Jason O’Connell returns to his acting company summer home, Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, for his 10th season, not just as title character but also playwright with “Cyrano”, a robust, incisive adaptation of the Edmund Rostand 1897 classic he’s co-written with Brenda Withers.
The quasi-modern, pared-down version of “Cyrano de Bergerac" comes to the HVSF open-air tent on the majestic grounds of the Federal-era Boscobel estate overlooking the Hudson River via Gloucester Stage in Massachusetts and Amphibian Stage in Fort Worth, where O’Connell directed. O’Connell and Wither’s storybook version - almost a fairy tale treatment - brings Cyrano full circle from broad comedy to final tragedy. O’Connell, a sometimes stand-comedian, introduces Cyrano with slapstick. Drunk as skunk, he bursts through a paper screen onto the tent’s sand floor. Humor then takes a cerebral turn as Cyrano uses his wit and intellect to defend against his famous, large nose. (This production eschews the obvious; instead of a prosthetic, O’Connell has a simple black stripe across his nosebridge.)
As Cyrano subverts his deep love for Roxane, channeling his feelings into writing love letters for his friend Christian who has won her heart, tragedy mounts. O’Connell’s serious Shakespeare training kicks in; he doesn’t soft-pedal Cyrano’s unattractive qualities - bullying, arrogance, and egotism. Warts and all, Cyrano emerges tragic hero. (This Cyrano, unlike you-know-who, can be bully without a trace of victimhood.) O”Connell makes Cyrano’s complexities totally comprehensible; his Cyrano is Everyman.
Director Meredith McDonough keenly uses the natural spectacle of the Hudson setting, never losing focus on character. Besides Cyrano, this version has just six characters, played by four splendid actors, among whom is the wonderful Nance Williamson, my company favorite, in dual roles. McDonough peppers the action with pop-culture morsels; Roxanne’s runway-style entrance across the lawn a la Beyonce is a hoot. If you picnic on the grounds before the performance, dine and drink lightly. The banter in this “Cyrano” is especially rich and quick. O’Connell, fiancé of playwright/actor Kate Hamill, has played in her often madcap adaptations of literary classics and it shows.
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