Evil exists in the world of Cyrano, but is nameless, faceless and kept at a distance.
A new adaptation of the story about the 17th-century swordsman and poet with the enormous proboscis is currently at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, and running throughout is the most old-fashioned, romantic, beguiling belief imaginable: that human beings are inherently noble. No wonder audiences have loved the play from the very first.
It's true that there are bad guys in the world originally created by Edmond Rostand: aristocrats who will send a battalion of men to their deaths to exact a personal revenge. But even the bad guys redeem themselves.
It's a world in which the Enemy - in this case, the Spaniards, who are at war with the French - chivalrously allow a pretty woman to pass through battlefields unscathed.
And it's a world that celebrates human imperfection.
For all the updated language and corny jokes, adapter Barry Kornhauser and director Michael Kahn get this world, well, right on the nose.
One of the fascinating things about this production is how Cyrano, in addition to being a story of unrequited love, also becomes a story about the consolations and pitfalls of language.
The show is suffused with poetry, letters and storytelling. At one point, the Count de Guiche, who has nefarious designs on Cyrano's beauteous cousin, Roxane, becomes so enchanted with one of Cyrano's tall tales that it momentarily distracts him from his lust.
So important is this theme that Kornhauser emphasizes it by writing his adaptation in rhyming couplets, as Rostand did. It's a decision, though, that carries a cost: because words that rhyme in French don't necessarily rhyme in English, Kornhauser is forced to put new thoughts into his character's mouths. Cyrano is an adaptation, not a translation.
Perhaps wisely, the adaptation does not attempt Rostand's alexandrines, a verse form in which there are 12 syllables per line, with every second one stressed. Instead, Kornhauser's script is loose, informal, full of puns; a tavern in his adaptation is named the "Notre Dram."
Despite its many virtues, Kornhauser occasionally falls victim (not unlike his hero) to excessive cleverness. At times, the adaptation is overly intricate. There are so many characters with overlapping dialogue and so much pointed (s)wordplay, it can be difficult for the audience to follow what's going on. The strongest scenes are those in which only a few characters are on stage.
Actor Geraint Wyn Davies alternates Cyrano's manic qualities with a wonderful stillness in the few moments when the character speaks from his heart. It gives his portrayal great weight and poignancy. What he says seems to come from a different place inside him altogether. No wonder Roxane doesn't recognize her cousin's voice; she's never heard it before.
Claire Lautier's Roxane is so spirited and charming that we almost forgive her insistence that she be courted with fancy odes. Gregory Wooddell is a surprisingly unaffected Christian, the beautiful but brainless cadet whom Roxane loves. And Marty Lodge nicely balances cynicism and devotion as Le Bret, Cyrano's confidante who sees, perhaps too clearly, his friend's faults.
For all his insecurity, Cyrano is not immune to the peculiar egotism of the truth-teller. Because Cyrano sees more deeply than most people, he fancies he sees all there is to see. At times, he is too quick to publish unflattering satires, to mock and dismiss.
"Ah, Vanity," he says with his dying breaths, "I knew in the end ... you'd get the best of me."
We're left to wonder whose vanity he's lamenting. The world's, or his own?
Cyrano @SUBHEDWhere: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St. N.W., Washington@SUBHEDWhen: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays; Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays; 2 p.m., Saturdays, Sundays. Through Aug. 1@SUBHEDTickets: $16-$66@SUBHEDCall: 877-487-8849 or visit www.shakespearetheatre .org@SUBHED