If the prospect of a spoken word Cyrano de Bergerac has you running for the hills, I can sympathize. Classic texts are subjected to all sorts of gimmicky attempts to appeal to new, younger audiences, and hip hop has been especially attractive to those looking to pander. The thinking, I would guess, goes something like this: kids don’t like theater, but they do like rap, so maybe they’ll like rap theater?
To its credit, Martin Crimp’s Cyrano is not the work of a clueless geezer looking to appropriate a culture he does not understand. First, there is an intuitive sense to the conceit, which has the title character (James McAvoy), his friends, and his foes all competing as rappers, not poets. The two forms are kissing cousins, so hip hop fits easily into the structure of Edmond Rostand’s story. In fact, rap battles may better approximate the mixture of wit, satire, and innovation that characterized sixteenth-century poetic competition than the recitation of Petrarchan sonnets.
Second, the play incorporates many of the key features of hip hop culture, including an outstanding beatboxer (Vaneeka Dadhria), who not only scores the rap battles but replicates the sounds of warfare and water, as well as an emcee and graffiti artist (Nima Taleghani) who tags the back wall during the first act. These details make Cyrano, which is otherwise minimalist to the extreme—there are few props other than microphones—a nonetheless immersive experience.
Still, watching staged rap battles is a little like watching staged sports: it will always pale in comparison to the real thing. Since rap battles are improvised, pre-written freestyles are inevitably underwhelming. “I’d be surprised,” says one character in response to another’s performance, “if that palpable hit thing was genuinely improvised.” A self-referential nod, perhaps, but also a self-own.
And—McAvoy does not wear a prosthetic nose. The “deformity” is still central to Cyrano’s identity, but the actor does not actually embody his “enormity.” This is consistent with the minimalist sets and seems to suggest the social and somewhat arbitrary nature of terms like deformity. But coupled with McAvoy’s frequently shirtlessness, it makes it difficult to swallow lines like, “It’s bad enough to be ugly—but to be ugly and in love?” Ah, to be so ugly. Still, he dispatches Cyrano’s verse with a clear, quick, and confident flow, no easy feat.
Ultimately, then, Crimp’s Cyrano de Bergerac is entertaining, inconsistent, and endearing. It doesn’t have anything new to say about Rostand’s play, but it does, nevertheless, remind us of its charms.
Cyrano de Bergerac runs through May 22nd at the Harvey at BAM Strong. 651 Fulton Street Brooklyn, NY. 2 hours 45 minutes. One intermission. Photograph by Marc Brenner.