Ryan Bourque and Harry Groener
Ryan Bourque and Harry Groener Credit: Liz Lauren

It’s a weird irony of life that Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s best and most memorable shows aren’t the Shakespearean ones. Last season, for instance, the company on Navy Pier presented please-let-me-out-of-here mountings of Henry VIII and Julius Caesar, while on the other hand offering up a sublime revival of Sunday in the Park With George and hosting delightful-to-devastating productions by companies from Scotland, South Africa, Italy, and Belarus.

Another big, Bard-free success was The School for Lies—an antic version of Moliere’s The Misanthrope, in which playwright David Ives has retained the original play’s aristocratic, 17th-century French ambience while piling on loads of 21st-century-style wordplay and wit.

Now, with Cyrano de Bergerac, Chicago Shakespeare seems to be working a similar conceit. The source material is a classic written by a Frenchman, Edmond Rostand. As in the case of The School for Lies, the action takes place in the mid-1600s, at the dawn of the age of the Sun King, Louis XIV. But the adaptation comes from the pen of a great contemporary artist: Anthony Burgess, best known as the author of that dark masterpiece of wit and word-playfulness, A Clockwork Orange.

The crucial difference is that Cyrano isn’t actually a product of the time in which it’s set. Rostand wrote it during the late 1890s—a period when, as director Penny Metropulos points out in a program interview, European theatrical innovators like Ibsen, Shaw, and Strindberg were using naturalism to say, “Let’s look at the underbelly because things are not pretty. . . . They are gritty and nasty and ugly.” Rostand’s play was a vote for romance in the face of all that modernity. And that’s one source of the surprising power Metropulos draws from it here: at a time like ours, when a lot of theater isn’t so much ugly as empty—90-minute exercises in earnest obviousness, bringing to mind a smart kid’s college application essay—it’s refreshing to see a work that commits so defiantly, so uncooly and intricately to fundamental passions and pain.

The title character has become a cultural archetype, of course. Cyrano from the town of Bergerac is a soldier with a poet’s heart, more than willing to take on giants and then compose an epic lay about his exploits afterward. He’s an incomparable swordsman, recklessly forthright, lavishly articulate, and loyal to what most of us would consider a fierce fault, defending a pal at one point by singlehandedly taking on an army of 100 thugs (though he has only to kill seven or eight of them before the rest run away). Even his nose is heroic: a “rock, a bluff, a cape,” he calls it as he rhapsodizes on its prodigious size. “No, a peninsula.”

Rostand’s plot has Cyrano falling in love with his beautiful cousin Roxane, discovering that she has her heart set on a good-natured, handsome, but tongue-tied fellow soldier named Christian, and selflessly using his own verbal genius to bring Christian and Roxane together. As Harry Groener’s truly marvelous performance demonstrates, though, the plot isn’t quite the point. More than anything, this Cyrano is the tragedy of a man who’s displaced his soul into his nose. I know that sounds absurd—it is absurd. Yet it’s not silly. Not any sillier than, say, the way some people displace their souls into a childhood trauma. And in any case, the straightforward, quietly anguished way Groener handles Cyrano shames the silliness out of it.

We’re used to thinking of Cyrano’s nose as the liability he overcomes to achieve nobility—the mask that hides his inner beauty. In fact, it’s the nose that goads him on to those traits, for better and for worse. It drives him to every brave and foolish gesture. It gives him his brilliance, his sensitivity, and his profoundly stupid stubbornness. It makes him an enemy to his own best interests, and to those of the person he least wants to hurt. Like I said: a tragedy.

Still, Metropulos and company turn it into a fluid and gorgeous one. Fight director Rick Sordelet supplies some of the best swordplay I’ve seen on a stage. The set by Kevin Depinet includes projections of clouds and of the moon that confer just the right suggestion of a dream, while Chicago Shakespeare regulars like Ross Lehman, William Dick, Wendy Robie, and Sean Fortunato counterbalance the dream with their affable reality. And Burgess’s script is thrilling. Though it may not seem that way, A Clockwork Orange is a cry against modernity. Burgess is precisely in his element with Rostand.