Dull, ordinary, under powered. If the theatre wants to survive, it cannot afford to be this boring. And Portland’s audience deserves far more artistic return from an institution tax payers have generously subsidized to the tune of millions and millions of dollars over the years.
In the dead quiet air of a half empty house as a stage full of actors in plumed hats stand motionless waiting for something to happen, surely I can’t be the only person out there wondering what it will take to turn the PCS ship around and give Portland the world class theatre it should already have by now.
CYRANO by Edmond Rostand at Portland Center Stage
In his review of the 2011 world premiere of this version of the CYRANO DE BERGERAC story at Folger Theatre, Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks christened the adaptation by Michael Hollinger and Aaron Posner “a polyunsaturated wheel of cheese” that might be “inviting for school groups” to produce.
That’s cheese as in cheesey. But maybe I (like the French) have a little more reverence for the holy vache and her offerings than Marks. Cheesey at least implies enjoyable to some degree. Like the guy with a moustache, comb-over and Members Only jacket lighting up a Newport methol on the New Jersey boardwalk. You can still get some serious fun and mileage out of cheesey – whether or not it’s intended to be cheesey. But such a connotation risks over selling most of the experience on offer here. CYRANO just isn’t that exciting. It’s slow moving corn with a few good laughs. For a theatre that could do almost any play on earth, it’s a very odd selection.
The problem with this version is not so much the production, which does what it can with the materials at hand. And it’s not the actors, many of whom are very talented. The main problem is the down-sized script and concept. The story itself feels old.
The show suffers from wanting to have it both ways. One the one hand, a grand classic love story larger than life. On the other, a much cheaper (only a cast of nine) and scaled down cliff notes cut of the epic. Men in tights (or dresses) alone doesn’t do a lot for me, and CYRANO is nowhere near clever or funny enough for a smart urban audience. It feels like a very provincial experience, and you can only ponder all the other shows in this genre PCS could have selected instead.
A smashing period piece can be great fun, as we have seen with loads of shows at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in recent years. Or as we’re seeing right now at Theatre Vertigo (for about 1% of the cost) with the delightful THE SCHOOL FOR LIES. But unlike the uncontainable joy of, say, THE HEART OF ROBIN HOOD, or even OSF’s own quite funny CYRANO DE BERGERAC a few years back, here the energy is way too low. It’s the difference between zipping up the hill in a Porsche vs. an overloaded VW van. We’re chugging along, and there’s so little happening at times in the first half of the play, it’s hard to get very invested.
To be fair to the show, part of the problem on the night I saw it was the audience, which mostly sat there like stacked wood. The house was a little over half full, which didn’t help. But maybe to the missing half’s credit – people are learning to stay away from self-inflicted suffering like this. For a show like CYRANO to work, you need a packed, high octane audience. And that just was not happening. It almost felt like a rehearsal – very few laughs at all in the dead air. The show doesn’t work against a background of silence. But the material itself isn’t good enough to elicit much reaction here, despite some great actors.
The second act gets moving a bit more, especially as the prospect of a good war with the invading Spanish troops moves center stage. But this tonal shift then goes straight into shrill melodrama. The cast is soon clambering up steep and rocky Guffmanesque terrain. With no laughs in sight, and woes aplenty in the form of the invading Spanish, the audience’s attempt to keep a lid on any percolating Monty Python or Mel Brooks references is not helped by the appearance of Chris Harder dressed as a nun. Not as a joke – as a real nun.
Serious Guffman land. Speaking of which, there’s a bizarre conversation on the PCS Facebook page about Guffman, which PCS seemed to be enthusiastically encouraging. For a real play, the Guffman reference is anathema. Guffman is shorthand for ludicrously bad drama – which like good cheese becomes more enjoyable the worse it gets. But I don’t think PCS intends to be doing this show as over the top schmaltz – though maybe that would be more fun.
They’re doing it for real.