The French are not exactly strangers to American Players Theatre. Over the years it has produced plays by Moliere, Marivaux, Racine, and Jean Anouilh. But you have to wonder if something in the stars led the theater to program four French plays this season? A longing for U.S. election results more like the recent victory of Emmanuel Macron? The sense that the European continent is newly ascendant? Or perhaps just an intense longing for a good baguette?
I’ve yet to see APT’s production of Georges Feydeau’s farce, A Flea in Her Ear. But each of the three French plays I did see this weekend seemed to reflect a different quality of the French spirit.
If you’re looking for the France of Alexander Dumas or Victor Hugo, you couldn’t do better than APT’s Cyrano de Bergerac, which will swash your buckle as well as tug on your heartstrings. Cyrano, of course, is the embodiment of the independent French spirit, caring less about propriety and success than living a life of flawless integrity. Edmund Rostand’s 1896 play is both spectacular and intimate, and like the musicals that started parading down Broadway in the 1980s (many based on French romantic stories, as well) it makes no apology for its theatrical extravagance.
Yet there is still blood and sinew in this confection—not to mention plenty of testosterone. Rostand makes the point from the first scene, when Cyrano issues new salvos in his battle with the actor Montfleury (played with rosy-cheeked pomp by Brian Mani). We hear Cyrano before we see him. He insults Montfleury from the back of the theater (“This blister, this swollen abscess”). He threatens him, and finally swaggers into view in an entrance almost dramatic as his final exit three hours later. The foppish playgoers (costumed with delicious extravagance by Matthew LeFebvre) are miffed as well, and Cyrano appeases them by refunding their money from his own purse.
That purse, of course, is all he has. And that bankrupting first gesture establishes the righteousness of Cyrano’s “code,” which he shares with the fellows in his regiment, the Cadets de Gascogne (please shout and put your fist over your heart as you read that). As James DeVita’s production makes clear, Rostand’s play is as much about that sense of integrity as it is about Cyrano’s unrequited love for Roxanne (Laura Rook). As any sensible production must, DeVita revels in the battle scenes, establishing that world with choreographed, slow-motion tableaus. And he doesn’t let the elevated theatrical style get in the way of the true emotions at the heart of the story. Ingeniously cobbling together four different translations, the script shifts into the original rhyming couplets when appropriate, but leaves the rhymes behind when more naturalism is needed.
It serves the show’s star well. James Ridge’s Cyrano is a remarkable feat of sustained energy and imaginative variation. Ridge doesn’t shy away from the role’s sentimentality, but instead lets it radiate from deep within the character, shaping a man who is both exceptional and “of the people.” He can swoon with the best of them, but he is at his most human when among his fellows, and here his comrades—Raguenaeau (David Daniel), Christian (Danny Martinez), and LeBret (Chiké Johnson)—are terrific compatriots. DeVita and Ridge spare nothing in the play’s melodramatic finale, but they earn every sigh, swoon and stagger because they’ve enmeshed the audience in Rostand’s world of love, honor and integrity.
As if to balance the Romantic French ideals of Cyrano, APT takes a bold step into the more equivocal and modern world with two plays now running at the intimate and indoor Touchstone Theatre: The Maids, and The Unexpected Man.
I’ll admit I did a double take when I first saw The Maids on the APT season roster. Jean Genet’s 1947 play is hardly common fare on American stages. His work challenges some of the basic tenets of drama, which is why he was championed by Existentialist philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but Genet’s work deals with essential assumptions about identity and sexuality, often with enigmatic characters and scenarios that don’t always fit comfortably into the expectations of your average American theatergoer.
But director Gigi Buffington’s brilliant reimagining of The Maids brings it resolutely into the world of 21st-century America. Without making significant changes to Bernard Frechtman’s commonly used translation, Buffington has transformed it into a harrowing dissection of the dynamics of race and class, and she’s done so without sacrificing any of the plays otherworldly visceral power.
Genet’s play doesn’t specify the race or ethnicity of the characters, but The Maids has been staged over the years with actors of different genders and races playing the part. The two “maids” here are Latina, which obviously points to current debates around immigration and class divisions. Genet’s fantasies of power and domination—the servants engage in meticulous role playing in which they take turns playing the part of their mistress—thus become tied to real social conditions. They become a fantasy of freedom, as well.
As these fantasy games edge closer to reality, the emotions become more fevered and transforming. And Buffington’s actors—Andrea San Miguel and Melisa Pereyra as the maids, Rebecca Hurd as the mistress–deliver fierce, fearless performances. It’s a brave, essential production.
The world of Yasmina Reza’s The Unexpected Man, is the world of modern French intelligentsia—a place in which the latest books are chatted about in cafes or at cocktail parties. It also is a world of chilly anonymity, where sharing a train compartment doesn’t necessarily lead to polite small talk or the occasional flirtation.
The train here is bound from Paris to Frankfurt, and the compartment is shared by one man (Brian Mani) and one woman (Sarah Day). The man is indeed unexpected. He is a famous author, and the woman is one of his most ardent fans. She has his latest book—titled, The Unexpected Man—in her bag, and spends much of the play wondering if she should take it out and read it in front of its author.
We know this because she speaks her thoughts to the audience, while the author sits across from her, unaware. We know his thoughts, as well. While she wonders about him, he wonders about his sex life, his bowel movements, and we come to know the general bitterness of his day-to-day existence.
Through these alternating monologues, Reza creates a palpable sense of tension surrounding these two independent worlds. The man and the woman are clearly self sufficient, but they speak often about friends and lovers—past and present—and relationships that have fallen short of their promise. There is, of course, a palpable sense of promise in this tiny train compartment, but will it be fulfilled?
Director Laura Gordon and her actors create a lovely piece of music here. Not simply in the rhythms of the sentences (masterfully translated by Christopher Hampton), but in the ebbs and flows–the tensions and releases–that bring the characters from the first few moments of the play (Mani’s frostily skeptical discovery that he’ll be sharing the compartment) to the final denouement. You know you’ve been in good theater hands when you want to stop the lights from fading to see what is going to happen next.