NEW YORK — Few people would think that Douglas Hodge's last two Broadway parts had anything to do with the other: Albin in "La Cage Aux Folles" and the title role in "Cyrano de Bergerac." But the British actor says the drag queen and the disfigured romantic are actually opposite sides of the same character — people trying to create an identity hiding their true nature.
"While they are two very different people, they do appear to be cousins," Hodge said. "They have constructed a personality — forged a life — that is bigger than their selves, a suit of armor to put on."
After his 2010 best actor in a musical Tony Award for "La Cage Aux Folles," Hodge returned to New York last month to star as Cyrano, the secret poet at the center of Edmond Rostand's 1897 tragedy. Cursed by a misshapen nose that is more grotesque in this staging at the Roundabout Theatre than in most other productions, Cyrano becomes the unwilling muse for Christian (Kyle Soller, who has a small part in the new "Anna Karenina" movie), a more classically handsome but wholly tongue-tied soldier in 1640s France.
Christian is smitten with Cyrano's cousin, the heiress Roxanne ("Harry Potter" alumna Clémence Poésy), and Cyrano's incognito poetry eventually returns Roxanne's affections to Christian. But Cyrano, an expert swordsman among the Cadets of Gascoyne, in fact adores Roxanne even more than Christian, and only when it is too late does she discover the true authorship of Christian's pleadings — and that she was in love with the wrong man the whole time and never would have cared how unattractive he might have been.
Hodge, who has numerous British acting credits and for 10 years worked closely with the playwright Harold Pinter, said "Cyrano" was more fluke than plan. Not long after "La Cage Aux Folles" closed, Hodge talked about directing rather than starring in something on Broadway.
He and potential producers were never able to agree on a play or musical, and just as the 52-year-old Hodge was getting on a plane to return to London, the producers asked him if there was any single role he was dying to play. Hodge said Cyrano.
The critics have largely approved of his choice. While the production, directed by Jamie Lloyd and scheduled to close Nov. 25, has received mixed reviews, the notices for Hodge have been almost uniformly glowing.
"I'm getting more and more choosy about what I act in, so now it has to be some sort of event," Hodge said. "And I find the whole business of being disfigured intensely interesting." The producers had some concerns because the play had been reprised with mixed results on Broadway in 2007 with Kevin Kline as Cyrano and Jennifer Garner as Roxanne.
Unlike that revival, the new production uses a newer translation by Ranjit Bolt, built on rhyming couplets that on more than a few occasions slip into modern vernacular.
"In a way, it's a trap because you're ending the energy every two lines," Hodge said of the semantic structure. "But if you pay attention, it starts to sound like hip-hop. And we wanted this 'Cyrano' to have a robust, modern and sexy feel to it."
Hodge believes Rostand's creation, loosely adapted from French history, has become refined and rarefied to the point that it unfolds like a play of manners rather than a bawdy punk romance.
"The Gascons of today would all have bolts in their noses," he says of the play's disenfranchised guards. At the same time, Cyrano should be less honorable, more of a ruffian. "He's a soldier and a fighter. He has lived in brutal, brutal settings. The love of Roxanne civilizes him — he becomes a much better gentleman because of her, fuller and deeper as a person," Hodge said.
In keeping with that coarseness, Hodge believed Cyrano's infamous nose shouldn't be mildly embarrassing but so obscene you want to cover your eyes.
Just before he started rehearsing "Cyrano," Hodge played opposite Naomi Watts in "Diana," an upcoming movie about the Princess of Wales in which Hodge plays royal butler Paul Burrell. Hodge was impressed by the prosthetics Watts adopted to look more like Diana but wanted to go much, much further — more of a birth defect, less Pinocchio.
So he researched some real-life oversized noses — Karl Malden, Jimmy Durante — and also real disfigurements that reached well beyond cosmetic defects. The resulting nose is unlike any you've seen, almost phallic (credit makeup artist Crystal Schanes).
"It has to be shocking, because Cyrano feels as if he is essentially unlovable," said Hodge, who will soon play Willy Wonka in a new London stage version of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" directed by Sam Mendes. "It was crucial that people would turn away."
For the characters in "Cyrano," that's certainly the result. But for ticket buyers at the Roundabout Theatre, they can't take their eyes of Hodge.
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