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6/9/2024        KEN LUDWIG’S THE THREE MUSKETEERS        Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse


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I have to confess a long-standing affection for The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 tale of derring-do, betrayal, honor, villainy, friendship, and valor.  I am (indeed) a rabid fan of Richard Lester’s 1973 movie version (completed a year later with The Four Musketeers) featuring the Michael York hack-and-slash school of swordplay.  So, it was with great anticipation that I ventured Tavern-ward for its summer Shakes-near production of Ken Ludwig’s The Three Musketeers


Don’t get me wrong, I have appreciated many of Mr. Ludwig’s farces, and have even raved about a couple of them (The Games Afoot, The Fox on the Fairway, and Baskerville as noted examples).  I’ve even found occasions to praise revivals of the oft-performed Lend me a Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo.


But I can’t lose the nagging suspicion that Mr. Ludwig’s talent, as great as it is, is a pale shadow of his ego.  This feeling struck me when I saw a documentary on the Broadway production of Moon Over Buffalo, in which this cocky young playwright screams at CAROL FREAKING BURNETT about her lesser sense of comedy! To her credit, Ms. Burnett remains tight-lipped and professional, acknowledges Mr. Ludwig’s note and incorporates it into her performance.  I guess some people have class and some don’t.

Which brings me to the observation that ALL of Mr. Ludwig’s plays must now carry his name in their official title, hence Ken Ludwig’s The Three Musketeers.  I’m not sure he deserves that honor now, but I can easily see him earning it one day, if the virtues of plays like Baskerville and The Game’s Afoot are repeated and improved upon.


Ken Ludwig’s The Three Musketeers is not that play, though it is a very good fit for the strengths of the troupe at Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse, who have delivered a marvelously energetic more-than production of what is, in the final analysis, a less-than script.


Just to recap the plot for those few of you who may have missed its thousand iterations and adaptations, it is 1625 (2 years after the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio, just to add some context).   D’Artagnan is a young man from the “sticks” (Gascoyne, to be specific), whose father sends him to Paris to join the Musketeers, the elite troupe of professional soldiers tasked with protecting King Louis XIII and his (somewhat reluctant) queen, Anne of Austria.  Along the way, pride and misfortune lead to challenges, three duels with (serendipity alert) Porthos, Athos, and Aramis, the three Musketeers of fame and chocolate bars.  He is able to hold his own and is soon recruited to help them in their efforts to save Queen Anne from her own bad decisions.


Did I mention the duplicitous Cardinal Richelieu, the one-eyed Rochefort, the sinister Madame Milady de Winter?  Well, it wouldn’t be a swashbuckler without villains, would it?  Did I mention the comely Constance Bonacieux?  There must be a love interest and a damsel in distress, mustn’t there?  Did I mention D’Artagnan’s sister, Sabine?


What?  You didn’t know D’Artagnan had a sister, Sabine,  whom he is tasked to bring safely to a convent school in Paris, who is a tomboy through and through and who just may be a better with the sword than her brother?   Apparently neither did Dumas.


This is all couched in an energetic display of Tavern-Standard dazzle and swordplay and battles and energy and character.  It is swashbuckling on a Shakespearean scale!  This is a delight for families hesitant to bring the young’n’s to more Elizabethan/Jacobean fare.  And this is a rapturous joy for just about anyone who is not familiar with Dumas (or, for that matter, Richard Lester).


What I missed here was the depth of Dumas’ characters, the fervent loyalty to one side or the other, the character beneath the heroics.  Yes, Ludwig checks all the boxes – Athos’ early marriage and his wife’s betrayal, Richelieu plotting against the king, Milady de Winter delighting in duplicity and betrayal.  But it’s all surface, nothing that’s new or interesting or not available in ALL the other adaptations of this plot.  What I missed here were characterizations deeper than King Louis’ fey incompetence, Richelieu’s mustache-twirling villainy.  Where was the bottomless well of Milady DeWinter’s evil? (She just comes across as spoiled and cranky) Where was the passion between Queen Anne and the Duke of Buckingham?  (They have few scenes together and no apparent affection for each other.)  All the machinations were pure plot-point contrivance, none from any deeply structured characterization.


Now, this approach may be fine for a pull-out-the-stops farce, such as in most of Mr. Ludwig’s other work.  But here, with a deficit of desperation, a dearth of doors to slam, no lingerie on public display, and, let’s be honest, hardly any comedy at all, it left me feeling, well, unsatisfied.   Even Mr. Ludwig’s invented character, Sabine, has little to do other than fall in love with Athos.  Couldn’t he have given her an opportunity to prove her mettle against the metal of one the villains?  A climactic duel betwixt Sabine and Milady de Winter would have been so juicy and effective! 


For that matter, Ludwig’s Baskerville and The Games Afoot work because his adaptations go “outside the box” of the originals, choosing new characters and situations and moods.  Here, he sticks (perhaps too) closely to Dumas’ plot points, letting Sabine “out in the cold” as a character. Think how fresh his play would have been if he had made her the central character, made this HER story!


So, when the deaths come (and, if you know the plot, they do), they land with little or no impact, because Ludwig has forgotten to give us a reason to care about those who fall.  I suspect he himself doesn’t really care for them.


Ah, but this cast!   Daryel T. Monson (Pericles earlier this year) was a wide-eyed and stalwart D’Artagnan, a young firecracker fueled by ambition and talent (not to mention a nice hack-and-slash panache with his sword).   Anna Holland is terrific as Sabine, showing depths of character not evident in Mr. Ludwig’s scenario.  As the titular musketeers, Benedetto Robinson (Athos), O’Neil Delapenha (Porthos), and (last year’s Robin Hood) Kevin Roost (Athos) are all for one and one for all, a smooth-running ensemble of characters and heroics, whose verbal interplay may be their sharpest weapons.  Samantha Lancaster is a perfidious Milady, Gabi Anderson is a winsome Constance, and Imani Joseph is a nicely clueless Queen Anne, but, again, I wish Mr. Ludwig had given them more dimension.  Falling completely flat (for me) was Adam King’s Richelieu, who was more a stock melodrama villain than a clever and scheming political player. Vinnie Mascola was terrific in a dual role as D’Artagnan (and Sabine’s) father and as M. de Tréville, commander of the Musketeers. Jake West was a hoot as the fey King Louis, as was Tyren Duncan as the one-eyed Rochefort who actually shows a modicum of dimension and integrity by play’s end.


Ensemble members Skyler Brown, Mary Ruth Ralston, and Rachel Frawley filled a few minor roles, but, more significantly, played live musical accompaniment throughout (all composed beautifully by Rivka Levin). 


But Fight Choreographers The Guinn Twins (Darby and Jake) are the true heroes here.  Starting from the get-go with an energetic faux battle as the Gascoyne family trains together, the fights are the real reason to see this.  The choreography is elegant, vicious, frenetic, and totally memorable.  Andrew Houchins directs his on-stage, off-stage, musical, and design ensembles beautifully, giving us a Three Musketeers that is a lot more enjoyable than it deserves to be, a total treat for eye and ear (if not mind or heart).


So, if this had been a faithful adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, or even a screen-to-stage version of Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers, I would be second to none in my praise.  But this is Ken Ludwig’s The Three Musketeers, and, IMHO, it is just a little bit lacking. 


    --  Brad Rudy  (   #ShakespeareTavernPlayhouse    #ThreeMusketeers

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