Here, without comment, Tony Babin's farewell to the stage at THEATREWORKS in May, of 2009, in the role of the fabulous,pompous and foolish actor, Montfluery, in Cyrano de Bergerac. Notably discharged, with the usual signature aplomb.
Khris Lewin, formerly a swordsman with a very large nose, was kind enough to send me a holoiday greeting from Greenwich Village, featuring Mark Hennessy, formerly the Comte de Guiche, with the following message: "This is not a comment about your direction of Cyrano--well, not necessarily . ...." Such is my golden age, the life of an eminence grise, surrounding by flattery, gifts, and loving care:
A professor of mine once called theatre "words in space." He was a poet himself, so naturally he had his own bias. But still, this sometimes describes what goes on in a playhouse, and especially in the two greatest balcony scenes ever written, where the lovers are separated in space, exchanging words in the dark. Or rather the lover/poet is in the dark, and the beloved is upstairs on her balcony glowing beautifully. Both scenes are played in moonlight, and in both scenes the beloved is herself a moon, illuminated by catching and reflecting the light of the ardent words flung across the darkness into her waiting ear. As for the words themselves, Shakespeare beats Rostand hands down--he beats everyone hands down. But Rostand's scene is just as good, and partly because his balcony scene is a menage a trois, enriched by Christian's tongue -tied yearning presence under the balcony, listening to Cyrano give love wings and voice. It's wonderful how Cyrano and Christian have become the perfect lover, the one contributing the beauty of physical form, the other of poetic soul, to form, as Cyrano says, "one hero for the storybook." And in the event--this particular event--the separation of faculties has become virtually absolute. In the dark, Cyrano has become disembodied--only his words exist. But these words have acquired potency. Christian's words "limp out, trickle out" and very soon they even cease to exist. Cyrano's words are abundant, they rise up, they defy gravity, and it is his words that make Roxane temble--they take complete possession of her. True, Christian climbs the balcony ("mount, you animal!" Cyrano says) and gets the kiss---but the kiss is only granted because Cyrano's words have already penetrated Roxane's soul--Cyrano has already kissed her with his words, and this is the kiss we in the audience feel, "the eternity in the instant the bee sips."
Later in the play, after floods of letters from the battlefield, Roxane aplogizes to Christian for having loved him first for his beauty, which she now finds only a distraction. Cyrano's language has completely trumped Christian's good looks---Roxane even wishes him ugly so she could love him even more. It's fair to say Roxane retreats to her convent for fifteen years because she is faithful to the language of love. She wears her lover's last letter (written by Cyrano of course) in her bosom. She tells a visitor that her lover isn't really dead--that they still meet in a "special region," where she finds "love between the living." That region is the realm of poetry; her lover's words live on next to her heart, both burning. Is this hokum? Yes, of course it is. But it's hokum of the most theatrical kind---words have been given body in space. Now that' s theatre love for you---and love doesn't get much more ravishing than that.
I wrote recently about Pinocchio and Cyrano, the two most famous noses in literature. What I didn't say was that Pinocchio isn't the only story loved by young people. I took my two grandchildren to the show on Sunday, thinking to give Mom and Grandma a Mother's Day break. Helen is 10, Henry is 8, and I thought they might just get through three hours with maybe a little snooze when Cyrano went into his fifth act swan song. Three hours, they said? Wow. But mostly to my surprise they hung in there all the way without an eye lowered and pronounced afterwards that it was the very best show I had ever taken them to. They said it was great. They were with it from beginning to end. They liked the swordfight, the love story, the nose jokes, the battle, and especially the man in the moon. They liked Cyrano, Roxane, Christian, all the Gascons, everyone. They understood it perfectly--kids always understand;they are the best audiences for Shakespeare summer in and summer out. Neither Helen or Henry will have a career in the theatre, unlike their grandfather who also fell in love with Cyrano when he was 8. But they will now forever have Cyrano de Bergerac as a life memory. And that's worth something. Afterwards, Helen told me, "I wish there was a THEATREWORKS in Boulder." I told her I was glad there was only one THEATREWORKS and that it was in my home town, because that meant she would have to come here to see the show, and then I could see her too. I think she was all right with that.
Week One. First impressions: oh no, what the hell are we doing? This play is beyond huge! We have less than a month. I haven't a good idea in my head! What were we thinking when our little theatre that could said we we could do Cyrano de Bergerac, one of the great poetic epics,sprawling over fifteen years in five acts? I mostly dislike everything at our first reading.Cyrano sounds airy fairy, Roxane like a Texas gal, The Comte De Guiche is a nasal twit and Christian is a fourteen year old. We're missing three cast members, a bad omen. I'm not happy with the drawings for the backdrops. The poetry seems inflated and incomprehensible. OMG.
