The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s (PSF) annual duo of plays in repertory usually includes a Shakespeare and something else that draws better sales. Rotating on their large Festival Stage using the same set and actors, this method offers a rare opportunity to see PSF’s increasingly adept company of actors rise to the challenge while offering an affordable way to produce Shakespeare, which apparently doesn’t sell well enough for a full run.
Forgive my cynicism. Economic realities are nothing to scoff at. PSF’s musicals (this year, Evita) and other entertainments such as The Hound of the Baskervilles (June 21 to July 16) and The Three Musketeers, help pay for Shakespeare’s As You Like It (July 20 to August 6, in repertory with The Three Musketeers) and Troilus and Cressida (July 26 to August 6). While one might wish the “Official Shakespeare Festival of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania” better lived up to its name, we should be thankful for what we get, especially when it's produced as well as The Three Musketeers.
Ken Ludwig — best known for farces Lend Me a Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo, which opens at People’s Light & Theatre Company this week — adapts Alexandre Dumas’s 1844 novel. Set in 1625 France, it’s a story familiar from hundreds of stage and screen versions. Ludwig’s jokey script is written like an action film: brief scenes provide exposition (including a musical recap to start Act II) and character development gets reduced to shorthand to make way for fights.
And what fights! Director Rick Sordelet, an internationally acclaimed fight choreographer, and his son Christian Kelly-Sordelet stage the show’s 10 spectacular swordfights. Some include as many as 12 simultaneous combatants, plus the rest of the violence perpetrated through punches, kicks, head blows, choking, stabbing, whipping, shooting, grappling, and poisoning. It’s all accomplished by a game-for-anything cast who never falter on Brian Sidney Bembridge’s imposing, flexible set of moving scaffolds, beautifully lit by Masha Tsimring. Samantha Fleming’s sumptuous period costumes contain a leathery hint of Game of Thrones. Just like an action movie, some fights are enhanced with music (by Alexander Sovronsky) and they’re exhilarating, not brutal.
Sordelet taught my college stage-combat class in the year mumblemumble, and what I vividly recall was a tireless and caring young teacher who believed stage violence should feel real — both because of believable moves and sincere acting. Safety was also paramount. He’s built a great career on those core values.
Sean Patrick Higgins plays D’Artagnan, the impetuous young man who wants to join the legendary trio of do-gooders, played by Zack Robidas (Porthos), Ian Merrill Peakes (Athos), and Sobronsky (Aramis). They excel beyond the script’s broad characterizations with sincere, witty performances. Ludwig updates the story by adding D’Artagnan’s sister Sabine (Stephanie Hodge), who’s his swordfighting equal but also a young lady. “Being a girl in the 17th century is not much fun,” she says. Paul Kiernan makes a deliciously evil Cardinal Richelieu, served by Stella Baker’s stealthy Milady and John Keabler’s hapless Rochefort. Dan Hodge plays a mincing King Louis XIII, with Marnie Schulenburg as Queen Anne, whose dalliance with the English Buckingham (also Keabler) drives the musketeers’ “pure and true cause” to block the cardinal from exposing her infidelity.
Don’t think too much about the ethical problems in that plot point. Even serious thoughts, like Athos’s sentiment that “Love leads to death, darkness, and the end of hope,” are punchlines — and, just as in any good action movie, there’s no time between fights to ponder. Ludwig connects the plot’s many points in an ending crescendo punctuated with an instrumental version of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” and — like all good action movies — even sets up a sequel.
While The Three Musketeers has Shakespearean proportions, no one will confuse Ludwig’s script with anything written by the Bard. That’s made obvious when, in the opening scene, D’Artagnan’s father (Esau Pritchett) intones, “It takes courage to be yourself,” as exposition is provided by the shovelful. Nevertheless, it’s a fun counterpart to the same great cast playing As You Like It, which, unlike The Three Musketeers, soars with some of theater’s most memorable funny-yet-profound dialogue.