The story is as familiar as that of the sword in the stone or the vacillating Danish prince. Swashbuckling solider-poet Cyrano loves his winsome cousin Roxane, but despite his valor and popularity among his comrades his huge nose prevents him (or so he is convinced) from being taken seriously in matters of the heart. Learning that his beloved has taken a shine to another soldier, and that the handsome but tongue-tied Christian loves her back, Cyrano swallows his pride and settles for wooing Roxane indirectly by feeding Christian the high-flying, romantic poetry and wit Roxane demands.
The ruse is working, but Colonel DeGuiche, a jealous suitor, sends Cyrano and Christian's unit on a dangerous mission to the front lines just after Christian and Roxane have, with Cyrano's anguished help, hurriedly wed. Misunderstanding and tragedy carry the day, until the truth comes out years later when it's too late.
Though the story is familiar, we don't often get the chance to see it up close on a small stage, and certainly not with as fine an actor as Daniel Wolfe in the lead role. Mr. Wolfe's commanding performance in this Queens Players production – passionate, witty, antic, elastic, full-throated – is nearly enough all by itself to carry the weight of this very long (even though somewhat cut) production of Edmond Rostand's century-old classic. And fortunately, Mr. Wolfe is not alone, getting able backup from Anthony Martinez – who was a spirited Orlando in the company's recent As You Like It – as a suitably comical yet sympathetic Christian, and from a charming if slightly less sure-footed Sarah Bonner as Roxane. Ms. Bonner seemed to warm up as the long evening rolled on, perhaps inspired by Mr. Wolfe's blistering presence.
Of the supporting cast, some are quite good, while others turn in merely adequate performances, and there are one or two glaring failures. A more general problem mars the production as well. It's very difficult to understand what's going on during the lengthy opening scene, which is supposed to give us a cross-section of Parisian society before Cyrano's entrance; though the scene is briskly paced, some dialogue is lost through a combination of poor diction and the echoey sound of the Queens Players' new, larger space in the Long Island City Art Center (you can still smell the paint). Overall the ensemble scenes are prone to weakness. Rostand's picture of the society in which his heroes move, which ought to be sharp as tacks, comes through hazily at best.
But this production is well worth seeing, first for Mr. Wolfe's galvanizing performance, and second for the vision of Queens Players artistic director Richard Mazda, which is penetrating where it counts. Mr. Mazda directs the production himself, and gives proper stress to a supremely important facet of the play: besides love and society, it's about art itself.
The dual meanings of that little three-letter word merge in Cyrano. The hero is a true artist in both senses. He is a wizard with words, a poet, a playwright, even a kind of "artist" with his sword. At the same time, he is supremely "artful" – a kind of trickster, a deceiver, though one with only the noblest of intentions. The pain that motivates him produces many of the play's comical elements as well as its ultimate tragedy.
Cyrano is among other things a piece of meta-theater. It asks us to believe the unbelievable – that Roxane won't recognize when a literally different voice has takes over beneath her window; that Cyrano can spin fresh, clever rhymes while engaged in a swordfight, and then hack his way through 100 attackers. And it doesn't apologize for asking these things of us; it knows it is a piece of artifice. Rostand's triumph, and here Mr. Wolfe's as well, is to pull us along the whole way, going gladly.
I have a feeling Mr. Mazda wanted to have it both ways: to present the play in as much of its broad, spread-out glory as possible, while bringing the central characters into sharp focus. Perhaps that was too much to ask of a low-budget, Off Off Broadway production and an unevenly skilled company. But the sharp realization of the central story, with an unforgettable performance in the title role, is more than enough to make this a very worthwhile evening of theater.
Cyrano de Bergerac runs through Dec. 5 at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City, Queens (one stop from Manhattan on the E or V train).
Photos: Cameron Hughes