Week Two: We're past table work and on our feet--we're even onstage thanks to the extraordinary Roy Ballard who has somehow managed to get our deck, designed by the redoubtable Michael Stansbury, into the theatre. I still haven't a real clue about the show; I'm taking it step by step, beat by beat, and there are a lot of beats. There's an awful lot of story telling to do--more story than I can ever remember. And of course there's all that high flying poetry. Much too much to do, and exhausting already---yet Mark Hennessy, who has been with me on many a show over the last decade, tells me he hasn't seen me this enthusiastic about a play in a very long time. Could this be so? The play has a way of energizing everyone. It seems to me that everyone--fruitseller, cadet, poet, baker--is ready to go, fired up. Of course Khris Lewin,our Cyrano, has something to do with this. He radiates good cheer, dedication and competence--he's the best cast bonding agent you could ever hope for in a leading man, leading by example and vey modestly too. Even so, our first run through all looks very community theatre to me. At then end of the week I am positively desperate, and I wonder why we are all working so hard to compete with Cyranos we can never hope to match--the films of Jose Ferrar, Gerard Depardieu, Steve Martin, Derek Jacobi and Kevin Kline. At rehearsal I propose a new brilliant idea for a post-modern production: the entire play as something the actor playing Cyrano remembers at his dressing table. The image was provided by looking at the seven noses we had made from a mold on Cyrano's dressing table, and also watching him put on his prodigious proboscus, which takes a good 20 minutes. So we put his dressing table onstage and began the play as if it were happening around him, the cast oblivious of him and yet all emanating from him. Brtilliant idea. Hopeless in practice.
I ask Khris if he'd try wearing his nose out on the street, in his street clothes. Khris is always game for a challenge. Five years ago when he was playing Hamlet with me in Virginia, I suggested he spend a few midnight hours in the town cemetary, a very spooky place, and he did it (and he was spooked, too). He told me he went for a walk with his Cyrano nose, along with his baseball cap and sunglasses, and the results were vey disturbing. People either refused to notice him, or else did so to excess--and even to the point of mockery. He started to try to hide his nose by tucking his face into his body, but then said no, to hell with that, and thrust himself and his nose up, out and forward. How very very Cyrano!
The show is looking better in at least two or three places.
Week Three. The week of costumes and lights, which begin to make themselves known piece by piece. By the end of the week we have an idea of what the show might look like, and it's a revelation. It's beautiful! Old fashioned in the best sense--even in the Bon Vivant, it reminds me of theatre of a century ago--a grand and stirring spectacle. The costumes, some rented, some made, are extraordinary. The moonlight is glowing on Roxane's shoulders, on her golden hair. Cyrano in his wig and nose suddenly looks like a baroque beatnik, a man posseesed. Christian is endearing and so so handsome too. The Comte de Guiche purrs like a French Machiavel. In the last act I look around and I notice people are actually crying. What an idiot I was to think of refashioning this play in a month--it needs no reinvention. It throws its lantern on why we loved the theatre for the first time. I had wondered how and why we shouldbe doing Cyrano when so many others had done it before, so very well, and with so many more resources, and permantently, on film. But seeing our second run-thorugh I realize it's even better here, right here in the Bon Vivant, because it actually was written for the stage. It's fuller, more real, more immediate. Above all, Cyrano is a play! Such a remarkable discovery. I am already dedicating the show to my grandaughter, age 10, who reads Black Beauty. I'm thinking Cyrano will imprint itself on her tender and impressionable soul as it did mine when I saw Jose Ferrar when I too was 10 years old. Welcome to romance! Nothing like it!
We've spent 24 hours this weekend in tech---a long weekend of son et lumiere. My favorite moment: rehearsing the love soaked balcony scene, Cyrano pouring out his soul to the enraptured Roxane on her balcony, I see an arm and a hand poke through the black curtain upstage, turning on a little star light. Now that's poetry!
Spirits remain high, including my own. On Sunday, the robots performing downstairs brought in a cake for three cast and crew members having mid-April birthdays. We sat around in our theatre kitchen, robots and baroque nobility,children (playing semi-musical pages) and crew, in the midde of theatre paraphrenila--swords, pikes, plastic grapes, lighting instruments-- eating cake and ce cream. Looking around I remembered just what it is I so much like about getting to do what I do.