Stage Animal

Cameri's 'Cyrano’ Has Panache Aplenty

This play about love and language is brought to life with loving care and a great lead performance by Itay Tiran.

The three human protagonists in “Cyrano de Bergerac,” the play written in 1897 by Edmond Rostand, constitute a romantic triangle at whose apex is Cyrano, a knight with a huge soul and a nose to match. The other two in the triangle are the beautiful, rich and very intelligent Roxane, a relative and childhood companion of Cyrano’s with whom he is in love, and a young, dashing knight, Christian de Neuvillette, a new member of Cyrano’s army battalion who is also in love with Roxane because of her beauty. (She loves him from afar because of his handsome face.) However, the real protagonists in this play, and in its production by the Cameri Theater (the play was translated into Hebrew by Dori Parnes and is directed and choreographed by Gilad Kimchi) are two complex subjects and concepts that are both misleading and captivating: words and love.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen created his well made plays, which clearly created an illusion of contemporary reality. Similarly, Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov wrote plays that ostensibly reflected the reality of his audiences. During this same period, Rostand in France – where the naturalism of Émile Zola held sway – wrote a play in rhyme and with a set rhythm: Alexandrines (12-syllable lines of verse). He created a “heroic comedy” that takes place in the period when dramatists used this form in their plays - the 17th century, the age of Molière.

This is clear theatrical, stylistic statement to the audience at several levels. One of them is that this play does not reflect the reality of the audience. The second is that it belongs to a different theatrical tradition, shaped according to clearly defined, formalistic rules, which were at one time accepted by and binding upon both the creators and their audiences.

In one of the (many) famous scenes in the play, Cyrano is fencing with someone who has challenged him to a duel. As he fences with his opponent, Cyrano composes a rhymed poem with a formal rhythm and declares to both his rival and the audience that he is about to compose a “ballade.” He reminds the rival and the audience what all cultured people in his time knew, of course - that the ballade consists:

"of three eight-line stanzas"

The Viscomte (stamping):

Oh!

CYRANO (still reciting):

An envoi of four …

THE VISCOMTE:

You ...

CYRANO:

I’ll make one all complete, while we’re at war,

and hit you, Sir, at the final line."

(In order to stress the fact that, for him, this is a very easy case of multitasking, he closes his eyes moments before the duel is to begin, and proclaims:

"Wait! … I’m choosing my rhymes ... There, I have them!"

(Translated by A. S . Kline, 2003)

Then Cyrano continues talking and dueling, all the while using only two rhymes, which he finds in many varied words, and strikes with the final line.

The all-important panache

The role of the translator, which Parnes has fulfilled heroically, is to maintain the syntactical logic of a discourse that is almost prosaic in its subject matter, while not allowing form to dominate the content, and to nonetheless make the audience aware of the form, rhythm, rhyme and artistic acrobatics of the words.

The secret can be summed up in one French word, which is the last word uttered by Cyrano before he dies on stage and which is also the final word of the play: panache. There are some words that defy translation; this is one of them. Literally, panache is the plume on a knight’s helmet; that is, a decoration and a distinguishing sign. Metaphorically, if you insist, it is a kind of façon, which could be translated, with great liberty, as style. And there is plenty of style in this production. In fact, the production owes so much to the style – or form – that Kimchi has found for it with his partners in the production’s creation.

For Cyrano, words are both a weapon and a shield; they are means of hiding and sheltering his feelings rather than expressing them. Christian is handsome but he is also a fool in his self-perception (which is very close to reality); he believes that he needs words but, for him, they are only a tool that will enable Roxane, who is so attracted to his physical appearance, to continue to love him after the initial impression of his outward beauty has passed.

Although Roxane is beautiful, she is not supposed to have, in my opinion, the kind of celestial loveliness that is devastating in its exquisiteness. Cyrano and Christian are both in love with her and thus she is beautiful in their eyes. Since Cyrano regards himself as ugly, he does not dare use words that might reveal his love for her. For his part, Christian needs words and thus Cyrano lends Christian his words, thereby declaring his love for Roxane through a mediator (Christian) without exposing himself to scorn because of his ugly physical appearance. After Christian “breaks the ice” with Roxane, he thinks he no longer needs words and that leads to the famous balcony scene where Christian stands below and Cyrano, behind Christian’s back, speaks to Roxane, who is on the balcony above. At some point, Roxane and Christian discover, to her delight and much to his regret, that she is capable of taking no notice of his physical beauty. She is in love with the words she hears but they are not his. The individuals in this romantic triangle find out that words are not abstract concepts but instead bear both content and emotion; in fact, they can, like love, change reality. Words – not all words, only some words, the right ones at the right moment and if spoken by the right person – can also change love. Paradoxically, the tragedy of Cyrano, the wizard of words, lies in the fact that he does not understand that words can create reality, that they are not merely “panache.”

Tiran the great

Like the impressive rhyme and rhythm of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” the style of this production is intended to serve the words. That style lies in Eran Atzmon’s set design, the costumes by Ola Shevtzov, the music by Amir Lakner and the choreography by Kimchi. There are several wonderful “numbers” in this play, such as the songs of the pastry cooks and the soldiers. What is most important is the feeling that the audience will especially respond to the words, which provides the audience with pleasure that is almost physical in nature.

The members of the cast know how to speak and move as individuals and as a single body; they know how to be acrobats and to convey to the audience the wonderful sense of fun the theater can offer, as well as to transmit the play’s style and words. They are capable of splitting among themselves several consecutive lines, with each of them uttering a word or two in turn, and everything sounds clear and easily understood; everything flows smoothly, naturally, without any loss of the sense that all this is a wonderfully wrought work of art. I am thinking here of the fabulous cast: Ido Rosenberg as Christian, Yoav Levi as Count de Guiche, Yaniv Biton as the duenna (a gem of a performance and he also plays other characters), Assaf Salomon as the Captain, Dudu Niv as the fat and charming Ragueneau, Yossi Tzabari (who, as usual, dances magnificently), Guy Alon, Gil Weinberg and Tal Weiss. Some of the players take on both male and female roles. Kineret Limoni (Roxane), whose voice is a little rougher than the smooth voices of the others, is the only flesh-and-blood woman on this stage.

Itay Tiran in the lead role, for the first time in his theatrical career, plays a truly ugly (physically, that is) character. This transformation should not be taken for granted: With such physical attributes, you have a genuinely great actor playing a physically ugly character without conveying to the audience the message, “Underneath this makeup and disguise, I am really handsome; it is only the character that is ugly.” Not only is his face heavily made up and adorned with a monstrously frightening nose, even the way he walks on stage is ugly: His shoulders are thrust forward, even though he is light on his feet. Anyone who has seen Tiran in his previous roles and thinks he has seen the full range of his acting ability will discover a different actor in “Cyrano.”

I must admit that I sometimes think I'd like him to fail once so I could say to myself that when I am amazed by his acting, I am unbiased, and that I am not addicted to his acting and to the quality of his performance on stage. Up to now, he has proven to be outstanding, and each time in a new and surprising fashion; that holds true for this performance in “Cyrano.” I am happy that the Cameri Theater has enabled Tiran, the audience and the creators of this production (actors and actresses, translators, set designer, director, choreographer and costume designer) to do what they do so well.

Daniel Kaminsky
Daniel Kaminsky