GLOUCESTER — By informing us that it takes place in “An Imaginary Era,’’ the program for Gloucester Stage Company’s “Cyrano’’ gives us fair warning that the production will take a few contemporizing liberties with Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac.’’
But what matters is that the essence of Rostand’s 1897 “heroic comedy’’ — the wit, the heart, the pathos — remains intact in the incisive adaptation by Jason O’Connell and Brenda Withers.
What also matters, obviously, is the casting of the title role. A French nobleman-soldier who is mad for love and poetry in roughly equal measure, a chivalric wiseacre adept at wordplay and swordplay alike, Cyrano requires an actor who is both physically and intellectually nimble. Who has, in a word, panache (a word, by the way, that “Cyrano de Bergerac’’ is credited with making part of the English language).
Paging Jeremiah Kissel.
Finally making his Gloucester Stage debut after 35 years on Boston-area stages, the endlessly resourceful Kissel demonstrates again that he is constitutionally and temperamentally incapable of delivering a dull performance. The actor’s variegated powers of expression — to say nothing of his ability to build a connection with the audience — enable him to convey an entire palette of contradictory emotions with, yes, panache.
Under the direction at Gloucester Stage of Robert Walsh, whose extensive experience as a fight director is evident in the robust duels and the fast pace of this New England premiere of “Cyrano,” Kissel creates a Cyrano who is both larger-than-life and poignantly, vulnerably human. Kissel is equally credible as a combative swashbuckler, a go-for-broke romantic, or a lovelorn outcast from the world of the good-looking. He’s also no slouch in the play’s scenes of knockabout comedy.
Over the past century, the story of Cyrano de Bergerac has often kindled the interest of writers and filmmakers. The novelist Anthony Burgess translated and adapted Rostand’s play for a Royal Shakespeare Company production that moved to Broadway in the mid-1980s, and Steve Martin starred as a fire chief in his film adaptation, 1987’s “Roxanne,’’ which was set in the Pacific Northwest.
Rostand’s play was a 19th-century take on 17th-century derring-do; the O’Connell-Withers adaptation begins in the present day before shifting to that “imaginary era’’ while following the original’s general story line. However, Kissel’s Cyrano does not possess the huge proboscis we associate with the character; at least, not that we can see. Instead, Cyrano wears a bandage across his nose, the result of an offstage accident that precedes the main action of “Cyrano.’’
Cyrano represents the unlucky half of a great unrequited passion (for most of the play, anyway). He is madly in love with Roxane (Andrea Goldman), but she is besotted with a young cadet named Christian (James Ricardo Milord) who is two things Cyrano is not: handsome and inarticulate. Yet Cyrano helps along Christian’s courtship, serving as a kind of human teleprompter for him, feeding him lines to declaim to Roxane, and secretly writing letters to Roxane that are sent to her under Christian’s name.
Goldman, who was previously seen at Gloucester Stage as a seductive actress in Deborah Zoe Laufer’s “The Last Schwartz,’’ endows Roxane with a fiery spirit and a wised-up demeanor. It’s clear that Goldman’s Roxane possesses a first-rate mind to rival Cyrano’s; their banter is pleasingly evocative of Beatrice and Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing.’’ Milord emphasizes Christian’s likable open-heartedness; when the young cadet confesses to having “blobs’’ of feelings he cannot find the words for, we see why Cyrano cannot hate him even while losing Roxane to him. Erin Nicole Washington excels in several roles, including LeBret, Cyrano’s loyal friend and fellow soldier.
The not-so-secret weapon of this production is Paul Melendy, who swipes a number of scenes with his vastly entertaining portrayal of Cyrano’s aristocratic foe, Count DeGuiche. Melendy’s DeGuiche is a fop’s fop, a preening popinjay who discourses with a languidly exaggerated enunciation, as if the character is so bored with the puny carnival of existence he can scarcely be bothered to get the words out.
Cyrano, of course, believes that few things matter more than words. And when, his identity concealed by the darkness of the courtyard outside her house, he finally gets a chance to speak in his own voice and tell Roxane his true feelings, unmediated, it’s an exceptionally powerful moment: Kissel at his transfixing best.
Play by Jason O’Connell and Brenda Withers. Adapted from the play “Cyrano de Bergerac,’’ by Edmond Rostand. Directed by Robert Walsh. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, Gloucester, through Aug. 11. Tickets $35-$45, 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.com