‘The Count of Monte Cristo,” opening at the Spokane Civic Theatre this week, is one of the most famous stories in the entire history of literature.
Let’s quantify that:
• It has been adapted 29 times for film and TV – including the current loosely adapted TV series, “Revenge.”
• It was the most popular novel published in Europe when it came out in 1844 – more popular even than author Alexandre Dumas’ other claim to fame, “The Three Musketeers.” It has never gone out of print for 168 years.
• “The Simpsons” spoofed it in an episode called “The Count of Monte Fatso.”
• It has a particularly delicious sandwich named after it. Top that.
Yet the Dumas story, with its classic themes of swashbuckling revenge, is only one of the extraordinary things about the Spokane Civic Theatre’s production. This is a massive undertaking of theatrical logistics.
• The set by David Baker is a three-level array of marble columns, with three revolving turntables.
• Costume designer Jan Wanless and her crew have made nearly 100 costumes for a cast of 18 men and six women, covering French styles from 1815 to 1838.
• It is NOT a musical, but it requires two choreographers: A dance choreographer for a key waltz scene and a fight choreographer to carefully plot out the swordfights and other tussles.
• The cast has its own French coach, Olivia Caulliez, of Lewis and Clark High School, for pronouncing all of the names and places correctly.
• It has a stunning array of period props, including two dueling pistols made from scratch by technical director Peter Hardie. Yeah, they really do go “bang.”
Director Yvonne A.K. Johnson sums it all up as she walks backstage: “Not bad for a community theater, eh?”
Actually, it would be beyond the grasp of most community theaters. But the Civic is the rare community theater with a healthy budget and a full-time paid technical and artistic staff. Yet even for the Civic, “The Count of Monte Cristo” was no slam-dunk.
“I’ve wanted to do this ever since I came to Spokane,” said Johnson, who is also the Civic’s executive artistic director. “I’ve always been intrigued by the story. Finally, I felt we were in a healthy position artistically and financially to produce this.”
It certainly helped that Johnson found the right stage adaptation. “The Count of Monte Cristo” had been adapted dozens of times, including by Dumas himself and by Orson Welles for radio. Yet Charles Morey’s 1998 adaptation has been praised by critic Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal as particularly “thrilling from swash to buckle.” He said it rattles along “at near cinematic speed.”
Johnson said Morey cuts quickly from scene to scene – there are 25 scenes in all.
It also helps that Johnson felt that she had a strong ensemble ready to take on the acting challenge. Paul Villabrille, a proven Civic leading man, takes the lead role of Edmond Dantes. Damon Mentzer plays Eugene Danglars, Dalin Tipton plays Fernand Mondego, Chris Taylor plays Gerard de Villefort, Nancy Gasper plays Mercedes and Peter Hardie (yes, the pistol-maker) plays Abbe Faria.
Even though this is one of the best-known stories in the world, it’s worth recapping briefly: Young Edmond Dantes, sailor and ship captain, is betrayed by three men and is unjustly condemned to life in prison. After 14 years, he escapes with the help of fellow prisoner Abbe Faria. Faria dies, but not before he tells Dantes the location of a cache of buried treasure on an island called Monte Cristo.
Dantes finds the treasure and proceeds to hunt down and take revenge on the men who put him in jail. He takes a series of aliases, including Count of Monte Cristo, and extracts his revenge in ingenious ways. But does his revenge go too far?
Johnson said she hopes audiences will ask themselves one key question: “As a society, do we want revenge? Or do we want justice?”
She said the story resonates with elemental themes: revenge, obsession, love, justice and redemption.
“It is so full of symbolism, but in the end, all that matters is forgiveness,” Johnson said. “In the end, forgiveness is all you can ask for.”