What do you call a script set in 1640 that was actually written in 1897, then translated and updated from original French verse in 1983, and finally pitched, fat, tender and juicy, into the happy, hungry mouths of some of today’s most eminently watchable Richmond actors?
Once, now and forever, call it “Cyrano de Bergerac,” the famous French tale of the long-nosed poet who puts aside his acerbic self-consciousness long enough to do a good turn as romantic intercessor.
Thanks to a sleek, snappy and raucous reboot at Swift Creek Mill Theatre under the jolly direction of John Moon, “Cyrano” hits its marks as comedy, tragedy and prickly farce all at once — and not only because the original Edmond Rostand play is so tightly structured and paced.
“Cyrano” jumps directly into our laps as the play drops us into the restive Hotel Burgundy in Paris where the play “Clorise” is about to begin.
This kickoff, filled with macho energy, witty repartee and swordplay, serves mostly to introduce Cyrano himself, an outsized nobleman serving in the French army, who arrives late to the scene and immediately begins sparring with anyone who deigns to eyeball his prominent, Pinocchio-length proboscis.
Meantime, Christian de Neuvillette, a new cadet, asks his friends to help him locate Roxane, cousin to Cyrano and object of Christian’s affection.
But Cyrano has long loved Roxane and, distressed to hear of her feelings for Christian, finally risks confessing his own love for her.
It takes only a millisecond for that bet to go bad as Roxane quickly consigns Cyrano to the ignominious “friend zone.”
“You’ve always been like a brother to me,” she tells him. “A dear, dear brother.”
Seeing his own romantic chances scuttled, Cyrano takes on the role of ultimate wingman and sets about supplying the inarticulate Christian with unattributed lines of love poetry designed to help the cadet win Roxane’s heart instead.
But that poetry still springs from Cyrano’s own tortured soul. “Not one word, not one line will I write that does not come from mine own heart,” Cyrano vows.
The entire tale might be pathetic were it not written by Rostand as a series of comic riffs uproariously brought to life by Emily Frankel’s sharp and witty translation and this production’s 16-member cast of delightfully hammy actors, who step on one another’s lines with expert abandon and never let the pace flag for a second.
As Christian, David Janosik is a hilarious open-faced sandwich of incompetent courting, and Rachel Rose Gilmour, as Roxane, fills her smart-yet-pliable character with peppy, man-addled verve.
As Cyrano, Matt Bloch breathes ample panache into a man both lackadaisical and self-conscious about his looks; the character’s outsized nose trains us, oddly, to focus ever more intently on Bloch’s limpid eyes, which skillfully communicate a vast array of conflicting emotions, especially when the story takes a poignant turn in the second act.
“Cyrano de Bergerac” does beg for a grander space than the Mill to breathe properly as well as showcase the grandeur of its setting and characters (Maura Lynch Cravey’s costumes are especially detailed and eye-catching), and a perfect script might trim the various sideline scenes and monologues that don’t relate directly to the romantic through line.
But this “Cyrano” brims with glittering heart and bravado and draws the very best from its seasoned cast members, many of whom play multiple goggle-eyed roles and have their comic timing down to the tick. I laughed out loud a bunch of times.
Still, “Cyrano” never lets us forget that poetry itself serves as the coin of the realm here and might also even be thought of as the play’s main character.
“We poets drink directly from the river of our own love,” says Cyrano. How better to remind us that poetry can serve as a way to overcome worldly imperfection, as a path we might take to find our uninhibited voices, and as proclamation that love may grace an unattractive face as long as the soul inside is beautiful?