Shakespeare purists shake their fists and gnash their teeth when a Shakespeare festival includes works by playwrights other than the Bard. From a pedantic perspective, they certainly have a point. After all, one would be justifiably irate if one were to attend an ice cream festival only to be told that, on that particular day, the only available comestible was fried chicken.
What the purists fail to realize, having long ago fallen in love with Shakespeare’s works, is that ol’ Will can be scary for the uninitiated. The older English, the convoluted plots and the carousel of characters sometimes make Shakespeare, dare I say, difficult to appreciate. Even for card-carrying Bard Heads, certain plays require refresher readings prior to the show to ensure optimal enjoyment.
For years, in an effort to lure a wider audience, festival producers included more modern plays that dovetail thematically or topically with the Shakespeare on display. Think of them as “gateway plays.” The Colorado Shakespeare Festival (CSF) has long subscribed to this modus, and Producing Artistic Director Tim Orr’s decision to produce Cyrano de Bergerac this season should attain the desired goal of turning more of the Shakespeare wary into at least the Shakespeare curious.
Though it is set in 1640, Cyrano de Bergerac was first produced at the very end of the 19th century, making it thoroughly more modern, and therefore decidedly more accessible, than Shakespeare’s plays written 300 or so years earlier. Cyrano’s central conceit of the intelligent but unattractive man acting as the “voice” for the handsome but stupid man to help him win the affections of a lady has echoed through pop culture seemingly since the play debuted. For a particularly excellent film adaptation, check out 1987’s Steve Martin-starring Roxanne.
Cyrano (Scott Coopwood) is a warrior-poet in the classic mold. Early on, in one of the play’s best scenes, he composes a rhyming ballad while simultaneously dueling another man. As their swords clash, Cyrano recites his extemporaneous poetry, which includes regular reminders that when the poem ends so will his opponent. Soon after, Cyrano jauntily heads off to fight 100 men single-handedly. He would seem to be the kind of man that women want and men want to be, but as confident as he is, Cyrano is always in the shadow of his very own, rather larger-than-large nose.
It is this prominently protuberant proboscis that keeps him from telling the love of his life, Roxane (Brynn Tucker), how he feels about her. Cyrano’s love for Roxane runs so deep that when she tells him that she is smitten with a young, good-looking but somewhat simple member of Cyrano’s regiment, Christian (Marco Robinson), Cyrano decides to assist Christian with wooing Roxane by telling him exactly what to say to her. Cyrano whispers his words to Christian from the bushes, and Christian proclaims them to Roxane standing above them on her balcony. Cyrano sends Roxane letters in Christian’s name. Soon enough, Roxane is in love with Christian’s face and Cyrano’s words.
As much fun as the various episodes of swordplay are — all credit to Fight Director Christopher DuVal and his Assistant Fight Director Benaiah Anderson — it is the wordplay that truly defines Cyrano de Bergerac. Playwright Edmond Rostand’s words, as translated by Anthony Burgess, are witty and weightless yet punctilious and even profound, and the CSF cast seems to savor speaking them as much as audiences will enjoy hearing them. Local favorite Michael Bouchard plays a baker with delusions of eloquence, and as usual, the impression he makes far exceeds the number of minutes he actually appears on stage. As Roxane, Tucker clearly relishes the choice dialogue and delivers it impeccably.
No actor, however, outstrips Scott Coopwood. Last season, after feeling he was miscast as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, I warmed to Coopwood in Julius Caesar. He seemed even more comfortable in his supporting role in this season’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. As Cyrano, Coopwood positively dazzles. His assured, playful and layered performance is more than reason enough to buy a ticket for Cyrano de Bergerac.
On the Bill: Cyrano de Bergerac — presented by Colorado Shakespeare Festival. University of Colorado Boulder, Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre, www.cupresents.org. Through Aug. 11. Tickets start at $20.