Archive Theater Company's Cyrano de Bergerac

Jennifer Rose Davis' new staging immerses audiences in 19th-century France, taking them on an epic journey that's equally humorous and heartfelt

Cyrano (Patrick David Wheeler, left) duels the Vicomte de Valvert (Joe Falocco) (Photo by Steve Rogers)

Classic scripts today are often modernized in one of two ways. There's the time-tested approach of placing the play in a new context (e.g., Julius Caesar in 1980s Wall Street). The other: preserving the spirit of the original but with a fresh, less overt timeliness (e.g., the recent gender-inclusive production of The Three Musketeers at St. Edward's University). Given the Archive Theater Company's stated mission of staging classic stories for a contemporary audience, I was curious how the company would approach its first production, Edmond Rostand's epic 19th century comedy, Cyrano de Bergerac.

Archive Managing Director Jennifer Rose Davis (who serves as Cyrano's director, costume designer, and singer in the show's live band) has taken the second approach. She's also penned the translation used here, and in doing so has created an experience that's not only accessible to modern viewers, but also blurs the line between actor and audience.

Archive's Cyrano is, more than anything, an experience, one that begins the moment you enter Scottish Rite Theater. Pick up your ticket in the form of a metallic golden ducat, buy flowers from an actor wandering the lobby, and enter the auditorium to find ensemble men lazing about – in character – on the stage's steps. As principal actors casually begin filling every corner of the space, out steps Cyrano from the house's back, loudly announcing his presence.

Thus, Archive brings this Cyrano to life, but I don't mean only with actors vending flowers. Principally, it's Davis' lively translation that provides the vitality. The language, jaunty and playful in both its humor and poetic verse, allows for snappy banter, keeping a purposeful pace through a nearly three-hour run time. 

The text is supported by a dedicated cast. Actor Patrick David Wheeler gives the demanding lead role all he can, capturing the hero's celebrated panache well enough – but it's where Cyrano displays vulnerability that he shines brightest. Wheeler's Cyrano is constantly at odds with leading lady Liz Waters' devilishly headstrong Roxane. A staple of the Austin improv scene, Waters is able to hold her own against Cyrano as he suddenly jumps from flamboyance to tenderness, creating an electric chemistry between the two. 

Cyrano's dramatic strength also lies in a Broadway-sized cast, which Davis directs with a careful eye. Whether filling the house with spontaneous life or mobbing the titular hero with congratulations, the chorus members consistently create believable depth.

While her knack for the big picture is most apparent, Davis' eye for detail deserves equal mention. Where the first act is vibrant and humorous, Cyrano's end is raw. What began extravagantly ends intimately on our hero's deathbed. As Cyrano rages against the dying of the light, we're forced to face the terror of death alongside him. 

By virtue of many interlocking elements, Davis' Cyrano is equally humorous and heartfelt. But what Davis has staged here is not so much a play as an hours-long journey. And while it's my job to capture a show in writing, I believe that this journey ought to be experienced for oneself. Here is an authentically classical production that doesn't feel old and dusty but, rather, familiar – something that bodes well for Archive Theater going forward.

Cyrano de Bergerac

Austin Scottish Rite Theater, 207 W. 18th, 512/472-5436
Through Sept. 29
Running time: 2 hr., 30 min.

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Archive Theater Company, Jennifer Rose Davis, Patrick David Wheeler, Liz Waters

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