The Three Musketeers Theatre Review - Topanga Canyon Adaptation of Historial Epic Tragically Misses Its Mark

d'Artagnan (Jackson McCard Thompson) spins his yarn to The Three Musketeers (from l to r: Melora Marshall, Kelly C. Henton, and Jim LeFave)

(Topanga Canyon, CA) June, 2010 – Adapting a classical epic for the stage is not an easy feat to accomplish, especially if it involves more than twenty characters, political intrigue, and lots of entertaining swordplay. Theatricum Botanicum’s Artistic Director Ellen Geer invested at least eight months on adapting The Three Musketeers, Alexander Dumas’s swashbuckling historical masterpiece that delves into camaraderie, courage, persecution, and betrayal. And the flavor of the period is perfectly caught in this production, as well as featuring some talented performances by the ensemble. Sadly, Director Ellen Geer tries too hard to include every aspect of Dumas’s classic, resulting in a disastrous second act that brings down the entire play.

The action and intrigue takes place in 1627 France. King Louis XIII (Jeff Wiesen) and his “secretary of state” Cardinal Richelieu (William Dennis Hunt) tighten their political grip on their kingdom by perverting the doctrines of Catholicism, which has resulted in a mass purging of the Protestant faith. The King’s neglected wife Anne (an elegant Samara Frame) is in love with the Duke of Buckingham (Aaron Hendry, whose mighty, regal presence really makes an impact during his all-too-brief scenes) and seeks help from a laundress, Constance (Willow Geer), in maintaining “an affair from afar” as he rules in England. She, in turn, recruits the assistance of young d’Artagnan (Jackson McCord Thompson), who hungers to make his dream come true by being a member of the Musketeers, a band of soldiers who are loyal to the king, yet at times comes to arms against Cardinal Richelieu and his fanatical, sadistic minions. His quest leads to a special bond with the Musketeers' three leaders: the war weary, yet wise Athos (Jim LeFave), the boisterous Porthos (Kelly C. Henton), and the humble and modest Aramis (Melora Marshall), whose own desires to join the clergy is constantly placed into doubt. But lurking behind the scenes is the Cardinal’s spy, MiLady (Abby Craden), who somehow infects all the major characters’ lives as though she were a virus, causing murder and mayhem wherever she goes.

d'Artagnan (Jackson McCord Thompson) romances Constance (Willow Geer)

Dumas’s novel is a multi-faceted epic and Geer did an excellent job adapting the text in the first act. The scenes move with a natural fluidity that is characteristic of Geer's direction, and the foundation of the story when it comes to establishing the characters, the setting, and pacing is smooth and solid. And having a talented acting ensemble doesn’t hurt, especially those portraying the title roles. LeFave’s Athos is a suave and cynical hero whose physical and emotional scars haunt him like a demon. Although not the true leader of the Musketeers, his insight and demeanor win absolute loyalty from his brothers in arms. Henton is hilarious as the blowhard Porthos, whose emotional armor is easily pierced when he is disparaged for his gaudy attire. And Melora Marshall once again shows her phenomenal versatility in playing male roles with her sensitive, romantic Aramis, a man whose quest to be close to God is rife with inner conflict. But Thompson’s d’Artagnan is the true star of the play. His initial appearances have him eager and anxious like a little puppy who wants attention, and his comic timing is excellent in showing his character’s immaturity without slipping into being childish. However, as the play continues, Thompson slowly evolves from a boy into a seasoned warrior with acts of courage and a passionate lover to Constance, whose scenes with Willow Geer are endearing. And on the opposite end of the ethics spectrum, the villains have their share of fun. Jeff Wiesen is a delightful dandy and spoiled brat at his best (and worst) as King Louis XIII. Sam Breen as the scarred second-in-command Rochfort is a malignant weasel just begging to be eradicated. And William Dennis Hunt’s Cardinal Richelieu is a symbol of perversion and decadence, who uses the sacredness of Catholicism and distorts it to satisfy his own ego.

