The Red Deer College theatre program’s current production is The Three Musketeers, the 2006 Ken Ludwig adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s novel, first published as a newspaper serial in 1844.
I did not attempt to read the original, as I could not get through Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo after I saw a Stratford (Ontario) Festival production about ten years ago. So my pre-show preparation was limited to reading Wikipedia, looking at the Red Deer College Performing Arts website, and looking at a video clip from this production posted in a newspaper preview.
I was pleasantly surprised at how well the adaptation, and this production directed by Thomas Usher, managed to create for modern audiences a fast-paced, episodic, wish-fulfilling adventure which was probably true to the impression left on contemporary readers of the serial. D’Artagnan, the young man from the country who travels to Paris with the goal of becoming a Musketeer like his father before him, was played with well-meaning earnestness by Tyler Johnson, like most of the cast a graduating student in Theatre Performance and Creation. My favourite character in the story was an addition for the modern adaptation, D’Artagnan’s younger sister Sabine (Brittany Martyshuk). D’Artagnan’s parents ask him to take his sister to Paris and enroll her in a convent school, but it turns out that she actually wants to seek her fortune as a swordfighter and maybe fall in love with a Musketeer. I found her character both charming and credible.
The three musketeers of the title, whom D’Artagnan is challenged by and then befriended by, are Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. (The “h”s are silent because they are French – I didn’t know that before.) Athos is the more serious musketeer whose sad personal backstory comes out later, and he is portrayed by Chase Cownden, a particularly impressive stage fencer. Porthos (Bret Jacobs) is interested in fashion, and a scene in which he is showing off a new cloak leads to a fight scene with some impressive use of a length of cloth to tangle an opponent. Aramis (Wayne DeAtley) aspires to religious life, and is the target of Sabine’s crush.
The musketeers’ archenemy is Cardinal Richelieu (Richard Leurer), remote and devious and a little slimy. Richelieu’s collaborators and allies include Milady (Megan Einarson) and Rochefort (Victoria Day). Other characters include the King and Queen of France (JP Lord and Taylor Pfeiffer), and Constance the queen’s lady-in-waiting and love-interest for D’Artagnan (Constance Isaacs). Daniel Vasquez, a recent graduate of the RDC Theatre Performance program, plays Treville the head of the musketeers, Buckingham the Queen’s lover, and a few other minor parts. Most of the other actors are multiply-cast as well, with some quick costume changes.
The set for the show was strongly reminiscent of the Escher print Relativity, and the similarity was underlined by pieces of staircase and balcony suspended in the air at odd angles. The actual stage was full of entrances and exits, balconies and crossing staircases, and they all got used, with almost no prop movement between scenes. This helped underline the impressions of fast-paced action with complications and conspiracies.
There was, of course, a lot of stage combat, not just swordfighting but unarmed fighting, knifework, and other tools used as weapons. At one point, all twelve cast members are engaged in a skirmish all over the stage between musketeers and Richelieu’s guards, with so much going on that it was hard for the audience to keep track of and easy to buy into the illusion of it being a real fight.
One of the things I liked best about this production was the women’s parts and the scope for female actors. They weren’t just cast as men for fight scenes; the script included three fighters explicitly identified as female, who seemed like distinct interesting characters – Sabine, the young girl who grew up learning fighting with her older brother, Milady, with a dagger in her boot and a secret in her past, whose manipulative sexuality was reminiscent of the courtesan Einarson played in the troupe’s production of Comedy of Errors last year, and the guard captain Rochefort, in eyepatch and scar. Milady is a character in Dumas’ original story, and so is a male version of Rochefort. I couldn’t tell whether Rochefort had been changed from male to female by the 2006 playwright or by the director of this production, but it didn’t matter and it worked well enough for me to enjoy it.
The production even passed the “Bechdel test” – the criterion expressed by a character in an early edition of Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, that she only reads/watches fiction in which two women talk to each other about something other than a man. I can’t remember what the conversation was about in the second convent scene, when Constance is taking sanctuary and Milady is looking for her, but the scene at the convent school where Sabine has been enrolled definitely passes.
I’m not sure that everything shown on the stage was necessary to the plot – but it was fun and the pace was good and I didn’t mind. The tavern singing and the masked-ball dancing were fun to watch. The random musket battle with Huguenots confused me a bit more, because I was wondering whether there was a point to it other than giving Porthos a chance to make some funny comments about religion.
The costuming used a limited but rich palette of colours, allowing the audience to distinguish between the heroes in brown, burgundy, and gold, with Porthos having more dramatic choices, the household of royalty in purple, and the enemies in black and red. I also noticed red hues in the lighting for Milady’s and Richelieu’s scenes. And I loved the peacock dress Sabine wore to the masked ball. There were lots of scruffy whiskers in evidence, with Richelieu’s waxed mustache and groomed-squirrel-tail goatee in sharp contrast.
In the show I saw early in the run, there were a few situations of stilted speech, but for the most part the actors spoke clearly, convincingly, and in character, and they made me care about what happened to the characters. And the last line made me cry.
Three Musketeers plays Wednesday through Saturday of this week at the Red Deer College mainstage. Advance tickets are available on line and by phone from the usual outlet.