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Panache is the quality Cyrano de Bergerac celebrates, in himself and in others, and panache the Shakespeare Theatre’s winning new staging of his story has—and to spare. But style is hardly everything to Edmond Rostand’s warrior poet, and happily the production at the Lansburgh has enough substance to do him justice.
Start with Barry Kornhauser’s translation, a lively, funny adaptation that mimics the slightly old-fashioned verse rhythms of the original but incorporates more than enough irony to feel fresh and contemporary. Low humor is on offer as often as lofty: Right off the bat, Kornhauser and director Michael Kahn serve up an entertainingly ribald scene at a Paris theater, complete with a polysexual impresario, a ludicrous fashion-victim aristocrat, a musketeer on the make, and a perfect groaner of a reindeer joke to set up the entrance of the play’s famously big-nosed hero. The same sequence gets capped with a pointed audience aside that might have been scripted by a PBS fundraiser, and in the scene that follows, the entrance of a journalist provides the opening for a bit of equal-opportunity ill will toward both meteorologists and drama critics. This may be Richelieu’s Paris, but Bruce Vilanch writes the one-liners at the Moulin Rouge.
But Kornhauser never muffles the play’s lyricism or tries to hide its generous heart. In that first scene, Cyrano’s celebrated self-deprecatory riff on the ridiculous size of his snout has the effortless classicism of the genuinely well-read. Later, once the love-triangle plot has been established, the comedy takes a back seat, and the hero’s encounters with the lovely Roxane carry a genuine tenderness. (Refresher course: Cyrano, the smart one, secretly loves Roxane, but she’s crushing on Christian, the pretty one, who begs Cyrano for help with the love letters that seal the deal.) And the play’s triumphant moment—that cruel, comical balcony scene in which Cyrano courts Roxane from the shadows, only to have Christian climb the trellis to collect the kiss—masterfully balances the laughter with the ache.
That all this plays so well at the Lansburgh is doubtless due as much to the staging as to the script. Geraint Wyn Davies’ Cyrano, so confident and so self-conscious and so stubbornly devoted to his otherness, demonstrates an effortless command of both language and feeling, providing a solid anchor for a production of substantial proportions and considerable grace. James Noone’s sets and Noone and Robert Perdziola’s costumes are lavish and lovely, and whoever conjured up the spread of goodies in Ragueneau’s pastry shop deserves special mention. And Michael Kahn directs with a touch as light as the rhythms of Rostand’s verse; this Cyrano can be sweet, yes, but it’s never once saccharine. It deploys its dramaturgical arsenal with as much finesse as its hero employs his sword.
Gregory Wooddell’s Christian exhibits plenty of charm, though not the depth of character that might make audiences weep for him when he meets the sad end Rostand dictates. And Claire Lautier’s Roxane likewise has only the beauty and the smarts, not the soulful qualities, that her suitors rhapsodize about; she’s delicious in the early going and a delight in the balcony scene, but it’s hard, once the courting is accomplished and she’s engineered her hasty marriage to Christian, to understand what makes everyone idealize her so.
As the predatory Comte de Guiche, though—the dangerously well-connected nobleman whose designs on Roxane provide the external plot hurdle to balance the internal impediment of Cyrano’s self-consciousness—Andrew Long does a fine piece of actorly tightrope-walking. He’s neither too villainous nor too sympathetic, just an arrogant man of privilege who learns, late enough to be sorry about it, what unselfish honor can look and feel like.
It’s true that Kornhauser takes his time wrapping things up, and that Kahn allows the lovely autumnal mood of the final scene to expand into a kind of suspended-in-amber moment that saps the conclusion of some of its pathos. Still, this is a generous, bighearted show, and it reminds us, in a time when politics seems more than ever an exercise in presenting a face acceptable to the prejudices of the many, that genuine heroes can make us love them for who they really are—no matter how singular the sculpture of their profiles.
Upstairs at the Studio Theatre, behind the insane, inspired glamour puss that is Lypsinka, there hides a man arguably as gifted—and every bit as unsure about his gifts—as Cyrano. And if Rostand’s play sets a high bar, John Epperson: Show Trash, the Mississippi-to-Manhattan story of a queer kid made good, proves nearly as eloquent an inquiry into the psychology of difference.
If that makes Epperson’s one-man show sound like a downer, it’s decidedly not: Show Trash is a sweetly tart little autobiographical amble packed with amusing anecdote and scored with a string of show tunes ranging from the iconic to the esoteric. Alone on the stage, with just a baby grand to hide behind and an endearingly campy collection of scrapbook photos and Super-8 home movies to serve as a distraction, Epperson proves that the most diffident of personalities can still be a compelling subject.
It’s endearing, the way this man who makes a living as a larger-than-life woman seems uncertain about how much space he can command as himself. Gestures get underplayed; laugh lines get tossed away. It’s as if, without the armor of his drag persona, Epperson can’t quite be sure he’s entertaining enough to warrant your attention. Or perhaps, canny veteran that he is, this is merely the impression he wants to put over, the better to bid for your affection.
Either way, Show Trash is warm and wistful here, acerbically funny there, and peppered with guilty-pleasure anecdotes involving the famous (and semifamous; Epperson was for a time a rehearsal pianist at the American Ballet Theatre). And its central idea—the notion that not every born performer has the nerve to stand up and say “look at me”—has a kind of built-in poignancy. Erik Trester’s video design, incorporating pastel projections and those hazily focused film records of a misfit childhood, provides pitch-perfect emotional underscoring.
Not all of the songs and song parodies on offer are equally inspired—the title bit, to the tune of My Fair Lady’s “Show Me,” works a lot better for Epperson’s purposes, for instance, than a minor Frank Loesser ditty called “Rumble, Rumble, Rumble,” which is cute but would’ve been cuter at half the length. Still, Epperson proves a smooth-enough cabaret artist, making up for thin vocals with lively keyboard work, an appealing wit, and an instinct for songs that capture the mood of his stories. Indeed, anybody who can strike at the heart with an obscure Sondheim number (the yearning “Take Me to the World,” from Evening Primrose), then turn on his heel and transform “Chelsea Morning” into a cynical carpet-bombing of queer conformity, is a winner to me. How nice, then, that Epperson has finally emerged from the shadow of his own larger-than-life creation to show us his own singular features. CP