At the top of "Cyrano," Matt Hawkins' freewheeling House Theatre of Chicago deconstruction of Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac," the man himself enters, smiles, sits down at a piano and pulls a microphone toward his lips.
"Good evening," you half expect him to say. "My nose and I will be here all week."
Actually, Sean Pfautsch's Cyrano starts singing about panache, a quality with which his famous literary character is amply blessed, along with wit, intelligence and the capacity for loving Roxanne (Stacy Stoltz), the object of his affections.
But that big sniffer makes Mr. C. different. As they sing in "A Chorus Line," different ain't pretty, and the different figure that one out fast but deal with it slow.
Alas, those kind, interesting folks prefer high cheekbones for their love action — even Taylor Swift knows that cheerleaders trump the sensitive souls in the bleachers. Thus Roxanne prefers Cyrano's young military colleague, Christian, played here by the exceedingly handsome Glenn Stanton. She doesn't understand until it's too late that looks really don't matter. And she hardly is alone in that timeless error.
Hawkins, who has cut away most of the talky stuff in the play — notably, the scenes about pastry chefs, bad actors and political rivalries — and, making full use of the vital freedoms of the public domain, has created a modestly scaled but consistently intriguing and enjoyable show with two sharp focuses.
One is the aforementioned love triangle at the core of the play and the number that does on Cyrano's psyche (Pfautsch's version of Cyrano is more John Cusack than Kevin Kline, if you know what I mean). The other is the famous swordplay which suffuses the script.
Along with adding a few numbers at the piano — which are what they are — Hawkins has the famous scenes in which Cyrano puts his words of love in a prettier mouth alternating with sudden bursts of stage combat. The House company includes more than a dozen fine young swordsmen and swordswomen who show up in red waves, filling the walkways of Colette Pollard's practical setting with their flashing blades. Along with adapting and directing, Hawkins also choreographs these exciting scenes, which feel fresh, creative and well-executed.
There is a price to pay for doing "Cyrano" in one hour and 45 minutes, including intermission. You don't get the full emotional scale of the story, nor do you fully see what Cyrano does for Christian, or, more significantly, why Cyrano has made so many enemies. And the unusual combination of a kind of minimalist hypernaturalism in the romantic scenes (you can see that Hawkins has been hanging around the director David Cromer) with fully costumed battles sometimes feels a bit like two different conceits, glued together, just because. You sometimes feel like you're watching "Cyrano: The Good Bits."
That said, Hawkins and his unusually cast actors (Stoltz plays Roaxanne far more like an intense and insecure character created by Tennessee Williams or William Inge than the typically poised romantic belle) surely focus your attention on the most important themes of the work. Stanton is eye-poppingly perfect for the role of Christian (his combat skills are impressive indeed); there's good, honest work from Shane Brady as Le Bret and Mike Smith as Ligniere; and, most important, Pfautsch grows on you all night.
Most every other Cyrano you've seen has been a swashbuckling hero who just happens to have a fatally big schnozzle. Instead, Pfautsch and Hawkins shrewdly use a central sadness and ordinariness as the driver for the character's love of action.
It makes you think of the role in a whole new way, and it provides a crucial anchor for this show.
If you've got someone at home studying this particular classic of French lit, the House "Cyrano" will surely fire up their interest. Will it change their likelihood of going though life sniffing behind the nose? The fight against short shorts always needs help.
When: Through Oct. 16
Where: Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Tickets: $25 at 773-769-3832.Copyright © 2015, RedEye