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Theatre SC's Modern Adaptation of The Three Musketeers is Fun For the Whole Family

Review by August Krickel

Rapiers are drawn, wits clash, daggers are brandished, and plots are hatched in an action-packed yet family-friendly update of The Three Musketeers, running through this weekend at USC's Drayton Hall.  Playwright Ken Ludwig, best known for broad farces like Lend Me a Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo, has an interest in the classics as well, and has previously penned adaptations of Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer, and the Restoration comedy The Beaux' Stratagem for the stage. Here he takes the core plot of the famous adventure novel by Alexandre Dumas, distills it to its barest essence, then adds an array of stage tricks and techniques to make the potentially dated material (palace intrigue in 1625 Paris written for a 19th century French readership) accessible to a modern and younger audience. Director Robert Richmond has taken this a step further, employing his trademark visual flair to depict the proceedings as seen through the eyes of an enraptured little girl (Miranda Bourne), encountering the story for the first time. The result is sometimes both amusing and surreal, occasionally silly and/or thrilling, but never boring.

While the plot really isn't the point, I must say that Ludwig's script makes its intricacies crystal-clear, moreso than any previous version I've seen, and he remains absolutely faithful to the original, with one vital exception: Planchet, D'Artagnan's comic manservant is now a girl. Not just any girl, but rather D'Artagnan's non-canonical, gamine-like little sister, Sabine. Their father is sending Sabine off to a convent school in Paris, and it makes sense for her brother to accompany her on his way to seek enlistment with the Musketeers (imagine a 17th-century Special Forces team.)  Sabine has her own ideas, however, and is as handy with a sword as her father and brother.  A female swashbuckler is a nifty notion, although not new: Maureen O'Hara famously played the daughter of Aramis in the film At Sword's Point, and a pre-Samantha Kim Cattrall turned up as the daughter of the villainous Milady de Winter in Richard Lester's Return of the Musketeers. Nicole Dietze does a great job as Sabine, and is up for the physicality that the role requires. William Vaughan is similarly a good fit for the role of D'Artagnan, full of the foolishness, impetuosity and idealism of youth. Both performers have mastered swordplay techniques, as well as the comic banter that typifies the play's dialogue. Ludwig short-changes Sabine with time on stage, however, and I do wish she had been even more integral to the plot, which as in the original focuses on D'Artagnan's adventures with the titular trio.

In this pared-down version, that trio isn't given much opportunity to develop their specific characters either, but  Benjamin Roberts as Athos, Dimitri Woods as Porthos, and Matthew Cavender as Aramis do their best with what they're given. My only gripe here would be their seeming youth, as they appear to be only slightly older than D'Artagnan, rather than the jaded, world-weary veterans more commonly portrayed. That's not a huge problem, although the appearance of more years of melancholy would have made some revelations about Athos's past more meaningful. John Floyd gets plenty of laughs as an addled and foppish King Louis who just loves balls.  That's the fancy-dress kind, in one of the play's many ba-da-boom-ching jokes that can be hilarious, tedious, or both, depending on how broad you like your comedy.

Similarly, Ludwig has re-imagined Cardinal Richelieu (Josh Jeffers) and his henchman Rochefort (Wes Williams) as comic Get Smart-style villains, whereas I like my bad guys sinister and lethal, but the actors carry off their parts with zest. (Jeffers doubles as D'Artagnan's father in the opening scene, and he and Vaughan have the show's best fight scene.)  There's a greater evil menacing our heroes, however, in the enticing form of the seductive spy Milady (Rachel Kuhnle.) I've enjoyed Kuhnle in a number of roles in recent years, but was nevertheless pleasantly surprised by the intensity with which she embraces her role, and by the seeming ease of her domination of every scene she's in. Ludwig's simplification of many of the characters leaves Milady as the most complex and therefore most intriguing, but much credit goes to Kuhnle herself, who takes a stock villain part and plays it like a mad hybrid of Shakespeare and Tomb Raider

Lisa Martin-Stuart's costumes reflect the period appropriately, although I would have liked to see Richelieu in more traditional Cardinal's robes. Wigs by Valerie Pruett are outstanding; this was an era where men and women alike had lots of full flowing hair, and not only do the wigs look natural, but more importantly none fall off during the play's many action scenes. Scenic Designer Tamara Joksimovic's set is intentionally dream-like, with suggestions of stairs, columns, and street facades. Its main component is rotated by cast members to reveal assorted locations, and while I might have preferred more realism, it certainly does its job, especially given that director Richmond establishes early on that we are seeing the story of the Musketeers as imagined by a child, who has projected herself, as Sabine, into the plot. At intermission, one veteran local actor grinned and said "Gotta love Robert Richmond."  And I knew what he meant instantly - Richmond often re-imagines classics with baroque and flamboyant staging. This inventiveness sometimes enhances or adds clarity to difficult text; here, Ludwig's script has already done that, and so the frantic, carnival-like atmosphere is certainly fascinating, although I'm not sure if it really adds anything in the long run.  In particular, the actors are quite adept with Casey Kaleba's fight choreography, and I would have enjoyed more straightforward duel scenes, whereas here they often segue into slapstick chases accompanied by modern music, in the style of an episode of Scooby Doo or The Monkees.

Some of that is Ludwig's doing, though, and there's more to it than one realizes. I was prepared to conclude that the cast does fine with some awfully childish material, until I discovered the backstory. Ludwig was commissioned to create this new version of the Dumas classic by the Bristol Old Vic, an offshoot of the Old Vic in London, and it debuted in early December of 2006 as a new adventure play for family audiences. There's a tradition in the UK called pantomine - not silent miming, but rather holiday seasonal entertainment for children and their parents. Components of "panto" often include a new adaptation of a familiar classic, a simple plot, broad physical comedy, anachronistic use of contemporary music, double entendres that only the adults will get, madcap chase scenes, cartoon-like violence and sound effects, and a girl protagonist dressed as a boy. Ludwig's new Three Musketeers incorporates all of those, right down to a pantomime horse (i.e. two actors in a crazy-looking horse costume.) While its run time of more than two and a half hours makes this much more than a children's play, and while it’s not an actual pantomime, it's not bad at all for a stage show aimed at younger audiences. In the program Richmond admits to enjoying the same television and cinematic incarnations of this story that I too enjoyed as a child, and my own first exposure to the Musketeers was via a Classics Illustrated comic book I read during the summer after first grade. As a result, this is that rare show at USC that can genuinely be described as “fun for the whole family.”  It’s by no means deep drama, but possibly a great way to introduce youngsters who have overdosed on the Pirates of the Caribbean films to live performance, along with any theatre-phobic adults you may know who have resisted accompanying you to see more serious shows.  The Three Musketeers continues through this Saturday, April 25 at Drayton Hall Theatre on the USC campus, with an additional matinee performance Saturday afternoon. For more information, call 803-777-2551, or visit http://www.artsandsciences.sc.edu/thea/three-musketeers-april-17-25-drayton-hall-theatre.


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