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Tom Rooney, left, as Cyrano and Deborah Hay as Roxane with Sharry Flett as Companion in Cyrano de Bergerac.

Emily Cooper/Handout

  • Title: Cyrano de Bergerac
  • Written by: Edmond Rostand
  • Translated and adapted by: Kate Hennig
  • Director: Chris Abraham
  • Actors: Tom Rooney, Deborah Hay and Jeff Irving
  • Company: Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Royal George Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to Oct. 20, 2019

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Add Tom Rooney to the list of the great Canadian Cyrano de Bergeracs.

The wiry Stratford Festival regular is known for his comedic delivery of complicated language and performances in which an anarchic exterior masks an inner ache. He’s brought those talents and more to the Shaw Festival for the first time this season to play the titular big-nosed swashbuckler of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play.

Cyrano's semi-requited passion for and chemistry with his cousin Roxane (Deborah Hay) creates the most swoon-worthy romance of the summer stage so far.

Emily Cooper/Handout

While he has all the wittiness and bravado needed for the part, Rooney is above all a sensitive, wounded Cyrano, his semi-requited passion for and chemistry with his cousin Roxane (Deborah Hay, even more doe-eyed than usual) creating the most swoon-worthy romance of the summer stage so far.

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In director Chris Abraham’s production, Rooney makes a fine first impression jousting with language and sword, but fully starts to own his prosthetic proboscis when he meets Roxane with the intention to finally confess his love – only for her to first confess that she is in love with a beautiful new cadet, Christian (Jeff Irving). His subtle shrinking in reaction cuts to the core.

There’s something about Cyrano’s inward sense of inadequacy and ugliness hidden behind his outward pride and sense of humour about being different that Canadian actors and audiences have always connected with intensely.

John Colicos played the part two seasons straight at Stratford in the 1960s, a feat repeated by Heath Lamberts at the Shaw Festival in the 1980s.

Christopher Plummer won his first Tony Award in 1974 playing Cyrano in a musical adaptation on Broadway, while bilingual Colm Feore has racked up two Bergeracs, blending two languages, at Stratford.

Perhaps it’s the fourth act of Rostand’s play that sees Cyrano and his fellow Gascon Cadets used as cannon fodder in a French war against the Spanish that cements the feeling that there’s something about us in this story.

That sweeping scene comes across brilliantly in this new translation and adaptation by Shaw Festival associate artistic director Kate Hennig, best known as a playwright for her trilogy of Tudor plays at the Stratford Festival.

The play’s most famous scene, of course, comes when Cyrano provides the voice for Christian to woo Roxane up on her balcony – and Hennig tackles Rostand’s different registers here with appropriate panache: Christian’s inarticulacy; Cyrano and Roxane’s initial overly formal exchanges; and finally, the shift to an honest eloquence that truly connects Cyrano and Roxane, soul to soul, unseen.

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Rooney as Cyrano makes a fine first impression jousting with language and sword.

Emily Cooper/Handout

Hennig has worked from her own literal translation from the French. Having fallen in love with Rostand’s original word choices, she here tries to keep to them as much as possible – resulting in an English script that is, mostly, written in prose rather than in the bouncing, rhyming alexandrines of the original, a choice she believes allows her to “preserve some of Rostand’s magnificent poetry."

While this works well in the romantic and later tragic passages of the five-act play, elsewhere, in the more comic or witty scenes, the result can sometimes sound, well, like it has been translated. There are chunks here and there that Rooney has to muscle through. (Another minor quibble: Anachronisms, inconsistently used, stand out like Cyrano’s you-know-what.)

The fact is that the pleasure of Rostand’s “poem,” as he himself called his play, is as much about form, the rhythm and clever rhymes, as it is about the word choices and images. (If you were to pick a Canadian who Cyrano’s flow most resembles, it would probably be Drake with all his self-pity and swagger and easy ability to make enemies – but that’s an interpretation we’ve yet to see on a Canadian stage.)

Hennig’s adaptation is constructed smartly enough to hide its few shortcomings – an introductory song by the drunk provocateur poet Lignière (Marla McLean) setting up and foregrounding Roxane’s situation in hypermasculine, musketeer-filled 17th-century Paris, coveted by and cornered by a married man with power named De Guiche (Patrick Galligan).

To not recreate these sexist conditions in form, Hennig’s adaptation allows for gender parity on stage. Indeed, seven female actors and seven male actors tell the tale here, with gender-fluid casting a theatrical but unobtrusive element of Abraham’s production.

Standouts in the ensemble include Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster’s Valvert and Tanja Jacobs’s Le Bret, performances that show us weak, toxic and strong, compassionate shades of masculinity, respectively. (The large cast can sometimes feel cramped on Julie Fox’s gorgeous and witty set centred around a giant piece of timber with its own symbolic protrusion; I wonder why this wasn’t on Shaw’s mainstage?)

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There is a dark side to Cyrano as a romantic figure, his self-doubt and skewed ideas about the sexes ultimately leading Roxane to a kind of ruin. It’s cruel in fact, the way he deceives his supposed beloved and steals her agency in the one area where she might have a little at the time: her heart.

That’s insufficiently explored in text and production, leading to a false note in the final scene when Roxane discovers the truth. A whiff of something rotten at the end of a romance that otherwise leaves you reaching for the smelling salts.

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