So… the “friend zone.”
Has any other term so perfectly encapsulated cultural misogyny? Brought into popular consciousness through its use on—of all things—the show Friends, the term represents the idea that if man is enough of a Nice Guy™ to the woman with whom he’s enamored then he’ll eventually be “rewarded” by having his feelings reciprocated (possibly sexually). Like all dumb ideas, this one should be disregarded before adulthood, like believing in Santa Claus or the idea that French kissing makes someone pregnant. Instead, the idea continues to fester in the minds of incels and conservatives (as if there’s a difference) who not only hang onto obsolete gender roles, but are now regulating them with a frightening level of frequency.
I never watched Friends regularly (I’ve only seen half the Jean-Claude Van Damme episode, and that was only because it aired after the Super Bowl that year), but I know that shitty sitcom didn’t create the “friend zone” idea, it just gave it a name. The concept is one deeply embedded into Western culture and art. Yet, very few interpretations loom as large as Frenchman Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac. That fictionalized take on the historical figure has become cultural shorthand for the idea that women are won over by “himbos” rather than “smart dudes who don’t look like models”. Sure, the script can be flipped with The Truth About Cats & Dogs, but the template remains the same.
For his new adaptation, Cyrano (through May 7 at the Aurora Theatre, Berkeley), adaptor-director and Aurora Theatre AD Josh Costello uses his director’s statement to show he’s less concerned about “mak[ing] a statement” so much as minimizing Rostand’s epic for a five-person cast. The latter is all well and good, but the former still hangs above the production like a looming storm cloud. Much like Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and Merchant of Venice, Rostand’s text is as much a brilliant exercise in linguistics as it is exemplary of toxic ideas; ideas that don’t simply vanish with the addition of a diverse new cast.
(Cutting Ball Theatre were prepping their 2020 adaptation by Marissa Skudlarek when the show was cancelled by the-pandemic-which-has-not-ended. Aside from an online reading, that version has yet to be properly produced.)
Our scenario finds us in 17th Century France, with the country at war with Spain. The effete Count de Guiche (Ron Campbell) has his sights set on Roxane (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong), but the feeling is not mutual. Rather, she’s smitten with handsome young officer Christian (Steven Flores), who finds himself under the tutelage of Le Bret (Adrian Roberts). Taking note of all this is fellow enlisted officer Cyrano (William Hodgson), a skilled fighter whose prominent nose has led to him developing an proverbially thick skin and a tongue sharper than the foil at his side. Cyrano is a childhood friend of Roxane, for whom he’s developed romantic feelings, but a crippling insecurity about his appearance has prevented him from ever acting on those feelings. Knowing that Roxane is a fan of his writing and is twitterpated over Christian—who feels the same—Cyrano uses the dimwitted lad as his proxy for expressing his heart’s desire to Roxane.
The show’s program doesn’t credit anyone for make-up, but let me take a minute to applaud whoever designed Hodgson’s oblong facial appendage. It both matches his complexion and, in the early going, convincingly looks like an organic nose. It did begin to loosen during the opening night performance, as Dave Maier’s fight choreography led Hodgson to work up a considerable sweat, but it never lost its verisimilitude. Like the lavish period costumes of Maggie Whitaker and the unique set by Carlos Aceves (the upstage balcony include a “halo” around it that will later be used for the moon, and a downstage piece needs only a blue light to shine on it to suggest a fountain) make the show an indisputable victory for Aurora’s design team.
The dramatic aspects are mixed. Costello clearing did some pruning on Rostand’s text, but he still could have tightened things up a bit more. Additionally, not all the cast members maneuver the flowery text with equal skill. Flores, in particular, seems uncomfortable with the recitation, so much so that I actually wondered if it was an acting or directing choice about Christian. Hodgson (AD of Oakland Theater Project, where his fine production of Is God Is recently performed) doesn’t struggle as much as Flores, but his Cyrano far more effective when boastful rather than lovelorn. To the credit of actor Ron Campbell and his director, de Guiche’s pomposity never becomes grating. He, Mbele-Mbong, and Roberts control the poetic prose as easily as a spider weaves a web. One can imagine them dominating the initial script-readings during rehearsals.
Though their website still claims audiences must show proof-of-vax, Aurora still only requires masking for attendees. Over the course of the two-hour show, CO² readings on my Aranet4 reached ppm levels in the high-1800s. The opening night house was full and, thankfully, everyone seemed to keep their mask on throughout the performance. (One conspicuously unmasked woman entered near the end of Costello’s opening curtain speech; the same one in which the emphasized the importance of everyone remaining masked. Fortunately, the woman produced – or was given – a mask, which she kept on.)
As with the aforementioned pair of Shakespeare plays, one can’t simply produce a classic work like Cyrano without doing the due scrutiny of said work. Costello has made a wonderfully lavish-if-small-scale production that’s absolutely lovely to watch, but it presents its archaic worldview in a way suggesting it be taken at face value. The dialogue is no less lyrical, but Cyrano’s “friend zone” non-dilemma isn’t something anyone should aspire to. The show is quite easy on the eye, but I hope I wasn’t the only one cringing through it.
CYRANO runs through May 7 at the Aurora Theatre, Berkeley. Tickets and further info here.