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The Nose and the No-Sayer

“Cyrano de Bergerac” and “The Misanthrope” in the Berkshires (through August 2004)

By coincidence, two Berkshire summer theaters are ending their seasons with plays set in 17th-century France. At a glance, the connection doesn’t go much deeper than that superficial parallel. While both plays are acknowledged classics, “Cyrano de Bergerac,” at the Barrington Stage Company, is a late-19th-century pastiche of classic French drama, while Molière’s “The Misanthrope,” at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, is a satirical comedy of and for its time.

But despite their distinct styles and sensibilities, the two plays have some surprising convergences. This goes for the respective productions, too, both of them quite engaging, each of them marred by an odd and crucial directorial choice.

For starters, a fun fact: Cyrano de Bergerac and Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (later called Molière) went to school together, at the Jesuit Collège de Clermont. Cyrano was a real person, born in 1619, three years before Molière, though Edmond Rostand’s eponymous play is almost wholly fictional. He was a notorious drinker and duelist, a free-thinking Bohemian, a controversial dramatist and, yes, the owner of a remarkably large nose. Rostand turned the mercurial swashbuckler into a romantic hero of classic proportions: the man with the deadliest sword, the biggest heart, the most exquisite pen and the most intractable pride in all Paris.

The title character of “The Misantrope,” like most of Molière’s comic antiheroes, has an incurable case of monomania; in this instance, a principled refusal to be anything but blunt and truthful. This, in an aristocratic milieu (we’re talking the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King ) where reputations live and die on public artifice and private backbiting.

Alceste, like Cyrano, is contemptuous of hypocrisy. Both men are stubbornly opinionated and indifferent to others’ opinion of them—with one exception: the women they love. And in both cases, that devotion is abject and irrational. The objects of affection are pretty young things with nothing on their minds and nothing in common with their would-be lovers’ nonconformist attitudes.

Alceste’s amour, Célimène (Kate Jennings Grant), at least has a quick wit, though she uses it only for gossipy put-downs, and Alceste is appropriately exasperated by her frivolity. In “Cyrano,” the romantic convention of love for beauty’s sake gets completely out of hand. Director Julianne Boyd makes Heather Ayers’ Roxanne into a simpering ninny, a walking blonde joke—a choice that undercuts any suspension of disbelief we might muster to excuse Cyrano’s paradoxical attraction to her.

Christopher Innvar is a graceful Cyrano, equally affecting as the witty swashbuckler and the broken-hearted poet whose sense of honor makes him help his rival (Dylan Fergus) win the heart of his true love. Innvar also gives poetic élan to Lowell Bair’s prose translation, which flattens the lyricism of the original but does nothing to diminish the play’s dramatic flair. Richard Wilbur’s lively version of “The Misanthrope” is in verse, trading Molière’s elaborate Alexandrine measures for iambic pentameter but retaining its stately procession of rhymed couplets.

David Adkins is a scowly, petulant and strikingly modern Alceste, brooding about the stage as if he’d rather be anyplace else—which is where he looks like he should be. Director Anders Cato’s intent, executed by costumer Olivera Gajic, is apparently to demonstrate the play’s “timelessness” by placing the characters not in one period but in all periods. Amid pompadoured fops and ladies in Empire gowns, Alceste and his friend Philinte (Steven Petrarca) sport today haircuts, sort-of-period frock coats, and modern street shoes. You get the impression they’ve just stepped out of a time machine half-dressed for the journey. Universalizing the script in this way is unnecessary and a bit silly.

That said, the parodies of courtly getups displayed by the play’s three aristocratic dandies are hilarious. Gerry McIntyre, powdered, rouged and definitively swish, is done up like a walking window treatment, and James Barry and Tom Story, as Célimène’s smirking suitors, look like frilly magenta throw pillows.

Michael Anania’s all-wood “Cyrano” set is spare, expansive and multipurpose, a series of platforms framed by two balconies. “The Misantrope,” designed by Carl Sprague, is contained within a painted proscenium, like Molière’s theater, and played against a row of elegant French windows. Between the scenes a troupe of costumed stagehands change the scenery in a balletic drill that evokes and spoofs the entr’acte dances that punctuated Molière’s original productions.

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