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The Central Coast Shakespeare Festival's Cyrano De Bergerac runs through Aug. 14 at Filipponi Ranch

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We park in a makeshift lot off the main road into Filipponi Ranch, grab our lawn chairs and picnic, and make our way down a graded pathway. As we round the corner, like a mirage shimmering in an empty field, the set of the Central Coast Shakespeare Festival's Cyrano De Bergerac appears. It's weird seeing this beautiful, elaborate structure floating in the middle of nowhere.

Designed by retired Cal Poly Theatre and Dance Department faculty member Al Schnupp and built by Tim Donovan, its three levels include multiple doors, a dual staircase, a landing, and two balconies. It immediately transports us to the 17th century, more so when Ragueneau the baker (Mark Klassen) appears in period dress and walks among us hawking his wares, "Eclairs? Eclairs?" I was too far away to see for certain, but I thought he might be handing out Hostess Twinkies to the audience members brave enough to wave him over.

ENGARDE! Cyrano (John Pillow, center) duels with Valvert (Gryphon Strom) as Roxane (Heather MacLeod) looks on, in Cyrano De Bergerac. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF STEVE E. MILLER AND THE CENTRAL COAST SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
  • Photos Courtesy Of Steve E. Miller And The Central Coast Shakespeare Festival
  • ENGARDE! Cyrano (John Pillow, center) duels with Valvert (Gryphon Strom) as Roxane (Heather MacLeod) looks on, in Cyrano De Bergerac.

The play—written by Edmond Rostand in 1897—opens at a performance at the Hotel De Bourgogne Theatre in Paris, and we audience members are suddenly players within the play, watching both Cyrano De Bergerac and a performance of La Clorise by the supercilious "actor" Montfleury (Tyler Lopez), who our hero Cyrano (John Pillow) had banished from the stage for his previous banal performances.

Cyrano's bestie, Le Bret (Jude Walker), warns Montfleury to leave the stage before Cyrano arrives. He doesn't go. We can't wait to see what happens next as we sip our delicious Filipponi wine and marvel at an unseasonably warm and magical Central Coast evening.

The play is a favorite of English literature, mounted many times over and frequently brought to the big screen, most recently in director Joe Wright's Cyrano (2021), starring Peter Dinklage in the titular role and Haley Bennett as Roxane, the object of Cyrano's desire. Hence, this story should be a familiar one.

Cyrano is a revered swordsman and gifted poet—a superman among men. He also suffers from debilitating insecurity about a perceived physical shortcoming. He thinks his nose is horrifying to the point that he's unworthy of love, especially the love of beautiful Roxane (Heather MacLeod), a cousin with whom he played as children.

HUNGRY FOR ROMANCE Roxane (Heather MacLeod) falls for a handsome soldier who unfortunately lacks a poet's soul, which is provided to him through Cyrano's words, leading to a classic case of star-crossed lovers. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF STEVE E. MILLER AND THE CENTRAL COAST SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
  • Photos Courtesy Of Steve E. Miller And The Central Coast Shakespeare Festival
  • HUNGRY FOR ROMANCE Roxane (Heather MacLeod) falls for a handsome soldier who unfortunately lacks a poet's soul, which is provided to him through Cyrano's words, leading to a classic case of star-crossed lovers.

She's deeply fond of Cyrano but falls instead for Christian (Gryphon Strom), a handsome but plainspoken recruit in Cyrano's regiment. Out of his desire for Roxane's happiness, Cyrano agrees to help Christian win her affection by penning heart-stirring love letters. Yes, it's a tragedy of epic proportions, but one filled with laughs, romance, swashbuckling battles, and mellifluous speeches.

Case in point, flash back to Hotel De Bourgogne, where Cyrano has indeed run Montfleury off the stage but is then challenged by Valvert (also Gryphon Strom—several actors play multiple roles in the production) to a duel. To make it interesting, Cyrano announces he will improvise a poem about the duel during the battle, ending the fight with a final thrust of his sword as he speaks his last lines. Cyrano is unquestionably a total badass. Too bad he can't get over his schnoz, which isn't even big.

At the heart of the play is this notion of worthiness. Christian is a decent enough guy, but Roxane shallowly assumes his good looks equate to poet's soul. Some of the fun is when Christian finds himself interacting with Roxane without the aid of Cyrano's sparkling words. Those words had led Roxane to fall deeply in love with Christian, though she's actually in love with the mind behind the words—Cyrano. The play may be 125 years old, but its entanglements feel very modern, certainly to comic and actor Steve Martin, who had a lot of fun updating the story opposite Daryl Hannah in Roxanne (1987).

COMRADES Le Bret (Jude Walker) is surprised to learn the fearless swordsman Cyrano (John Pillow) is susceptible to love. - PHOTOS COURTESY OF STEVE E. MILLER AND THE CENTRAL COAST SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL
  • Photos Courtesy Of Steve E. Miller And The Central Coast Shakespeare Festival
  • COMRADES Le Bret (Jude Walker) is surprised to learn the fearless swordsman Cyrano (John Pillow) is susceptible to love.

This Cyrano—directed by Cynthia Totten, who also adapted Rostand's rather long five-act play into a tight 120-minute production (including a 15-minute intermission)—does a superb job of retaining the story's most important elements while transforming the language into an appropriate balance between poetry and accessibility. Unlike Shakespeare's sometimes confounding Elizabethan English, Totten's version is crystal clear.

Likewise, the performances are transporting in that magical way only live theater provides. Klassen was a personal favorite as Ragueneau, but he was also terrific as Capuchin the monk and Carbon De Castel-Jaloux. Lopez was deliciously despicable as both Montfleury and De Guiche, the unctuous nobleman who has his own designs on Roxane. MacLeod as Roxane delivered the right combination of a strong woman blinded by shallow looks.

All seven cast members—including Walker as Le Bret, Krystal Kirk as Duenna as well as one of the cadets, and Strom as Christian and Valvert—perform brilliantly, but of course the star of the show is Pillow, who should be well known to local theatergoers. As Cyrano, he's on fire.

Toward the end of the play, Pillow's Cyrano looks out over the audience into the sky behind us, his eyes blazing, describing what he sees in the distance as he awaits his death. In front of me, a group of kids, maybe 12 years old, turned around and craned their necks, looking behind them, hoping to get a look at what Cyrano saw in the distance.

Of course, there was nothing out there but sky and the magic created by live theater. Δ

Contact Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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