nytheatre.com review by Charles Battersby
April 30, 2005
Edmond Rostand is certainly best known for writing Cyrano De Bergerac; his other works have received little attention over the years, and are rarely produced. Chantecler, for example, was last produced in New York 94 years ago, back in 1911. The Adhesive Theater Project has taken on the noble goal of resurrecting this play, and have done so with a production that relies heavily on puppetry, spectacle, and multimedia. Rostand’s classic fable doesn’t perfectly fit the modern, experimental style of this production, but both the story and this style of theatre are more interesting than one might suspect.
Chantecler is the tale of a rooster who believes that his “Cock-a-doodle-oo” causes the sun to rise each morning. He’s envied and praised by the other farmyard animals, and reviled by the nocturnal denizens of the nearby forest. A love story blossoms between Chantecler (Orion Taraban) and a wild Guinea Hen (Drae Campbell), while an envious Blackbird (Charles Goonan) schemes with the owls to kill Chantecler. The whole thing is, of course, an allegory about pride, and jealousy in 19th century French society.
Like any well-written satire, its subject matter holds up after a hundred years. There's a theme about individuality (common in Rostand's work) which might even be more appropriate now then in the 19th century. Chantecler is a likeable protagonist and his self-determination is sympathetic to modern audiences. The talk of fashion, arrogance, and two-faced sycophants still rings true in our society. (The other roosters just be playa haters, if you follow my vernacular.
The Adhesive Theatre Project uses a new translation by Kay Nolte Smith. It isn't too modernized, or Americanized, so the show maintains a timeless quality, and can be interpreted as either present day America or Rostand’s France. Smith has even managed to work in the occasional bit of rhyming dialogue.
To bring the animals to life, Adhesive uses puppetry and elaborate costumes. Principal characters like the titular rooster, the Guinea Hen and the Blackbird are dressed in human clothes, with a few bird-like accoutrements, such as feathered hats, to hint at their animality. The supporting characters are mostly puppets or actors in full-body animal outfits. The puppetry is quite impressive, and there's a large cast of puppeteers on hand to bring the whole menagerie to life. Aaron Unger, in particular, stands out as a puppeteer (his Gander is one of the show's first visual treats). There aree also some animals represented by elaborate masks and mechanical appendages: the Owl Dukes wear metal helmets with creepy eyes that flash in the dark. And let's not forget the couple of outfits with moving robotic appendages, like the owl wings that spread out by themselves, powered by pneumatics.
All of this spectacle does tend to lose its impact as the show runs on. Running just shy of two and half hours, some of the bits overstay their welcome. Act Two starts with a lengthy routine in which dozens of different roosters show up at a party; all of them are played by one actor who rapidly changes costumes dozens of times. This bit seems to go on forever, with the novelty of Velcro costume pieces being rapidly stuck to a guy in a rooster suit wearing off long before the scene is over.
On the other hand, there are several innovative multimedia features to the show that don’t overstay their welcome. The back wall of the set holds a projection screen that is used to turn night into day, among a few other things. A live projectionist mixes projections during the show, creating an effect much like animation, only live, in real-time. There also is a live band providing constant incidental music and accompaniment for the handful of short songs in the script. The music adds a cinematic feel to the evening, and is one of the more effective elements of the production. The orchestra also provides sound effects too (e.g., a drumbeat for a gunshot, etc.)
At times it seems as though the show is centered more on the stylized concept, rather than on Rostand’s story. This doesn’t make a bad show, in fact, Chantecler is very entertaining, but isn’t necessarily what Rostand fans might be looking for in the rare production of his work. Then again, it might be their only chance to see Chantecler for another 94 years.