James Chen and Christopher Rivas in Cyrano de Bergerac (Don Ipock)
About 125 years after its first performance, playwright Martin Crimp has put forth an exciting new adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s classic work Cyrano de Bergerac. This new version is billed as having been “freely adapted” from Rostand’s linguistically iconic work, keeping the rhyming couplets throughout and, technically, its mid-17th century time period. But Crimp takes heavy liberties with the language, setting, and even characters, resulting in an adaptation that celebrates and in many ways enhances the original source material while not feeling beholden to it.
The first thing that grabs you in Crimp’s adaptation is the comedy. From the first moments, there is a captivating, playful energy infused throughout. Rostand’s play is a comedy, to be sure, but I’ve never laughed more during a production, or felt more connected to the characters.
This show is guided by a stellar cast, fiercely directed by Nelson T. Eusebio III. James Chen stars as the famed soldier and wordsmith, who wields both skills as defensive weapons against a world he’s convinced judges and dismisses him on sight. In love with his cousin, the beautiful Roxane (Ito Aghayere), but convinced she could never love him, he comes as close as he can to wooing her by giving her gorgeous yet decidedly unpoetic suitor Christian (a charming Christopher Rivas) the words with which to do so. Jimmy Kieffer is a top-tier love-to-hate villain as the despicable De Guiche, obsessed with possessing Roxane and vengeful toward all who stand in his way. (Meanwhile, even this production can’t give Roxane real agency, but Crimp’s updated script and a commendable performance by Aghayere can at least make the lack thereof central to her character.)
The production design elements come together in an enthralling vision. Paul Kim has dressed the cast in fantastically vibrant costumes. Riw Rakkulchon keeps the set relatively simple—a twisting tree, some grand pillars and arches for framing—making every shift in scenery hit dramatically and giving Marie Yokoyama’s vivid lighting a clean backdrop to play against.
It’s impossible to discuss the show in its entirety and not mention the enormous omission. Chen performs the role of Cyrano—the character known for his oversized nose, the subject of countless jokes and jabs throughout the show—without any sort of facial prosthetic. The references to a cartoonishly large nose still exist throughout, issued both by Cyrano and by others. The result is a sort of Emperor’s New Clothes effect, forcing us to consider the nose more in its absence than we ever might were it in front of us. Cyrano is so convinced of his ugliness that he twists himself in knots, committing his whole life to a charade he feels is necessary because of his physical appearance. And Chen invests in this man’s pain just as much as he does his humor. This is no small matter; this imagined monstrosity rules his life. And for what?
This is also, incredibly, the first time an Asian American director has helmed Rostand’s play at the professional regional theatre level, and Chen is the first Asian-American actor to take on the lead role at this level as well. This undeniably adds layers of depth and nuance to Cyrano’s perception of himself that might not be present when, say, James McAvoy originated the role in Crimp’s adaptation in 2019.
Even (maybe especially) theatre-goers already well familiar with Rostand’s work will want to seek out Crimp’s version, an incredibly exciting addition to the ongoing life of this classic. And the production currently onstage at KC Rep is a brilliant staging, more than up to the task of bringing this complex work to audiences.
“Cyrano de Bergerac” runs at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre (Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry St) through September 24. For more information, visit kcrep.org.