Conor McShane is a Chicago-based playwright, actor, and musician. A native of Michigan, Conor's plays have been produced by numerous companies throughout his home state, including Tipping Point Theatre, Fancy Pants Theater, Western Michigan University, and at the Renegade Theatre Festival. Since relocating to Chicago, his short plays have been produced by Dandelion Theatre (The Coat Check, The Hot Dog Stand), Thorpedo Productions (Love in 90 Minutes), and at the Twelve Ways to Play one-act festival. Most recently, his full-length play The Letter G was presented as a staged reading by Coffee & Whiskey Productions. He lives with his partner and closest collaborator, Leslie Hull, and a temperamental cat named Cheena.
Pictured (l-r): Kristin Hammargren, Michael B. Woods, Matty Robinson, Zach Livingston, and Christina Gorman. Photo by Liz Lauren.
By Conor McShane
In an era when human connection feels increasingly dictated by algorithms, it’s hard to fathom the lengths we used to go to for courtship. For that reason, Edmund Rostand’s classic play CYRANO, in BoHo Theatre’s enchanting production of Michael Hollinger and Aaron Posner’s new adaptation, serves as a welcome contrary to computer-generated romance.
Presented by a nine-member cast, this new version simplifies Rostand’s original text, ditching most of the verse and giving it a more accessible, contemporary feel while managing to preserve the beauty of the language which is so crucial to the story. It opens with a bit of fourth wall breaking as the ensemble, led by Captain Le Bret (Steve Peebles), introduces us to the story and its titular character (Michael B. Woods). The actors then assume a variety of different roles over the course of the play, as Patrick Ham’s set stands in for everything from a theater to a bakery to a battlefield. While this doubling initially causes a bit of who’s who confusion, it doesn’t take long to adjust to the play’s milieu.
Set in 17th century France, the story follows the titular hero Cyrano de Bergerac, a soldier in the Gascony Guard who’s equally adept with a witty barb as he is dispatching a hundred swordsman (Jon Beal’s fight choreography for this scene is an early highlight). Despite his many talents, Cyrano’s main insecurity stems from his legendarily large nose, which prevents him from acting on his love for his second cousin, Roxane (Vahishta Vafadari), a woman praised for her beauty and her brains, and possibly the only person whose intellect equals his own. While Cyrano believes his physical imperfections make him unworthy of her love, an opportunity arises when Roxane falls for Christian (Zach Livingston), a handsome new recruit who lacks Cyrano’s way with words. He concocts a plan: he’ll serve as Christian’s mouthpiece, writing Roxane letters in his name and securing her affections. Complications ensue when a rival for Roxane’s attention emerges in the form of De Guiche (Kristin Hammargren), an arrogant nobleman who unfortunately has authority over both Cyrano and Christian. As their relationship intensifies, Cyrano begins to wonder whether his words or Christian’s physical perfection holds more sway in Roxane’s heart. Filling out the story are a host of memorable supporting characters, from a drunk poet (Henry Greenberg) to an enthusiastic baker (Matty Robinson) to a smug duelist (Christina Gorman) to Roxane’s nurse (Eleanor Katz), embodied by the ensemble with commitment and plenty of humor.
It’s interesting to think about what a play like CYRANO has to offer to a contemporary audience. Its world of duels, both with weapons and words, feels pretty far away from the one in which we live, where words continue to lose their meaning and value as the years go by. The play makes a strong case for the power of language as a gateway to the heart, and that a rich, thoughtful mind is ultimately more important than physical prowess. It does this while thankfully avoiding any trite “it’s what’s on the inside that counts” message, largely on the strength of Woods’s performance. He’s a terrific Cyrano, equally tough and tender, allowing his bluster to crumble in the presence of his beloved (it helps that Vafadari’s performance makes Roxane a worthy equal), and remaining sympathetic even when his pride gets him into trouble. Even as the 19th-century plot mechanics get a little creaky towards the end, we can’t help but be invested in their relationship.
Director Steve O’Connell harnesses the performances as well as the technical elements to give the play a distinct feel, which suggests its classical setting while also managing to remain contemporary. Christina Leinicke’s costumes split the difference, with ornate vests and hats paired with more modern garb like jeans and leather jackets. Ham’s set design is simple and unobtrusive, aided greatly by G. Max Maxin IV’s dreamy lighting. BoHo’s CYRANO is one of those happy theatrical moments where every element comes together beautifully, putting a fresh spin on one of theater’s most beloved romances.
CYRANO runs through April 15th. For more information visit bohotheatre.com.