The Swordplay’s the Thing

Shotgun Players keep The Three Musketeers condensed and tidy without sacrificing the sword fights.

When you go to see The Three Musketeers, you have to figure some buckles are going to get swashed. There’s a satisfying amount of swordplay in the stage version of the 1844 novel by Alexandre Dumas père, adapted and directed by Joanie McBrien for Shotgun Players’ free summer show in John Hinkel Park, but there also may be more to the story than you remember.

Joel Frangquist’s simple, compact set is placed as far back as possible to allow plenty of room for melees. A good thing, too, because in this show people start swinging their swords at the drop of a hat, and some of the more elaborate fights take place when nothing’s at stake but an unadvised remark. The show begins with a proclamation outlawing dueling that draws contemptuous laughter from the titular musketeers — because really, without all the swordplay, what would The Three Musketeers be about?

More than you might recall, as it turns out. Whereas many adaptations focus primarily on the first part of the book and the affair of the necklace, the McBrien version attempts to hit the highlights from beginning to end. It goes into the histories of the treacherous Milady de Winter, the musketeers’ motivations, even the Protestant rebellion, and it goes to some very dark places along the way. It gives a good sense of the epic sweep of Dumas’ sprawling adventure yarn, but it also rounds the bases in a hurry.

Characters stroll through briefly in many short, utilitarian scenes to move the story along, all the more striking in their brevity because fight scenes incidental to the story are given equal time simply because they’re fun. Nobody’s going to complain that a Three Musketeers has too much swordplay, and the fights choreographed by Dave Maier are fast-paced and often dizzyingly complex. They’re also fairly tidy, in that the enemy withdraws quickly and politely when defeated so that we can move on to the next thing.

Condensing so much story also necessitates some streamlining and simplification, from the father’s advice at the beginning to the fate of Milady at the end. Rather than being eliminated one by one along the way to D’Artagnan’s errand in England, the musketeers never even make it out of the tavern where they first heard he was leaving.

Janice Koprowski’s elegant period costumes, certain flourishes of the dialogue, and scene structure sometimes give the proceedings a faux-Shakespearean air, and the setting in Cal Shakes’ old stomping grounds doesn’t hurt. Some moments feel inspired by the many movie adaptations, such as a bit of comic business at the ball reminiscent of the 1973 Richard Lester film. Many of the best moments, however, are straight from the book, such as Porthos’ rationale for dueling: “I am going to fight — because I am going to fight.”

The minimal musical accompaniment by sound designer Chris Broderick on a variety of wind instruments and Angela Hsu on violin is particularly effective in ushering in scenes and characters, but it competes with the dialogue when it underscores key scenes for dramatic effect.

The cast plays it considerably larger than life, never a bad idea when performing outdoors. Ryan Montgomery is a humorously cocky, almost loutish D’Artagnan, the wannabe musketeer, which contrasts him nicely with the somewhat more courtly “Three Inseparables” of the title: Dave Maier moody but comradely as Athos, Eric Burns amusing as the preening Porthos, and Gabe Weiss a mild-mannered Aramis.

Dennis McIntyre gives a smug air of upper-crust indulgence to the scheming Cardinal Richelieu that’s quite effective, although his long pauses slacken the pace. Fontana Butterfield aptly embodies the poise, contempt, seductiveness, and deadly venom of Milady de Winter, nicely contrasted with James Hiser’s sneering Comte de Rochefort, always nearly combusting with rage.

Marissa Keltie seems more young and willful than regal as Queen Anne, but she’s quite convincing when struggling to restrain her passion or to conceal despair behind an unflinching smile. Carson Creecy is quite funny as a peevish prat of a king, and Dan Bruno is nearly swallowed by his hats as D’Artagnan’s father and as musketeer captain De Treville, but his Lord Buckingham has a twinkle of roguishness underlying his nobility.

Meghan Doyle’s bright Constance manages refreshingly to break out of damsel-in-distress mode for a moment to kick some ass. Although stiff as a captain of the cardinal’s guards, Carla Pantoja is unexpectedly sympathetic as Milady’s spying servant Kitty. The doubling of roles is sometimes confusing, particularly without immediate visual cues that, say, Hiser is now an English guard rather than Rochefort, or that the people escorting Constance to safety are not supposed to be the same people who tried to kidnap her.

Covering so much ground in two and a half hours, some memorable moments from the book inevitably get short shrift here, but it’s hard to argue with such a lively afternoon of intrigue and derring-do, especially for free in such an idyllic setting.

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