Kit Wilder's adaptation of The Three Musketeers, now through April 19, 2009 at City Lights Theater Company in San Jose, has lots of swordfights, mountains of heaving cleavage and so much self-conscious, fourth-wall-shattering irony that the entire undertaking teeters on the smug. It's a noisy affair that delights in its ability to send great masses of saber-wielding actors, clad in big boots, funny hats and poofy costumes, sprinting to all four corners of the theater to fight each other with swords, knives and fists. There's even a rope swing to help speed the action along. In short, The Three Musketeers is the stage equivalent of your basic Hollywood popcorn movie, except without the popcorn.
Along the way, some rather fine acting manages to cut through the cartoonish bluster and fighting as highpoints of the Alexandre Dumas classic are briefly touched upon. Would that Wilder had budgeted more time for his actors and the story they are trying to tell.
The play opens with great fanfare and ceremony. As the entire cast assembles itself before us on the stage, the imperious Duke of Buckingham (Charles McKeithan) proclaims the wonders that we are about to enjoy. There's just one problem: The lead actor is drunk and has not yet arrived. "The show must go on!" cries one gung-ho thespian. "Oh please," growls another in disgust. Before we know it, a stagehand in contemporary street clothes (Thomas Gorrebeeck) is recruited to perform the role of young D'Artagnan of Gascony, the future fourth Musketeer. Before he knows it, he's traded his 21st-century shoes for 17th-century boots, a sword is strapped to his body and a script is thrust into his hands. He reads: "A tavern on the road to Paris." And with that, our hero has his first scrape with his eye-patched nemesis, Comte de Rochefort (Ron Talbot).
This should be great fun, and it often is, but Wilder overplays the gimmick, especially in the first act, when even the actors appear to grow impatient with the rookie in their midst by shouting out, often in unison, page numbers in the script for Gorrebeeck/D'Artagnan to turn to. For his part, Gorrebeeck does a good job of juggling the script and his "real" props, but his character is not given much acting to do. For far too long, he careens through the play as its victim, and the attempts to give D'Artagnan the opportunity to evolve are mostly limited to his costume, which, in a nice touch, improves throughout the first act until he is fully costumed by the second.
Wilder's conceit of a fish out of water (country bumpkin D'Artagnan in Paris) played by a fish out of water (the recruited stagehand) is tiresome not just because so much of the action on stage is calculated to call our attention to it, over and over again. No, the problem is that the time all this repetition consumes comes at the expense of the story. For example, in the first act there is little hint that the hard-drinking Musketeer Athos (played by Wilder himself) has any connection at all to the wicked Milady de Winter (Vera Sloan). About the only times we encounter de Winter are when she's loitering around Cardinal Richelieu's (Michael J. West) office. But the second act largely belongs to the tale of Athos and de Winter, so the lack of cleverly disguised foreshadowing seems like a missed opportunity.
The attention lavished on Gorrebeeck's twin personas and the time spent on the seemingly endless swordfights also comes at the expense of character development. The only Musketeer with any depth is the one Wilder plays, Athos. Putting away the swords and prop-script device for a moment, Wilder revisits the scene made famous by Oliver Reed in the 1973 film version of the story, in which Athos tells D'Artagnan the haunting tale of his past relationship with a woman who was so duplicitous that he felt he had no choice but to kill her. So that's why he drinks, we think. It would have been nice to get to know Porthos (a hilarious John Romano) and Aramis (meticulously played by George Psarras) just as well.
All that said, The Three Musketeers has its moments, and the large cast practically ensures that at least a few of the standout performances will come from unexpected places. George S. Gemette's turn as the leering and lustful landlord Bonacieux is especially good. Sam Krow-Lucal makes the most of his scenes as D'Artagnan's servant, Planchet. And Joshua Marx surprises us when his Felton, a pious servant to Buckingham, all but steals his scene with Sloan, who cleverly uses the lad's religious backbone to seduce him. For her part, Sloan shines like a polished poison apple throughout the second act, and Lucinda Dobson as Kitty, de Winter's conflicted lady in waiting, is the perfect guileless counterpart to her conniving mistress.
The Three Musketeers runs through April 19, 2009 at City Lights Theater Company in San Jose. For tickets and information, visit cltc.org.