In a typical 17th century romance, the action proceeds thusly: “Some gallant falls for a wilting, waifish woman without a bean of personality or a single funny line, but hey, it doesn’t matter, ’cause she’s pretty.”
That typical scenario is not OK with Nell Gwynn, the titular heroine of a newish play making its east coast debut at the Folger. Nor was it acceptable to Arlington’s Synetic Theater, currently mounting a beautiful, bittersweet adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac. Both shows are set in the mid-1600s, and just in time for Valentine’s Day, Synetic and the Folger have tweaked the senseless-waif formula to make either play perfect for a 21st century date.
In neither story does love triumph over all. Cyrano and Nell Gwynn embrace a timeless, true, and slightly problematic definition that, “Love is a complete and utter indifference to everything, except the one you admire.”
And the women being admired in these plays? Two stars of the early modern stage who are easy for audiences to love.
17th century heartthrob Charles Hart (Quinn Franzen) first coaches Nell Gwynn (Alison Luff) in the art of onstage romance. In the opening scene of Jessica Swale’s 2015 play based on historical characters, Hart is on the hunt for a woman who could be the first on Drury Lane’s stage. Charles II has reclaimed the throne, and London’s theaters are flourishing after years of Puritanical negligence. Nell has found work as an orange girl, selling citrus fruits that can serve as either refreshment or ammunition for theater patrons. Under Hart’s tutelage, she’s soon learning to act herself, with “eyebrows raised and nostrils drawn up” to convey terror, forehead “furrowed” for anger. His advice on romance is more subtle, and includes the aphorism on love quoted above. By this point in the lesson Hart has developed feelings for Nell, and the audience is falling hard for Luff.
In a heroic casting coup, the Folger nabbed a rising Broadway star to play Nell. Luff was last seen wasting away in Escape to Margaritaville, a jukebox musical of Jimmy Buffett hits that ran in New York for less than four months. Luff played a successful environmental scientist who falls for an underachieving Florida bartender. Working at the Folger likely required taking a pay cut, but it sure seems like a step up in the world to play a working mother who achieves success onstage while simultaneously serving as a mistress to the king.
The role requires everything: sex appeal, singing, dancing, comedic timing, and tragedy-surviving. Like Nell, Luff is a natural who revels in her character’s pluck. When the Drury’s in-house dramatist, John Dryden (Michael Glenn), struggles to write his next romance, Gwynn goes on her tear about passive “waifish” heroines who were previously played by male actors.
“Please, Mr. Dryden. You can write for a real woman now. No one has done that before. Write from here [indicating her guts] and write me a character! With skin and heart and some sense in her head!”
She goes on to call Juliet “a noodle” and wonders aloud, “Who wrote that show?”
“Shakespeare,” Dryden dryly replies, and the audience chuckles. Swale’s script is littered with insidery jabs and anachronistic dick jokes, as if she wants us to simultaneously laugh and pat ourselves on the back.
Some critics have faulted Nell Gwynn for being so self-congratulatory. But at the Folger, a replica of an indoor Elizabethan theater, with actors dashing about the aisles, the play feels akin to being the guest of honor at a celebration of the Western canon. With a “real woman” for a heroine and a racially diverse cast, there’s not much more you can ask for from a theater devoted to the classics. Why not be swept up in this suspenseful story about a woman who risked having her head chopped off in order to have it all: family, money, a successful career, and of course, love.
To March 10 at 201 East Capitol St. SE. $42–$79. (202) 544-7077. folger.edu.
If the plotline of suitors fawning for stars of the 17th-century stage doesn’t sync with your memories of Cyrano de Bergerac—which has endured many film, TV, and stage adaptations since its 1897 premiere—that’s because Synetic made a few tweaks to the story about a French poet-soldier with an elongated proboscis. The Crystal City-based company specializes in Eastern European movement theater. Like its famed “wordless Shakespeare” productions, there’s no dialogue in this retelling of the famous drama by Edmond Rostand.
To keep Roxanne from falling into that “pretty but without a bean of personality” trope that so irked Nell Gwynn—and to use the talents of star Maryam Najafzada—Synetic has recast Roxanne as a prima ballerina.
This Roxanne is not only popular because she’s rich and pretty—more beautiful than “Venus in her shell,” prettier than “Diana marching through broad, blossoming woods!” as the original Cyrano opined.
Once the lights go dim, Najafzada wows the audience with her performance of “The Dying Swan” set to music by Camille Saint-Saëns. She’s intentionally melodramatic, but to balletomanes in the crowd, the scene remains an obvious homage to Maya Plisetskaya, a Soviet dancer who made the “Swan” her calling card.
Choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili trained as a ballerina in the Republic of Georgia and has long cited Plisetskaya as an inspiration for her at Synetic; a prime example of a performer who compensated for imperfect technique with sincere passion. That’s an appropriate mantra for this Cyrano, which lacks the overall cohesion and polish of some previous Synetic productions. Tonal shifts are awkward for a variety of reasons, including a worse-than-usual score by Konstantine Lortkipanidze. It’s also challenging to wedge a serious war scene into a clown comedy. Add a first-time director stepping into the leading role at the last minute, and this Cyrano deserves forgiveness and sympathy.
Director Vato Tsikurishvili replaced Justin J. Bell, who left the show during tech due to illness. That’s unfortunate, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone else but Vato in this role so dependent on both physical comedy and empathy-inducing melancholy. Directorially, Vato displays the same genius as his father, company founder Paata Tsikurishvili. Cyrano still pens Roxanne’s love letters for Christian (Matt R. Stover), an attractive young soldier; that’s easily conveyed with flourishes and feather quills. But to stage the famous balcony scene, where Cyrano whispers eloquent words of love into Christian’s clueless ears, the Tsikurishvilis instead have both lovers attempt to woo Roxanne through dance.
When Christian starts clumsily thrusting like a drunk frat boy, Cyrano steps in to waltz back-to-back with Roxanne, allowing her to imagine she’s dancing with one man but partnered with another. In the aftermath, Roxanne weds Christian, eager to avoid arranged marriage to a churlish count (Synetic company member Philip Fletcher), but war soon tears the couple apart.
Some Cyrano adaptations avert Rostand’s bittersweet ending. Synetic’s decision to preserve the tragedy is a beautiful one, and in keeping with a sacrificial definition of love as “complete and utter indifference to everything, except the one you admire.” Cyrano prizes Roxanne’s happiness far above his own, and if that’s not an ideal lesson for a date night drama, there are no longer reasons for lovers to visit the theater.
To March 10 at 1800 South Bell St., Arlington. $20–$50. (703) 824-8060. synetictheater.org.