When you get right down to it, is anything really more fun than bashing someone else over the head? Of course not! Especially if there are no repercussions, pain-wise.
Sadly, hurt-free aggression is not the easiest thing in the world to manage. But happily for us, vicarious violence is only a theater ticket away, thanks to fight choreographer Geoff Coates and Oak Park Festival Theatre’s production of Cyrano de Bergerac, currently in production at Austin Gardens through Aug. 15.
Written in 1897 by Edmond Rostand and based on the real life of the title character, Cyrano tells the story of a certain gentleman who, blessed with rapier wit but cursed with a nose of unsightly proportions, reluctantly agrees to woo his lady love on behalf of another suitor – one who is more attractive than he is but less able to produce the romantic verse deemed necessary to effectively woo a lady in those chivalrous days. Set in a French world of courtliness and poetry, when slights to a gentleman’s honor required decisive rebuttals (and guns were not an option), the play is bursting at its lace-edged seams with bravado and derring-do.
With a cast of 20 – a whopping 16 of whom try to hurt one another at least once during the course of the play – and a glorious abundance of fights, Cyrano is a stage-combat aficionado’s dream, featuring duels with swords, group melees with quarterstaffs, short swords, pitchforks and shovels, and a robust sprinkling of fisticuffs throughout.
But what seems like spontaneous combustion on stage is the opposite of impulsive when it comes to technique.
“This show required actors with top-notch stage-combat talents,” says director Kevin Theis, who has worked with Cyrano fight choreographer Geoff Coates on a number of shows before, including last season’s Festival Theatre production of Robin Hood. “One of the reasons Geoff and I continue to work together,” says Theis, “is his ability to bring the impossible-or at least the very, very difficult-to the stage.”
“Each minute of an onstage fight takes five hours of rehearsal,” explains Coates. “It takes that long for the choreography to get into muscle memory.” A multiple winner of Joseph Jefferson and After Dark awards for fight choreography, Coates’ list of credits includes award-winning productions of The Mark of Zorro and The Talisman Ring at Lifeline Theatre, as well as the inimitable Action Movie, the Play at Defiant Theatre.
We caught up with Coates and his fighters two nights before Cyrano‘s first preview production. Wearing costumes and wielding weapons, the performers were fine-tuning fight patterns and reviewing their slicing, dicing and cudgeling to ensure no actual mutilation occurred onstage.
It’s all for one and safety above all for the actors engaged in stage violence. Fighters learn to fall on the soft parts of their bodies and not let their heads hit the ground, as well as a host of other tricks that make it possible for them to appear as if they are trying to kill each other while, in reality, they are protecting everyone involved. Serious injuries are rare, Coates maintains, although sore muscles and minor bruises maybe not so much. Experienced fighters tend to have bad knees and bad elbows, he admits, because those are the parts of the body that hit the ground first.
En garde! Tom Weber and Ian Knox, behind James Fouhey, rehearse a fight scene from ‘Cyrano de Bergerac at Austin Gardens. FRANK PINC/Staff Photographer
And fighting outdoors – as the cast of Cyrano does on the alfresco stage under the trees in Austin Gardens – adds an extra level of difficulty to an already perilous pursuit in the form of weather, whether it’s grass made slippery with dew, sunlight that blinds blade-carrying performers or, God forbid, thunderstorms. Actually it’s Coates (not God) who forbids stage fighting in the event of thunderstorms. “Stage swords act like little lightning rods,” he explains. He insists fights be called off immediately once lightning has been spotted.
Every puncher tells a story
As Coates coached an actor on how to leap from an 8-foot platform without breaking anything, we asked Cyrano‘s director, Kevin Theis, about what effect he wanted from the violence in the production.
“As Geoff would be the first to tell you, every fight tells a story. So for the first swordfight between Cyrano and Valvert, I asked Geoff to help me tell their story: A pompous bully [Valvert] picks a fight with a man [Cyrano] he believes is not of his caliber as a swordsman. Soon into the fight, however, Valvert realizes he is overmatched and the fight becomes more dangerous, his moves more desperate. Cyrano, for his part, is further confusing and angering his opponent by composing a poem while they spar, with the promise of running Valvert through on the last line. At the end, Valvert is flailing, trying to stop the inevitable thrust but … he is doomed. Cyrano, as promised, delivers the decisive blow on the last word of his poem.”
“Each fight is a little piece of the drama,” Coates agrees. “The fights are the exclamation points in the paragraph of theater.”
“Working with Geoff has been a joy,” says Jack Hickey, who, aside from playing the lead role of Cyrano in this production is also artistic director of Oak Park Festival Theatre. “He is the best teacher one could hope for.”