In the production of Cyrano de Bergerac at Prague's National Theatre, scenic and lighting designer David Marak, in collaboration with director Michal Docekal, created powerful stage imagery imbued with meaning, forming a visual language expressive of the themes and connotations of Rostand's play. The potency of that "visual text" was intensified for me by my inability to understand the Czech language spoken by the actors. Marak and Docekal's highly metaphorical approach to the mise-en-scène imaginatively transformed objects and characters, as well as stage spaces, into symbolic elements of duality. Most notable in the production were the treatments of a candelabrum, the setting for Ragueneau's rôtisserie, the characterization of children, sculptural lighting, and elements of composition.
The character of Cyrano is a balancing act, trying to reconcile idealism with desire. Inhibited by his perceived lack of physical beauty, he soars through the eloquence of his poetry, exposing a hidden interior beauty. He is a figure of light and shadow, at once exposed and concealed, an idealist in a decadent and cynical world. At the outset of the production, Marak presented a visual motif expressive of Cyrano's conflict. The curtain rose to reveal a gigantic spherical candelabrum resting center stage in an alcove flanked on each side and behind by a steeply raked stage floor. When lit, the candles sprinkled throughout the candelabrum's filigreed framework glowed like a constellation of stars floating inside the skeletal form, producing light and casting shadows on itself—a combination of light and dark that embodied contradiction. In this set piece, Marak metaphorically expressed the thematic binaries found in the written text, such as exposed/revealed, inner/outer beauty, idealism/cynicism, honesty/deceit, flawed/perfect, virtue/evil. This symbolic conception of Cyrano floating above earthly decadence took a more literal turn when Cyrano briefly levitated a foot or so above the ground during the balcony scene with Roxanne, further reinforcing the tie between the characterization of Cyrano and the candelabrum.
Marak visually opposed the minimalist aesthetic of this poetic atmosphere with an occasional interjection of gritty reality in the setting for Ragueneau's rôtisserie. The walls, windows, and ovens of the shop—the location of work-a-day life—slowly emerged from the floor of the central downstage area. The choice to bring the scenery in from below, rather than from the wings or fly area, is significant: it firmly grounded the rôtisserie and its inhabitants in the clutter of everyday existence, with all of its distractions. The bakery—site of Lise's adultery and Ragueneau's pursuit of poetry—presented a simultaneous image of virtue and evil, side by side in this quasi-realistic milieu.
Docekal used children in this production to symbolize purity and hope, figures as yet unscathed by the corruption of the world and living in the liminal space between the innocence of infancy and the trials of adulthood. With acolyte-like ritualism the children lit the candles in the candelabrum at the beginning of the play, and later as bakery workers they performed a dance-like baking sequence. Costume designer Zuzana Krejzkovà contrasted the purity of the children, in white raiment-like garments, with the earthliness of the other characters by dressing the adult villagers in a subdued palette of brown, gold, red, and gray. Even in their resplendence, the children seemed invisible to the townspeople around them—an image that visually underscored the contrast between their wholesomeness and the degradation that surrounded them.
Marak created a sculptural, almost bas-relief, quality for the stage imagery through the use of side lighting. Borrowing from the traditional techniques of dance lighting, he cast light from one side of the stage onto the actors, the intense light and shadow etching their bodies against the background of [End Page 306] the scene. Marak utilized this contrast-producing lighting technique most effectively in the balcony scenes, where a background of dense foliage both hid and revealed Cyrano, his body visible, but his face veiled in shadow.
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