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When Speaking Verse Sets You Free

Date: Oct 16, 2012


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The theatre itself is at the heart of Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmund Rostand's classic 1897 play, now in a Broadway revival from Roundabout.

The first scene actually takes place in a theatre, with Cyrano threatening the life of a terrible actor. The rest of the plot also hinges on performance: Since Cyrano worries that his enormous nose makes him repellant to his beloved Roxane, he helps the beautiful (if dull) Christian woo her instead. In the play's most famous scene, Cyrano (like a playwright) feeds Christian romantic lines to say to Roxane, and Christian (like an actor) repeats them until his audience is enraptured.

And then, whether they like it or not, Cyrano, Roxane, and Christian are caught in this role play for the rest of their lives. Even after Christian dies on the battlefield, Cyrano maintains his performance as Roxane's dutiful cousin and friend, not as the man who secretly won her heart. In the bittersweet conclusion, we see how the performance has both kept the two apart and brought them incredibly close.

Underscoring this, Rostand's play---which is on Broadway in a new translation from Ranjit Bolt---is written in rhyming verse. The theatricality of the story is mirrored by the artificial structure of the language. Even when they move us, it's hard to forget these characters are "performing," since they're speaking with elegant rhymes.

But where does that leave actors? Do they play the "performance" of the writing, or the "realistic" emotion?

Kyle Soller, who plays Christian in the Roundabout's revival, tries to balance both approaches. "One of the great things about Ranjit's translation is that he has managed to capture the original classicism while making it very accessible and modern," he says. "The problem I encountered was a desire to deliver the text in an overly naturalistic way, not honoring the ends of the lines. But doing that undercuts the original intention of Rostand's writing."

During previews, Soller made a surprising discovery: "What we found was that the audience started to react in a much more engaged way when we hit the rhymes and didn't shy away from them."

He and his castmates---including Douglas Hodge as Cyrano and Clémence Poésy as Roxane---are finding freedom within the structure of the writing. Soller refers to it as "playing the jazz." He says, "Jazz musicians begin their sets playing standards, then gradually groove into a place of spontaneous expression. By first honoring the framework of the text---in this case, ten-beat rhyming couplets---we establish the 'standard' in the first scene. [We] let the audience know what's happening, how this version is going to sound, and then we try to play around with it."

Soller especially enjoys riffing in the balcony scene. "The balcony scene is a lot of fun because there are three characters who basically want the same thing but can't do it without each other. A lot of the lines are shared half-lines, and we've discovered some fun ways to play around with each other and the text."

Ideally, the audience will never be aware of these techniques: They'll just experience the story. "The performances I most enjoy watching are those where you can't see the work," Soller says. "The actor is effortless, playing with time and space and words."


Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus