Playwright Ken Ludwig makes a gallant effort with his 2006 adaptation of the famed historical novel, The Three Musketeers, by the inimitable Alexandre Dumas, directed by Cal Metts this season on the Duluth Playhouse stage. Any stage production of The Three Musketeers is a sort of Cliff’s Notes version of the dense 1844 work of literature, but the adaptation has made it more accessible to more people. And this particular production has something for everybody and that’s the important thing, ultimately.
The show opens with country bumpkin d’Artagnan (Luke Moravec) and his father, played by Roger Reinert, clashing in acrobatic and nicely choreographed swordplay that makes the top of the show pop. That is, until the dialogue starts. It becomes readily apparent that Reinert’s dispassionate and stilted delivery misses the mark in launching the story in the first scene when paired up against the chops of Moravec. Things quickly recover, though, when one of Ludwig’s new touches to the tale, the tomboy kid sister of d’Artagnan, Sabine (Cheryl Skafte) bursts on to the stage along with sobbing mommy Susanne Wilfahrt. Skafte comes directly from casting central for this spunky side-kick role, charming the audience and holding her own in the fight choreography.
D’Artagnan, as you know, dreams of being a Musketeer, so his father sends him off to Paris, to fulfil his destiny. There, we meet the play’s heroic trio, Aramis (Abe Curran), Athos (Keith Shelbourn), and fashionista Porthos (Joel Moline). These three actors are agile and humorous with Moline shining among the three of them in character personality. Shelbourne delivers a solid performance throughout, and is especially memorable in his scene with Milady de Winter, seething with anger, during the second act. Aramis is written as a man ready to enter the priesthood but a seducer of women. But, there’s no seduction evident here, not even when plied with liquor by the lascivious, inebriated, and plucky Sabine. The trio of actors is most memorable for the sword fighting on stage, choreographed beautifully and believably by Brian Kess.
The action moves swiftly in this production. If you’re not familiar with the story, it’s easy to get a little confused about the plot, as the script combines, cuts, and abbreviates most of the heavy material the book takes time to explain and play out in this tale of deception where d’Artagnan is a pawn in the game between Queen Anne (Christa Schulz) and Cardinal Richelieu (Michael Walke)
Walke’s performance is, without doubt, the most polished, theatrical, and mesmerizing aspect of the show. With his gravely anger, imperious ambition, and commanding demeanor, one looks forward to his moments on stage as Walke’s acting shows every bit of his 30 years experience. His portrayal of Cardinal Richelieu adds a gravitas to the casting and to the show in general that is much appreciated and needed. Paired up with the deliciously destructive deceptions of Jen Bergum as Milady de Winter, the dark side of this story is almost like Disney come to life as the two of them plot against the Queen, against d’Artagnan, Sabine, and d’Artagnan’s love interest, the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, Constance Bonacieux played very sweetly by Jennie Ross. Somewhere along the way, we get that the Queen has been unfaithful to her husband and stands to be exposed by the Cardinal if she fails to find someone, enter d’Artagnan, to retrieve a necklace of diamonds she has gifted to her lover, Buckingham.
Moravec is aptly cast as the rookie Musketeer, d’Artagnan. He has great stage presence and an exuberance while bounding about on stage that compliments his acting ability. He is, at turns, comical, earnest, and romantic as well as demonstrating his willingness to go the extra mile physically while taking his lumps at the hands of enemies on stage
Chris Nollet plays the giddy, effete King Louis XIII to perfection, replete with mane of curls and blithely unaware of and uninterested in anything but his cards and parties, like any good medieval French monarch. Whenever you see Nollet in a playbill, you’re sure to be entertained and it’s particularly good times on stage when Walke and Nollet are paired up where audiences get to see seasoned actors breathing life into fully realized characters that hold their own against and even surpass the appeal of the Musketeers at times.
The set design by Curtis Phillips is useful, if not dazzling. A bit more, such as more distinguished properties representing the palace and, especially, the ballroom, would have added a sensual visual experience to complement the action on stage. Less is not more when putting on this production. The Playhouse has set the bar high for production values, especially after the lush lighting and set design of Beauty and the Beast.
The more memorable scenes of the play include a sword fighting tour-de-force in the first act pitting the cardinal’s guards against the King’s Musketeers, aided by d’Artagnan and Sabine. Another is between Jen Bergum’s evil Milady and Skafte’s unbeatable Sabine where blows and slashes of the sword are exchanged in a masterfully choreographed duel.
About half the music cues in the show could be slashed as the volume at times competes with projection from the actors during dialogue, but there are times when the sound accents the action of the play.
The Three Musketeers has a little something for everybody. Well executed fight scenes, a love story, comedic relief, devious deeds, and heroic acts pull the story together enough to make it an enjoyable night out for holiday time theatre. Where the adaptation by Ken Ludwig takes away from the intensity and depth of the story, actors, by force of talent and action, manage to relay the major themes on stage to the delight of the Playhouse audience.
The Three Musketeers. By Ken Ludwig. Novel by Alexandre Dumas. Directed by Cal Metts at The Duluth Playhouse. December 3-20, Wednesday-Friday 7:30 p.m. curtain. Saturday 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. curtain. Sunday matinee performances at 2 p.m. 506 W. Michigan St., Duluth. Tickets $15-$23. This review is based on the Sunday, December 6 performance. Reviewed by Dennis Kempton for Oeuvre Magazine.
Oeuvre Magazine, Duluth & Superior’s Arts and literature Web magazine.