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Think panache, not Pinocchio

Mark Harelik brings layers to Cyrano that would have been difficult for him 20 years ago. Too bad Broadway's missing out.

June 20, 2004|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

As far as Mark Harelik is concerned, Broadway can keep its Tony Awards medallions.

After a quarter-century on America's regional stages, this veteran L.A.-based actor has yet to tread any boards on the Great White Way. But that doesn't mean he lacks for meaningful trophies -- such as the ample collection of huge prosthetic noses he is accumulating in his current turn as Cyrano de Bergerac.

The tall transplanted Texan is back again at South Coast Repertory as the swashbuckling poet-warrior-political agitator-cum-tragic lover in Edmond Rostand's 19th century romance.

Should he have a mind to, Harelik, once "Cyrano de Bergerac" ends, will have more than 25 gargantuan, shockingly bent efflorescences of fake facial cartilage to thumb at Broadway producers or whomsoever else he might disdain. That's how many noses have been created to get him through the run as Cyrano, who follows his prominent pointer into all manner of danger but who tragically can't, on account of a schnoz complex, bring himself to confess his eloquently over-brimming love to the fair Roxane.

Harelik (rhymes with "garlic") says he plans to keep them all, although to what end he doesn't yet know.

He surely is earning them. Cyrano is the biggest part of his career -- especially in this 3 1/2-hour version, which eschews most of the usual cuts. The physical demands include jumping from balconies and battlements, famously delivering a 28-line poem in rhymed couplets while dueling with a rapier, and projecting all those lines from underneath a nose that tumbles well below his upper lip.

The key, Harelik says, is preparation -- not just the four-hour regimen he goes through each day before showtime, but the many years of acting he put under his scabbard before taking the part.

"It was offered to me about 20 years ago. Even as arrogant as I am, I knew I didn't have the stage experience, life experience and vocal ability."

Harelik specified that his Cyranoboscis should follow the aquiline shape of his own nose -- and then keep going beyond all reason.

"It's the center of his life, his central issue, and I agreed that it should be a nose that is at first sight perhaps repulsive, even a little frightening. I didn't want a Pinocchio nose."

From the embarrassment of that nose, Harelik says, flows Cyrano's defining quality: what Rostand memorably sums up as his "panache."

"Its contemporary, somewhat trivialized meaning is 'flair' or 'elan.' But Rostand defined it as grace in the face of defeat, grace in the face of impossibility. He has to find a self-definition, a way of existing in the world, that he can maintain with integrity."

Onstage in the last few seasons at South Coast, Harelik has died as a would-be conqueror of the North American continent who expires blind, pathetic, despised and syphilitic, crawling through a desert clad only in a loincloth, in Howard Korder's "The Hollow Lands"; in bed as the Earl of Oxford, a debauched, plague-stricken Elizabethan lord who attains a measure of poignancy but never loses his comically wicked bite, in Amy Freed's "The Beard of Avon"; and now, heroically and touchingly, under autumnal falling leaves and in the arms of his beloved, in "Cyrano de Bergerac."

Each stage death should carry with it a sense of revelation, he says. "We're told by philosophers and sages that death is actually the death of illusion. It becomes very vivid to the dying man what his shortcomings in life have been. For some it's a noble acknowledgment, for some it's miserable remorse. But you open the doorway to death, and there's a mirror that you can't turn away from."

His back pages

As a sometime playwright, Harelik has turned the mirror on his own family. "The Immigrant" (1985) recounted how his fruit-peddling Jewish grandfather settled in the central Texas hamlet of Hamilton. The warm story of putting down lasting roots in a new land has been hugely popular, with hundreds of productions. A sadder sequel, "The Legacy" (1997), concerns the death of Harelik's mother from cancer when he was a teenager. Someday he aims to complete the planned trilogy. Still, he considers himself "strictly an amateur" as a playwright, and, apart from "Lost Highway," the Hank Williams bio-musical he co-created in 1987, he doubts he'll ever attempt to write anything that isn't highly personal.

Harelik's recent roles include a dapper Italian gent in Seattle and Chicago stagings of Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas' musical version of "The Light in the Piazza." He'll return to that role, in which the New Yorker's John Lahr found him "first-rate," next spring at New York's Lincoln Center. He played the Duke of Oxford again in a well-received New York run of "The Beard of Avon." And although he's not in the cast, the musical version of "The Immigrant" opens off-Broadway in October.

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