Roxane and makes us think twice about our endearment to Cyrano. She especially shines in Act 2 — which discards much of the humor of Act 1 and digs into tragedy — with a speech decrying both Cyrano and Christian for objectifying her beauty and overlooking her intelligence. To both Crimp's and Miller's credit, the monologue doesn't feel preachy, but righteous. Cyrano wields his anger like a battering ram, bowling over everyone in sight, but Roxane wields hers like a dagger, striking pointedly at the heartstrings.
Photo credit: Nari Blair-Mangat, James McAvoy, Brinsley Terence, and the cast of Cyrano de Bergerac. (Photo by Marc Brenner)