A gallant soldier who composes verse as he fights a sword duel. A beautiful woman whose heart is moved by her lover's words -- not knowing they come from another man. This is the stuff of a poet's dream world, where words -- and dedication to principles -- count above all. Edmond Rostand made them part of his flamboyant late-19th-century classic ``Cyrano de Bergerac,'' and the Guthrie Theater here has taken the French play's wistful romanticism and produced a rather hard-won evening of comedy and excitement.
In ``Cyrano,'' these qualities hang precariously on the title role, a dashing soldier-poet who turns his grotesquely long nose into a kind of psychic weapon. His formidable wit and flashing sword challenge anyone who so much as mentions his epic nose.
He loves his cousin, Roxanne, but keeps it to himself because he feels his appearance rules him out as a suitor. Instead, he writes love letters for the inarticulate soldier Roxanne loves. Throughout the war with the Spanish and the courtly relationships of the play's 17th-century setting, Cyrano is a man of nearly absolute fidelity to his ideals of valor and personal honor -- but his humor remains intact.
It's really an outrageous character, but one that has always been capable of thrilling audiences. The play was a smash at its Paris opening in 1897, a time when Frenchman were hungry for a resurgence of romantic dash -- just as they were in the time of the historical Cyrano on whom Rostand loosely based his character. ``Cyrano'' has satisfied the same desire in American audiences from time to time, notably when Jos'e Ferrer played the title role on stage and in the film version.
What Jack Wetherall's Cyrano offers is a fine actor's insights and repertoire of skillful effects, which make a fascinating figure of this larger-than-life swashbuckler. His performance is intelligent and emotionally true, and it nicely captures that tricky element of self-consciousness lying beneath Cyrano's panache, a self-deprecating humanity behind the poetic bluster. Cyrano himself knows he is putting on a show -- it's part of his life's strategy to be a visible champion of his own ideals.
What Wetherall's Cyrano doesn't have -- and it's a debilitating flaw in this long, long production -- is the commanding presence to set the stage ablaze with the soaring vision and verbal magic of this fiercely eccentric fellow. It takes a lot of audience indulgence to accept a figure so dangerously close to the ridiculous, and you have to feel you're being bowled over -- even if Cyrano is winking at you in the process.
This transforming impact is especially needed during Cyrano's first entrance, carefully built up to by Rostand. At the Guthrie, this entrance is not a jolt of electricity but rather the start of an impressive, valiant, evening-long crusade by Wetherall to involve the audience in Cyrano's world. His delivery is sensitive, varied, sometimes plaintive, sometimes splendidly passionate. Cyrano often comes off as a human being among a skilled company of actors. At times he even breaks into a kind of side-of-t he-mouth vernacular for humor or wry comment.
You believe Cyrano, like him, and admire his fidelity. Wetherall's pace, intelligibility, and sense of drama rarely falter as he etches this fantastic personality before 20th-century audiences. Maybe they, too, are longing for a splash of poetic color and would gladly embrace a quixotic fighter like Cyrano. But he needs to be a giant -- even if it's a slightly hokey one -- and not a fellow mortal, however admirable.
The world Cyrano lives in is established by director Edward Gilbert with quick, effective steps in the first act. Bustling, chattering players plunge the audience into the animated company of 17th-century Frenchmen. The action, in fact, is best when at its height. Cyrano's famous poem-writing sword duel is strikingly well executed, with its ebb and flow of scrambling spectators, and the later battle scene is pulled off with equal economy and impact. Groups are well handled -- carefully placed but not p osed -- and the stage is often full, but not crowded. Costumes are rich and varied but naturalistically subdued, as if they were really clothes and not merely worn for the show. The sets were just about right in their use of realism and symbolism.
The strong Guthrie company handled the period characters well, getting off the lines -- as translated by Brian Hooker -- with vigor and meaning, though with a sense of posturing at times. It's when they are the least effortfully French that they're at their best, and they have a strong sense of the play's comic potential, playing against the fancy talk with knowing winks at the ridiculousness of human manners. John Towey as Ragueneau and Richard Iglewski's Montfleury are especially good, and Harriet Har ris's Roxanne is a real woman -- humorous and outspoken.
The Guthrie's rotating schedule of plays this season also includes ``A Midsummer Night's Dream,'' ``Candida,'' ``Execution of Justice,'' and an adaptation of Dickens's novel ``Great Expectations.'' ``Cyrano'' plays through Sept. 29.