(Topanga, California) Famed French author Alexander Dumas helped deliver one of the world’s most popular phrases in “All for one and one for all!” when he wrote and published The Three Musketeers during the 17th century. Of course, there was much more to the novel’s storyline than four exuberant characters running around France and uttering in unison a catchy yet idealistic and fantastical phrase. Stage actor-director Ellen Geer wholeheartedly attempts to bring much of that substance to the forefront in her rendition of The Three Musketeers, which is now at Topanga Canyon’s Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum through October 3rd and features a strong supporting cast, with Jackson McCord Thompson, Jim LeFave, Kelly C. Henton, Melora Marshall, Abby Craden and Willow Geer in leading roles.
In making its world premiere at the Will Geer, Ellen Geer’s The Three Musketeers has all the visages and highlights one would expect from one of Dumas’s most oft-told tales. However, what separates Geer’s adaptation from other theatrical renditions of the popular European novel of brotherhood and chivalry is its ability to bring the densest of stories to life without sacrificing storytelling, acting or intellect.
To be sure, to whittle any of Dumas’s heavy tales to a mere three-hour stage spectacle is a daunting task in and of itself. Naturally, many playwrights will highlight only the broadest aspects of his stories, eliminating many of Dumas’s finer nuances that have great literary value but struggle to hold their value when it comes to performing arts.
With The Three Musketeers, for example, most productions primarily focus on the greater plot of the story’s four main characters — Aramis, Athos, Porthos and d’Artagnan — and their adventurous travails through Europe. Common themes such as camaraderie, youth, swordsmanship and malice abound. Most portrayals of the Dumas classic intertwine the journey of the Musketeers with the politics of their day, including fateful battles with the French throne and a treacherous spy in Milady.
In Geer’s adaptation, however, Aramis (Marshall), Athos (LeFave), Porthos (Henton) and d’Artagnan (Thompson) slightly deviate from the beaten path and instead find themselves in a much more heated battle with Milady. As such, Geer’s adaptation of The Three Musketeers is less about the story’s sensational aspects — such as swordplay and a heated battle between the four men and high members of the French throne — and more about the cunning, conniving and manipulative Milady.
By shifting the attention toward the story’s most powerful female character, Geer’s adaptation of the French novel has some very real and intentional consequences — Milady herself becomes the crux of the story and the driving force of the production’s mood and spirit.
Naturally, in true Dumas form, Geer’s version of The Three Musketeers is as swashbuckling an adventure as ever, taking audiences on a daring thrill ride typical of any of the French novelist’s tales, such as The Count of Monte Cristo or The Man in the Iron Mask. There are no fewer than three all-encompassing sword battles on stage at the Theatricum Botanicum. (While those sword battles are difficult to follow because so many are going on at the same time, the meeting of steel weapons is rather entertaining and never gets old.)
Also, there is a fair share of gut-busting laughs to be had, whether it be a comedic dialogue among d’Artagnan and the Musketeers, the occasional flirtatious banter between d’Artagnan and Constance (Willow Geer), or a few lighthearted interactions between King Louis XII (Wiesen) and the four protagonists.
Yet, most telling is the production’s ability to shift the story’s focus away from what most people commonly know about it and instead redirect their attention to the position of women and the history of the day. On the one hand, Geer does a phenomenal job of narrating the spiritual clash that dominated England and France during the 1600s. Indeed, there were strong overtones at key aspects of the Geer production, pitting Catholics and Protestants against each other — especially in the play’s final moments, when the fates of Milady and the Musketeers are revealed to the audience, and religion dictates the manner in which justice is rendered.
Conversely, adding substantive value to the role of Milady (Craden) is perhaps the most significant change in the Geer rendition of The Three Musketeers. Instead of making her a tertiary character who is apparently limited to spending her days as a philanderer, Geer increased the stakes and tried to keep the character as true to Dumas’ vision as possible. Accordingly, Milady was a shrewd women who knew how to manipulatively play her cards to her advantage at almost every turn, affecting the course of governments and religious entities with ease.
With that, while not evident during the early stages of the production (as to allow the other aspects of the story to develop), Milady’s evilness was on full display throughout the play’s final scenes and acts. Her treachery and manipulation was not to be reckoned with — and the audience gets to both see and feel these negative characteristics develop and flourish over the course of the production.
Accordingly, such a deep character required an actress up to the challenge, and no doubt Craden filled those big shoes with apparent ease. When the audience witnesses her final judgment during the production’s climactic scene, they are eagerly rooting against her. Such heartfelt emotion against a character is not only real for the audience but also the result of an actress in Craden who successfully developed and executed Milady’s arc in the most emphatic of performances.
The depth Craden brought to Milady was balanced by Thompson, who was equally believable as the naïve and romantically eager d’Artagnan. Collectively, Craden and Thompson stole the show and set the tone for the remainder of the large cast.
Willow Geer was rather pleasing as Constance, while Marshall deserves as many thumbs-up as humanly possible for crossing gender lines and portraying Aramis in a way that one quickly forgets they are watching a woman portray a man. Meanwhile, Henton adds some colorful flavor in his rendition of Porthos, and William Dennis Hunt was first-rate as Cardinal Richelieu. Finally, Wiesen was memorable as King Louis XIII, and Samara Frame stands out as Queen Anne.
One of the better adaptations of The Three Musketeers, Ellen Geer stays as true to Dumas’s vision as possible without sacrificing substance.
The production comes to life each week at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum through October 3rd. For specific dates, including the outdoor theater’s Friday dinner and a play promotion centered around this production and ticket prices, please visit the venue’s website.