Theater Review

Fort Worth theater company's fresh retelling of a classic is right on the nose

Fort Worth theater's fresh retelling of a classic is right on the nose

Amphibian Stage Productions presents Cyrano
John-Michael Marrs stars as the titular Cyrano. Photo by Evan Michael Woods

In her program note, playwright Brenda Withers acknowledges that adaptations are, like imitation, a deep form of appreciation. For Cyrano, she and co-collaborator Jason O'Connell have put their hearts on their sleeves for Edmond Rostand's 1897 play about the long-nosed soldier and his unrequited love, giving it a fresh, modern twist while retaining the lyrical charm of the original.

The tale has already received several adaptations (including a few contemporary ones — remember Steve Martin in Roxanne?), but this world premiere at Amphibian Stage Productions proves that there's room enough for one more, especially when it's as witty and delightful as this one.

Utilizing a remarkably adroit cast of five to populate the soldiers, nuns, shopkeepers, noblemen, and citizens of 1600s France, director O'Connell takes the audience on an in-the-round romp through love and war. The actors are in modern dress (quirky and stylish, thanks to costumer Ryan Matthieu Smith), in pieces that assist with the split-second character transformations and topped off with period-appropriate accents (a cape, a chapeau) when necessary.

The script, too, is a mash-up of poetic dialogue and current overtones, with the actors skipping skillfully over the flowery language and always making their meaning clear. That's no small task, considering how often they end up having conversations with "themselves." It's unclear if Withers and O'Connell employed this storytelling tactic purely for convenience or if the novelty was too irresistible, but either way it's a gimmick that continually impresses.

Looking like a bulky biker and accessorized with a small piece of tape across his (perfectly normal-sized) nose, John-Michael Marrs is a vulnerable, charismatic Cyrano. A man of immense wit and intelligence, Cyrano's only stumbling block is his appearance, which he has convinced himself is so grotesque that no woman could ever look past it. Especially not the fair Roxane (Kate Hamill), whom he pines for while remaining firmly friend-zoned, as she has confessed her love for a handsome young soldier named Christian.

If Marrs and Hamill seem especially at ease with the play's style and language, there's good reason: he recently played Mr. Darcy in her adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, staged at WaterTower Theatre. Hamill was one of the top most produced playwrights of the 2016-17 season, and is known for giving classic novels a contemporary, often female-driven, update. But she's also an actor who normally plays "oddballs and misfits," as she puts it, and so therefore her Roxane has more depth than the traditional flighty ingenue.

They are joined by Mitchell Stephens, whose Christian is a hipster dreamboat; Greg Holt as the creepy count who's enamored with Roxane; and the wildly versatile Anastasia Muñoz, whose best characters are a tie between Cyrano's flask-toting buddy, Le Bret, and Roxane's snooty chaperone.

This cavalcade flies in and out of Seancolin Hankins' simple yet effective set, constructed of risers, a makeshift balcony, and pretty parquet in the center. David Lanza's sound design fills in any gaps, tinkling bells as characters enter and exit a bakery and rumbling the floor as battles are waged nearby. Using a clever bit of perspective, lighting designer Kenneth Farnsworth gives us a glimpse at what others must see when they look at Cyrano, using only shadow and light.

Adapting a classic well can be just as simple as that: show it in a new light, and you might uncover something the audience never considered. Amphibian does exactly that, with enough panache to make the original Cyrano proud.

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Amphibian Stage Productions' Cyrano runs through March 4.