Opening its 2019-20 season, the Two River Theater in Red Bank will feature “Cyrano” from co-writers Jason O’Connell and Brenda Withers through Oct. 13.
Adapted from French poet Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac,” Writhers co-wrote the production with O’Connell, who also stars as the title character.
“I had always loved ‘Cyrano.’ I had loved the story; I had loved other incarnations of the play that I had seen when I was a kid. I was really obsessed with the Steve Martin movie ‘Roxanne’ – I had just loved the story,” O’Connell said. “When I went into college theater, I had been exposed to other versions. I had always been in love with it, it has been a part that I had always wanted to play. In terms of writing the play, and writing my own adaptation to it, it was not an idea that had crossed my mind.”
Performing in an off-Broadway production of “Sense and Sensibility,” O’Connell had gotten to know an audience member who ran Amphibian Stage Productions, a small theater in Fort Worth, Texas.
“It was placed right in my lap by this woman named Kathleen Culebro. We got to know each other, and she knew that I was a writer from a solo production that I had written. I had expressed to her that in addition to writing and acting, I was a director and looking for more directing projects,” O’Connell said.
Eventually, Culebro reached out to O’Connell with the idea of directing a three-person version of “Cyrano de Bergerac.”
“[Culebro] didn’t know that I had any particular affinity for [the production], but that it was just something that she was considering, and she thought that I might be the right person to direct it,” he said.
“I was very excited by that. I had always thought about playing the part one day, but I had never thought about directing it.”
Sharing the version of the script that she was considering, O’Connell felt that the particular adaption was too thinned out. Only 45 minutes in length, he felt that the version was more of a children’s adaption than anything else.
“I said to her that I wanted to rework the script. She proposed that I write a new version of ‘Cyrano,’ which I thought was quite flattering, but I also thought that it was a tall order. We only had four months before we were supposed to start rehearsal,” he explained.
Proposing the idea of having a co-writer, O’Connell was open to anything. Fortunately for him, the suggested writer was someone whom he had been working with for almost two decades.
“Brenda Withers, I had known her – and not only that I had known her, but that Brenda and I have been friends for about 18 years now,” he said. “[Culebro] did not know this before, she had only worked with Brenda and thought that our sensibilities might mesh – she was right.”
Though the two had worked and performed together, the two had never written together, so the proposition to them was still daunting.
“But again, Brenda, like myself, has always had an affinity towards the story,” he said. “She is a brilliant writer and actor. She had played that character of Roxanne in other versions of ‘Cyrano’ over the years. We love each other as friends and admire each other’s sensibility and aesthetics as writers. We thought it could be a really wonderful thing to collaborate on this together.”
Taking the entirety of the four months to write the production, the first draft of “Cyrano” was not completed until right before rehearsals began. Using different versions of the script for actors to audition with, O’Connell said cast members had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
“It was an undertaking and we didn’t have a complete first draft until right before rehearsal started,” he said. “It was a leap of faith for [the actors], too. They signed on to do ‘Cyrano,’ but they didn’t know how the script would turn out for them. It was a crazy process.”
Finally premiering, the show had such a success at its debut at Amphibian Stage Productions that other theaters around the country began to want to adapt the production in their local venues. The writing of the show spoke to audiences everywhere and the mixture of voices between O’Connell and Withers worked perfectly for them.
“We wrote so well together,” he said. “We wrote pretty seamlessly together; it wasn’t a tortured partnership. We had no idea how it would go, but our voices just seemed to meld so well. People had no idea where one voice began and the other ends and that’s what great about it. You don’t want to feel that it’s too bifurcated. It’s a great marriage.”
After having the show produced at Gloucester Stage in Massachusetts, the version was co-produced between the Two River Theater and Hudson County Shakespeare Festival in New York this past summer. Performed on an outdoor stage in New York, O’Connell said he is excited to bring his show indoors for the Two River Theater, this month.