Full disclosure: Prior to viewing the new DVD of Cyrano de Bergerac, I had never read Edmond Rostand's play or seen it performed. Like many of my generation, the entirety of my exposure to this French classic was Steve Martin's 1987 adaptation, Roxanne (and an episode of Seinfeld, but never mind that). We try to be cultured and intelligent, of course, but from the clips I'd seen, Cyrano looked to be lots of fancy folks in feathered hats speaking in couplets, and sometimes it's hard to make yourself watching something like that if it isn't assigned. Taking in the classics can be rather like eating your broccoli, and besides, Martin made said broccoli into a tasty bacon cheeseburger, so why bother?
So it is a surprise and pleasure that this particular version of Cyrano is so robust, snappy, and fun. Taped live at the Richard Rogers Theatre during the 2007 Broadway revival starring Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner, David Leveaux's staging utilizes Anthony Burgess' translation and adaptation and draws heavily upon the considerable charm and skill of its leading man.
Kline plays the titular character, a brilliant and witty swordsman, soldier, and raconteur in Paris, circa 1640. Cyrano, alas, is blessed with an oversized nose, a physical flaw which he allows to undermine his self-confidence (though he'll never let it show). Cyrano harbors an unquenchable crush on the lovely Roxanne (Garner), his cousin (hey, it was a different time). Roxanne, however, has got the hots for handsome Christian (Daniel Sunjata), one of Cyrano's cadets, and asks Cyrano to play matchmaker. He does so reluctantly, only to discover that Christian can't put a sentence together with two hands and a map. The two men make an arrangement: Cyrano will supply the words, Christian will supply the pretty face, and the fair Roxanne will be none the wiser.
This 2007 production was taped for airing on PBS, and the well-crafted performance video (directed for television by Matthew Diamond) captures Leveaux's elegant staging and energetic interpretation well. Costumes are gorgeous, lighting and sets are quite nice, and the fast-paced show is wickedly funny and occasionally moving. The show drags a bit in the fourth act, in the run-up to the battle of Arres, but that's present in the text and probably impossible to overcome now matter how tight the production.
The primary attraction of this particular Cyrano is Kevin Kline's fabulous performance. Cyrano is an actor's dream role: he laughs, he cries, he fences, and he's given a marvelously prepared entrance. It can also invite an actor to overdo it, and Kline is no stranger to scenery-chewing, but his work here is subtle and understated without undercutting the flamboyancy of the role. He clearly understands and communicates Cyrano's public persona and contrasts it with his private heartbreak, letting the audience in without ever seeming to play "to" them (except in a wonderful, and entirely in-character, moment immediately following his first line). He's particularly good in the play's two most immortal scenes (and the scenes most memorably transposed into Roxanne): his taunting of a weak-minded would-be villain with multiple insults of his own nose, and his tag-team romancing (with Christian) of Roxanne under a dark balcony.
Above all else, Kline is effortlessly at home with the dialogue; the classical speech and formal vernacular sound absolutely natural coming out of his mouth. Garner doesn't fare nearly as well. Don't get me wrong, she's a fine actress in contemporary roles, but woefully miscast here; she just doesn't seem comfortable with the language, and her attempts to project her voice for the theatre push her into a strange, unnatural baritone. She also overacts a touch, perhaps overcompensating for the stage (though it is entirely possible that her performance played better from the house than it does on-camera). Elsewhere in the cast, Sunjata makes an energetic and likable Christian, while Chris Sarandon's slimy Comte de Guiche proves a worthy adversary.
Diamond's cameras capture the production well, with multiple angles cut together for maximum effectiveness. The well-edited performance film often utilizes conventional film cutting, using conversational dialogue-and-reaction rhythms (and tight close-ups) that frequently blur the line between conventional film and stage performance video. Capturing the energy and spontaneity of a live performance is a tricky business, but this disc pulls it off with a great deal of success.
Cyrano's 1.78:1 anamorphic image is decent, but no great shakes. Shot on video, the image has some noticeable grain and expected video artifacts, while there is some occasional softness present (particularly during sudden camera moves like tilts and pans).
The viewer is given the choice of a 5.1 or 2.0 stereo mix, though in all candor, this reviewer couldn't hear a hell of a lot of difference. Obviously, being a performance of a dialogue-heavy play, the emphasis is on the words, which are crisp and clear (a fairly impressive feat, considering the limitations of recording a live play), but there's not much separation in the 5.1 mix--surround channels are basically used for audience response (mostly laughter). As with the video presentation, the audio is more than adequate to get the job done, but certainly not reference quality.
This one is bare-bones; Image Entertainment has included no extras on the Cyrano disc.
The Cyrano de Bergerac disc itself may not be a tremendous technical achievement, but the play is well worth your time; it's a lovely staging of a terrific show, and Kevin Kline's work is so stellar that it nearly makes up for the production's other flaws (sorry, Garner). Recommended.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.