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A stripped-down 'Cyrano' — a London import — is all about language

James McAvoy stars in the London production of <em>Cyrano de Bergerac</em>, now playing in Brooklyn.
Mark Brenner
James McAvoy stars in the London production of Cyrano de Bergerac, now playing in Brooklyn.

Most people know Edmond Rostand's 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac as a romantic, swashbuckling classic, staged with swords and capes and a big prosthetic nose. But a new production opening Wednesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with film star James McAvoy as Cyrano, dispenses with all that.

Instead, there's beatboxing, a multiracial cast in modern dress and Scottish actor McAvoy with his own regular-sized nose, rapping about how very large it is. Cyrano tells the story of a romantic triangle — the poetic soldier Cyrano loves the beautiful and witty Roxane, who in turn loves the handsome, but tongue-tied Christian. So, Cyrano helps the young man win Roxane by providing him with the words he doesn't have.

"This is about three people who are objectified and who suffer because of their objectification," says McAvoy. "Whether they're objectified because they are beautiful or ugly or not. It's about the feeling. And I think that not having the nose allows us to see all their pain." And wit. And passion.

The spartan staging, where actors frequently speak into microphones and sit looking directly at the audience, instead of each other, provides a feeling of closeness. "From an acting point of view, it makes eye contact feel so intimate," says Evelyn Miller, whose Roxane is portrayed as a college student wearing a denim jumpsuit. "To turn and look [at another actor], after doing a five-minute scene where you haven't looked at them at all — you've just been listening profoundly and intensely — to suddenly turn and make eye contact feels so intimate."

The cast of <em>Cyrano de Bergerac</em> on their stripped-down set, which emphasizes the language.
Mark Brenner / BAM
The cast of Cyrano de Bergerac on their stripped-down set, which emphasizes the language.

Listening to the language profoundly and intensely in this contemporary adaptation is what director Jamie Lloyd is after — not just for the actors, but for the audience. "We paint on the back wall ... a particular sentence that Cyrano says: 'I love words. That's all,'" he says. "And in a way, that became the kind of defining idea of the entire production; it was only about the words, in a play that features characters that are obsessed with language."

He says they use language in ways that can be wonderful or damaging. At one point, Cyrano wins a duel, purely with his linguistic gifts. You don't need to see a sword to know that he's cut his opponent to the quick.

Lloyd commissioned playwright Martin Crimp to write the adaptation. Since Crimp is fluent in French, he read the Rostand in the original. "The thing that I responded to most strongly as a writer is the language, is the virtuosic display," Crimp says. "One rule [for me] was that the rhyming couplets were really important. If I got rid of those, I'd be throwing out the baby with the bathwater."

Lloyd highlights the language in different ways: Because the actors talk directly into their microphones, they can speak softly and everyone in the theater can hear them. "In many ways, it's more like screen acting than stage acting," he says. "And, in fact, even more than that, it's more like radio acting."

For McAvoy, the style of this nose-less Cyrano, which has played in Glasgow and won an Olivier for Best Revival in London, forces audiences to lean in. "I've never experienced silences in the audience like this," the actor says. "I've experienced pauses and things like that. But the silence in the audience is unbelievable."

It's a response McAvoy hopes Cyrano gets from Brooklyn audiences, as well.

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Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.