Cyrano de Bergerac's great contribution to popular culture is the image of a handsome but tongue-tied man being fed poetic declarations of love by an ugly man so that the good-looking guy can bag a beautiful woman. Anyone who sees Donna Northcott's staging of Cyrano will leave with a dazzling array of images that beggar the cliché, and all of which illuminate the idea of "panache."
Panache is the code by which Cyrano (Todd Gillenardo) lives his life as a nobleman/soldier in seventeenth-century France. It means one must duel for personal honor while composing a poem about the duel, and that one must challenge all authority and spurn the easy routes of patronage and comfort for a life of absolute freedom. Gillenardo, who also serves as the fight choreographer, is one of the best stage combatants you'll ever have the pleasure to see. His swordsmanship is crisp and precise, his flourishes whistle with blurring menace. From a pure entertainment standpoint, his duels are kinetic delights, full of motion and danger and, yes, panache.
But it's Gillenardo's richly detailed portrayal of the man that holds the most fascination in this St. Louis Shakespeare production. He struts around the stage like a bantam rooster and deftly handles Edmond Rostand's quasi-Alexandrine rhyme scheme, delivering his epigrams with an eloquently arched eyebrow and a velvety growl. There's an arrogance to him, but Gillenardo mines the vulnerable core of the man for little bits of gold. Cyrano's extreme self-confidence falters when it comes to his looks, which are marred by his "peninsular" nose. It is this disfigurement that keeps him from pursuing his lady love, Roxane, who is also his cousin (ah, the French). Cyrano's stiff-necked acceptance of Roxane's declaration of love for another man reveals that much of his pride and panache is armor that protects his great heart from pain.
Andrea Purnell's portrayal of Roxane is beautifully wrought. Roxane must be lovely and coquettish, and Purnell manages both needs adroitly. The famous ventriloquist scene gives her a chance to flash her comedic skills, as she skewers Christian (Casey Boland) at every verbal stumble. Boland is quite good as the dim but handsome suitor, plodding along stolidly through his lines.
The final scene is where Purnell and Gillenardo seal their glory. Dying of a massive head wound, Cyrano spars with the specter of death while ranting new poems in the face of mortality. Off to his side, Roxane's face crumbles in grief as she watches her dear friend and secret lover going out in a blaze of glory, but the light in her eyes is that of defiant love — Cyrano will die, but her chaste, spiritual love for him will not. That, ladies and gentlemen, is panache.
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