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Dueling ‘Cyranos’ Compete in France : Theater: Jean-Paul Belmondo’s stage version beats out Gerard Depardieu’s film in revivals of the Rostand classic that feature almost everything the French hold dear.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When “Cyrano de Bergerac” was first performed on the stage in Paris in 1897, it so impressed a government minister in the audience that he summoned the author, Edmond Rostand, to his balcony loge during the scene change before the final act.

Overcome with the kind of nationalistic fervor that skillful writing sometimes engenders here--not even able to wait until Cyrano died in the arms of Roxane to end the play with panache-- the minister removed the Legion d’Honneur medal dangling on his own chest and pinned it on the startled Rostand.

“Sir, in the name of the President of the Republic, whom I represent on this occasion,” said the minister, “I dub you a knight of the Legion d’Honneur.”

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Since that evening at the Theater Porte Saint-Martin, “Cyrano” has been performed an estimated 15,000 times in France. Thirty leading French actors have played Cyrano here, including Jean-Paul Belmondo in a sold-out new Paris stage production, and Gerard Depardieu, in a blockbuster new movie aimed at saving the struggling French film industry.

These latest revivals of the play, the story of a brave musketeer-poet cursed with a grotesquely huge nose and his love for his cousin, the beautiful Roxane, has again stirred the French blood in a way no other work seems to manage.

Newspaper columnists bemoan the absence of Cyrano characters in modern French politics. Belmondo and Depardieu, two of the best-known French leading actors in past decades, duel with each other on the covers of the slick magazines and the subway billboards. Government ministers fight for seats at the Theatre Marigny, where Belmondo, sword in hand, bounds across the stage.

“Cyrano de Bergerac” has arrived gallantly on the scene during a time of national crisis in confidence, this time in the struggling theater and movie business, where attendance is down and promoters hope the brave knight of Gascogne can save the day.

“Cyrano de Bergerac,” wrote magazine columnist Jean-Francois Kahn, “opened the century with his verve. Now it appears he will close it, just as dashing as before. . . .”

In France, going to see Rostand’s classic play is a veritable rite of passage. If the French only see one play on the stage, it is likely to be this one.

It is most often chosen by parents as the introduction to theater for children who have outgrown puppet shows in the public parks. Countless actors and actresses credit the play with inspiring their decision to go on stage.

So many people know its rhymed Alexandrine verses by heart that patrons often have to be reminded not to speak the lines before the actors.

In that regard, going to a stage performance of “Cyrano” like the latest starring Belmondo, is a bit like attending a refined version of “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” with the audience anticipating--and sometimes participating in--every verse.

In its five acts and 1,400 verses of acrobatic rhyme, “Cyrano” touches on practically everything the French hold near and dear. For example, it includes extended poetic ballads to the wonders of food, ranging from the tartes of the baker Rageneau to the bite-sized bird delicacies known as ortolans.

It has sword fights, food fights, adultery, love poems and long speeches about personal honor before wealth and fame that are barely distinguishable from political keynote addresses.

Indeed, the latest revival has sparked plenty of comparisons between Cyrano’s uncompromising morality and the current flaccid political scene. For many, the last honorable man in French politics--at least by the standards set by Cyrano--was Charles de Gaulle.

At the time of the first performance of “Cyrano” in 1897, France was still suffering terribly from its defeat by the Prussians in the war of 1870 and the carnage of the Paris Commune that followed.

The play was so widely hailed that it has often been credited with reviving the French spirit after the 1870 defeat.

“I first went to the play with my sister at the Porte Saint-Martin theater in 1912,” remembered Julien Green, 89, the American author who writes mostly in French. “The play was created 15 years before but continued to have enormous success. In the eyes of the patriots, it was considered a kind of revenge, in a curious way, for the crushing defeat they had against the Germans.”

Today, the French malaise is centered more in the theater and movie industries. In both cases, the elaborate stage production by Robert Hossein, and the movie by director Jean-Paul Rappeneau, “Cyrano” is viewed as the potential savior.

According to recently released figures, French cinema houses suffered a 34% decline in attendance in 1989. During the same period, American movies shown in France registered a 56% increase.

This year, the expensive “Cyrano” production starring Depardieu is the big hope to boost the box office. It is at least the fourth time that the play has been put on the screen, beginning with an Italian production in 1909. The most famous film was probably the 1950 American version with Jose Ferrer, who won an Oscar. The latest was the Steve Martin version, “Roxanne,” in which the comedian played a long-nosed fireman in New England.

The Depardieu movie is the biggest yet attempted, featuring 2,000 actors, 300 swords, 500 pikes (wielded by Spanish soldiers), 150 muskets, and 10 cannon. The movie was filmed in Hungary and France on 40 sets. The creator of Depardieu’s false noses--100 were used during filming--gets separate billing.

But those looking for a classic “Cyrano” may be disappointed. Broad-shouldered Depardieu, who also appeared in “The Last Metro,” “The Return of Martin Guerre” and “Camille Claudel,” seems too awkward and bulky for the dashing swordsman he is supposed to depict. As the actors sprint from one ostentatiously authentic 17th-Century scene to another, many of the rhyming verses are lost.

Although not as wounded as the French movie business, the legitimate theater also has taken its lumps. According to the Ministry of Culture, the number of people attending the five national theaters dropped from 685,000 in 1978 to 531,000 in 1987.

“Little expanded, little frequented and not very distinctive,” a study of the theater by the ministry reported.

However, the stage production starring Belmondo is a huge success. The famous French actor (star of the Jean-Luc Godard classic, “Breathless”) attacks the role, mixing bravura with the vulnerability of man wounded by nature.

Belmondo has pledged to play Cyrano on the stage at least until May, and every seat at every performance is sold out until that month. Part of the French public sympathy for Belmondo in this role is the widely circulated story that by playing Cyrano he is fulfilling a long-held wish by his late father, a well-known sculptor.

According to director Hossein, with every movie success of Belmondo, the father kept asking: “When are you going to return to your true art--the stage? Am I going to die without seeing you in Cyrano?”

Sadly, he did, and that explains to many here why the 56-year-old actor accepted the physically testing role.

“It is a nearly suicidal role that you have to jump into with both feet,” Belmondo said in an interview with Figaro magazine. “It is very tiring. The direction of Hossein is very active. But the star is Cyrano, and you must never betray him.”


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