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Since its 1897 debut, Cyrano De Bergerac has become the patron saint for those who are self-conscious about their appearance.  Everyone relates to having some physical flaw they despise, and Edmond Rostand’s eponymous play endures for precisely that reason. Moreover, Cyrano is defender of the self-conscious; articulate and brave, he’s a hero who wittily rages against anyone who might dare insult his gargantuan nose. Now at the Folger Theater, Michael Hollinger and Aaron Posner’s Cyrano is a first-rate adaptation of Rostand’s play. Brimming with commanding performances and first-rate production values, its themes are as universal as ever.

Eric Hissom stars as Cyrano, a warrior poet of France’s Gascony guard. He makes a grand entrance –deeply offended by a play-within-a-play, he swoops on stage to stop the show – but his bravado doesn’t stop there. Cyrano shows off his fierce wit with one nose-related insult after another (they’re meant to humiliate a nobleman who flubs a joke).  Yet his impressive feats hide a long-kept secret: Cyrano loves Roxane (Brenda Withers), and hates his looks so much he thinks she could never love him. A soldier named Christian (Bobby Moreno) only makes matter worse; he’s young and handsome, and easily gets Roxane’s attention. Still, the language of love is the only way to her heart, and soon Cyrano forges letters to Roxane on Christian’s behalf. As the ruse gets more complicated, Cyrano must further articulate his love for Roxane, and the consequences soon become heartbreaking.

The original Cyrano de Bergerac is written entirely in verse, and while Hollinger and Posner include some jokes about poetic structure, their adaption features modern, erudite language. Like Shakespeare in Love, the updated dialog preserves the attitude of the period without being esoteric. There is ample room for wordplay and broad physical gags, and the first act consistently keeps audiences laughing. There are also clever moments of stagecraft; Cyrano vanquishes one hundred enemies in the play’s second scene, and Posner’s canny direction summarizes the action with frenzied energy. And when Cyrano woos Roxane while hiding in the dark, the careful staging adds further impact to his unrequited love.

As Cyrano, Eric Hissom gives a tour de force performance. His work requires a careful balancing act – Cyrano must be tortured and charismatic, vulnerable and heroic – and Hissom never hits a false note. The famous nose-joke scene appears breathlessly improvised, and Cyrano’s tender confessions never once feel corny. Even throughout the final scene, one that demands grand theatricality, Hissom preserves his character’s humanity. In some respects, Withers has a trickier role as Roxane: she must be smart enough to appreciate language, yet dumb enough to fall for deception. Withers handles the balance well, though the emotional highpoints of the second act are more compelling than the character’s wistful nature in the first.

The supporting performers, Moreno included, evoke the highbrow ribaldry we’ve come to expect from such a production. Steve Hendrickson is a standout as Cyrano’s superior officer – he’s the straight man and the play’s moral center, and ably adds nuance to every plot complication. Dan Crane plays two characters who couldn’t be further apart, a foppish dandy and a demure nun, and handles both roles effortlessly. Their outstanding acting nonetheless serves Hissom’s performance – Cyrano’s larger than life nature must overshadow the others, or the play would falter. Thankfully, the supporting cast has no problem letting Cyrano dominate the stage.

Cyrano de Bergerac is a memorable hero not in spite of his nose, but because of it. Sure, he’s capable of dashing swordplay and halting eloquence, but without the schnozz, he’d be just another romantic hero. Such a distinguishing feature gives an actor license to chew scenery without fear of losing the audience, and Hissom careens through varied emotions without a single misstep. The twenty-first century update of Hollinger and Posner emphasizes the character’s timelessness and finds a fresh way for us to share his triumphs and tragedies. I don’t care if it’s too on the nose: Cyrano is a thrilling night of theater that shouldn’t be missed.

Cyrano is running at the Folger Theater until June 5th. Buy tickets here!