Apple Tree Theatre Company

Edmond Rostand’s deservedly popular portrait of silent passion Cyrano de Bergerac celebrates the gallant 17th-century swordsman and wordsmith, his vaunting bravado and his selfless devotion. “One of those rare animals who have opted to be free,” as his noble enemy De Guiche describes him, Cyrano is ferociously independent, a sworn enemy of cant (“I’m too proud to be a parasite”). His one undefeated enemy is himself: helpless with love for his beautiful cousin Roxane, he fears his ugliness–i.e., his notoriously large nose–makes him unworthy to receive a woman’s love or to confess his own.

So Cyrano becomes a passionate go-between for Christian, Roxane’s poorly chosen lover, a hot-blooded, handsome, bashfully inarticulate Gascon warrior. In the most lyrical scene of this unashamedly romantic drama Cyrano woos Roxane in the dark while Christian, pouring out borrowed words, reaps the rewards of that ardor. Only later–when it’s too late for joy but not for regret–does Cyrano discover how much he was loved, for his beautiful soul.

At heart this is a fairy tale much like “Beauty and the Beast,” except that Cyrano expects no redemption–and of course he’s done nothing to deserve it. Allergic to rank and skeptical of fame, all this rebel owns is his “scrubbed liberty and ramrod independence” and his panache, the white plume of his broad-brimmed hat that’s the emblem of his freedom.

The simple story, which spans three hours and 15 years (1640-1655), is made immensely entertaining by Rostand’s penchant for baroque imagery and his canny zest for the grand flourish. You see it in bustling, richly textured scenes set in a theater, pastry shop, battlefield, and convent. Better, you hear it in Cyrano’s relentless, ingenious mockery of his nose (a privilege he cedes to no one else), in his poetic duel with a suicidal idiot who insults that proboscis, in his eloquent declarations of his independence from court and church, and in his tall tale of a visit to a planet where sex is compulsory and the inhabitants very thin.

Though smaller in scale than this epic usually plays, Eileen Boevers’s revival for the Apple Tree Theatre Company respects the taut action and lyrical rush. There are, however, two curious changes. In the third act Cyrano does not give his famous narrative of a visit to the moon (drawn from the real Cyrano’s famous fantasy), and the shortened version doesn’t convey Cyrano’s desperate desire to delay the amorous De Guiche’s visit to Roxane. Also omitted from this act is Roxane’s visit to the siege of Arras, during which she tells Christian she would love him even if he were ugly. Instead Christian learns that painful truth in a letter he shares with Cyrano, a dubious compression given that Cyrano mustn’t know how much Roxane preferred the man who wrote the letters over the lover she imagined wrote them.

Sprawling and uneven, like most Cyranos, Apple Tree’s staging testifies to the play’s chief irony: sweeping as the tale feels, its power comes down to one man’s performance. David Darlow’s Cyrano is strong, serviceable, and brimming with pathos, but he’s not heartbreaking, perhaps because there’s too little difference between his public and private sides. Only in the final scene do we sense how much he’s hidden.

A ravishing Roxane, Mary Ernster offers as an excuse for Roxane’s slowness to uncover the identity of her real lover an ardent desire to be loved properly as well as erotically; Ernster’s Roxane is as much a protofeminist as she can be. As the man she mistakes for her ideal, Timothy Gregory goes beyond pretty-boy obviousness–Don’t love me because I’m beautiful!–to convey Christian’s remorse for winning love under false pretenses.

Nicely evoking different sides of Cyrano’s personality are Jeffrey Baldwin Gibson as his unctuous rival De Guiche and Michael Nash as his bluff soldier companion. The 17 supporting actors create a surging, tempestuous world.

Anchoring that world are Jim Maronek’s supple sets, which change locales convincingly and spell out a lot with a little. Peter Gottlieb’s lighting nicely paints the script’s tonal shifts, and Caryn Weglarz’s well-made costumes provide their own multicolored panache.