John Harrell as Cyrano de Bergerac- photo by Lindsey Walters
I have stopped reviewing plays because I want to simply encourage artists of all levels to make art for the love of it if not for any other reason and so this is not a review. I am writing this post because last night I witnessed a performance so rare in the world that this morning I awoke crying from the honest beauty of it and knew I would not rest unless I shared my thoughts.
I am referring to John Harrell’s performance as Cyrano in the Edmond Rostand version of Cyrano de Bergerac (translated by anthony Burgess) at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriar’s playhouse.
I adore the American Shakespeare Theatre. I think it is one of the best Shakespeare companies on this planet and most likely the Universe. I love how this company performs Shakespeare in the purest manner – without lighting effects, without electronic sound, with the house lights up to afford maximum audience participation, without scenery and with very few props- because it allows the focus to be on the words which was how Shakespeare’s plays were intended to be produced. It is like how movies from the 40’s and 50’s were filmed to be presented on a big screen and when one is able to see Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz at say, The Byrd Theatre in Richmond or some other un-altered movie palace, it is experienced completely differently than on a smaller screen. But I digress…
When ASC produces plays from later era’s it can be challenging to interpret them as magically as Shakespearian one’s because the shows were written to be presented differently. But this version of Cyrano works, no, thrives in these staging conditions largely due to Harrell’s brilliant interpretation of the character and flawless delivery of the text.
What I mean is: I usually like every show I see at ASC. Some are merely good, most are great and a few are spectacular but only twice have I witnessed hallmark performances.* The first was Benjamin Curns’ delivery of the best portrayal of Richard III I have yet to see and now Harrell’s definition of Cyrano played as though the part were written for him alone.
Part of the joy of this production is Jim Warren’s direction which seems to have matured from what sometimes is heavy handed goofiness to a more subtle and effective comedic touch. There is just enough goofiness to keep the audience laughing without distracting from the beauty of the love story – for example: Chris Johnston’s fat actor (Montfleury) rolling about the stage aka Madonna’s Like a Virgin MTV Music Awards moment (BTW: Johnston was fabulous in the role), Gregory Jon Phelps foppishness as Viconte de Valvert and Alison Glenzer’s whiney Sister Martha along with other bits with other roles.
But back to Harrell…
The audience was riveted. Harrell is always good in his roles. He is a longtime veteran of ASC and knows his stuff. But he just IS Cyrano. A master of his craft and yet giving to his fellow players. Every pang of Cyrano’s insecurity, rush of exuberance, twinge of jealousy, glow of bravado, heartstring pluck of self- sacrifice and warm ray of hope of winning Roxanne for his own was clearly felt by all in attendance. To be present for his performance was glorious from his quick delivery of quips to Montfleury at the show’s start to the last gasp of “panache” at the end.
My one regret is that I waited this long to see the show otherwise I would be back again and again. This is the kind of thing that happens RARELY so check the ASC schedule and get to this show before it is merely theatre legend.
*Please note that I have not seen every show at ASC and there may have been other performances as fabulous unknown to me.
PS: McBeth and Comedy of Errors are also exceptional productions so you might just want to make a weekend of it and see all three shows. MB