In all of 19th-century French literature, Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 novel “The Three Musketeers” might be the most frequently imitated, referenced and translated. Cinematic and theatrical adaptations have been produced since the early 1900s, and more people are familiar with the Musketeers’ “all for one, one for all” motto than have actually read Dumas’ original text. Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d’Artagnan remain indelible literary figures, larger-than-life symbols of adventure, rebellion and liberty.
Ken Ludwig’s stage adaptation of “The Three Musketeers,” which was originally commissioned by Britain’s Bristol Old Vic theater company in 2006, is a solid introduction to anyone unfamiliar with the content of Dumas’ novel, especially for younger viewers. He’s an expert at converting famous literary properties into goofy, easily digestible entertainments: He also turned Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” into a crowd-pleasing musical, and Spokane’s Civic Theatre produced his version of “Treasure Island” last year.
As directed by William Marlowe for Civic, Ludwig’s “Musketeers” plays out like one of those old Classics Illustrated comic books or a live-action recreation of a Disney cartoon. The swordfights come thick and fast, the plot is spelled out in big, bold strokes and the humor is very broad – pratfalls, slapstick and mugging are part of the game. But like “Treasure Island,” this is all in good fun – a slick, colorful, high-energy production.
The script more or less follows the same beats as Dumas’ book, but it blows through them at a breathless pace. It begins in 17th-century France as wide-eyed, excitable d’Artagnan (Maxim Chumov) leaves his provincial farming village to become a Musketeer of the Guard in Paris. With his younger sister Sabine (Stephannie Gerard) – a character entirely of Ludwig’s invention – d’Artagnan stops at an inn and almost immediately starts a fight with the scarred Rochefort (Stephen Holcomb), an agent of the devious Cardinal Richelieu (Jeremy Lindholm).
It’s around this point that we’re introduced to the titular Musketeers – the meditative Athos (Daniel McKeever), the flamboyant Porthos (Platon Hogan) and the pious Aramis (Bryan Durbin, who also served as the show’s fight choreographer) – each of whom d’Artagnan challenges to a duel. They end up, of course, banding together to destroy the cardinal, who will stop short of nothing to topple the reign of self-absorbed King Louis XIII (Phoenix Tage).
The plot of “The Three Musketeers” is pretty busy – there’s a lengthy subplot involving a missing necklace belonging to the unfaithful queen (Jennie Oliver), and then there’s the matter of the battle between the King’s troops and the Huguenots – and it’s heavy on romance, violence, deception and buried secrets. It’s never convoluted, however, as Ludwig keeps d’Artagnan, his ambition to become a Musketeer and his chaste romance with the queen’s lady-in-waiting, Constance (Christa LaVoie), firmly at the center of the play.
While Ludwig’s plotting is strong, his control of sentiment really isn’t. As the religious tensions of France intensify and the cardinal’s grasps for power become more cutthroat, there’s no real sense of danger, mainly because Ludwig is more concerned (and perhaps more comfortable) with setting up jokes than sculpting characters we can really latch onto. When the tragic consequences of the plot rear their heads, the grasp at emotion doesn’t feel earned.
Because of that, the show’s broadest moments are its best, and the Civic’s production manages to sidestep the script’s shortcomings with sheer energy. It’s a surprisingly funny show, and of the huge cast, the most impressive performances come from the most cartoonish roles – Lindholm as the dastardly Richelieu, Tage as the oblivious, mincing king, Hogan as Porthos, a self-professed “slave to fashion.” They seem to be having the most fun, and Chumov, making his Civic debut, has to carry a lot of the show himself and pulls it off.
So why do the Three Musketeers still hold an allure for modern audiences? Along with Robin Hood, they’re the ultimate swashbucklers, and they represent a more exciting, romantic time. Marlowe has talked about his childhood fascination with the Musketeers, bounding about the house like a Musketeer, and that heedless adolescent zeal comes through in his direction. Go in with the right attitude, and “The Three Musketeers” might bring out your inner d’Artagnan.