MiLady (Abby Craden)is helped by Kitty (Anne Goen Nemer)

Sadly, the fun and the coherence of the first act become lost as the second act tries to add more of Dumas’s text than is considered possible. Geer gravely commits three errors to this production, resulting in its ultimate failure; which is surprising, considering Geer’s adaptation of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard to 1970’s American South was perfection. In terms of structure, themes, and especially dialogue, the feeling was as though two people adapted the play, one writer per act. The first flaw involves the villainess MiLady. In both book and film, she possesses a more diabolical presence than Richelieu by using both sex and murder to fuel her own mania. And Abby Craden does exhibit her evil and wickedness very well. However, Geer makes the huge mistake of introducing MiLady in the second act (after appearing in the first act for only ten seconds). Although MiLady is talked about a lot during the first act, that doesn’t give Craden enough time to show her character’s malevolent nature, which eventually leads to her madness with each obstacle she faces. As is, Craden screeching and chronically contorting her face when trapped gives the impression that she is chewing the scenery. And Craden is too good of an actress to force her character’s arc down a quickened pace. If MiLady had been featured more in the first act, we would have insight to this famous villainess and Craden would have been able to give a truly memorable and three-dimensional performance.

King Louis XIII (Jeff Wiesen) plots with Cardinal Richelieu (William Dennis Hunt)

Unfortunately, Geer’s second creative error is far most disappointing. Geer once remarked in an interview that she wanted to include more of the political corruption and the religious subversion that was occurring during this tumultuous time in France’s history. However, when dealing with this subject matter, she committed the same mistake as she did regarding MiLady: the first act was pretty much void of all references to how Catholicism was twisted to satisfy the egos of the rulers. Although a few supporting characters winced and scoffed at “those Protestants”, this territory in how both Catholicism and Protestantism were both victims to greed was truly never explored. In fact, according to history, Richelieu (right after he became minister of France) sought to thwart the Spanish's claim of a valley in Lombardy by supporting the Protestant Swiss canton of Grisons. He did this by sending troops against the Pope’s personal garrisons. Yes, King Louis and Richelieu were truly despicable, but not because they were Catholic (in their own eyes); it was because they worshipped a god named hubris and they used Catholicism as a scapegoat for their own selfish needs. And unfortunately in the second act, Geer finally tries to incorporate the historical context, with disastrous results. The first example of this was including a musical serenade in how Louis XIII starved a small village, populated by Protestants, into conversion. Next, there was a scene where Athos called out in faux sympathy about how those "unfortunate Protestants" don’t understand how being a Catholic is the only way to their salvation. These two scenes stick out like a sore thumb where it not only generalizes the Catholic faith, but it is borderline offensive to those who practice it. I know without a shadow of a doubt that this was not Geer’s intention. It would have been a fascinating thing to behold to see the historical and religious facets of the story. But by this omission from the first act, Catholicism is almost demonized and portrayed as self-righteous hypocrisy, rather than the profound sublime belief system it truly is.

The last flaw lies on its use of sexual themes for what is considered to be a “family play.” As before in the first act, the themes, dialogue and actions are fun and entertaining for all ages. However, again in the second act, the themes of sex are far too suggestive for family viewing. I am far from being a prude; sexual farces like those of Moliere are brilliant in their approach and their satire. The Botanicum’s production of The Miser was one of the most hilarious productions I have seen in years, and their use of “Freudian costumes” was pure genius…for adults and kids older than 17! One significant scene involves the seduction of MiLady by d’Artagnan, where the swashbuckler, in a heat of passion, positions her to be mounted from behind until the lights go out, albeit way too slowly. Right after this scene, I heard a few patrons mutter in disgust, with one of them saying, “Don’t they know there are children here?” Indeed, a few children---all under the age of ten---were sitting in the front row where the “action” took place. Geer should have omitted or toned down these scenes because this play is not commonly known as a sexual satire; it’s a historical adventure about loyalty, love, and betrayal. And unfortunately, these “three musketeers” of flaws have ruined the potential of what would have been a true theatrical epic for their 2010 Season.

The Three Musketeers opened June 12, 2010 and runs through October 3, 2010

The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum
1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.
Topanga CA90290
(midway between Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura Freeway)

(310) 455-3723 or

Adults: $32 (lower tier); $20 (Upper tier)
Seniors, Students, Equity: $20/$15
Children (5-11): $10
Children under 5: free

The outdoor amphitheater at The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum is terraced into the hillside of the rustic canyon.Audience members are advised to dress casually (warmly for evenings) and bring cushions for bench seating.Snacks are available at the Hamlet Hut, and picnickers are welcome before and after the performance.

Photos by: Miriam Geer 

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