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Double-Edged Swords

August 15, 2007

Musketeers' repetitive duels are one like all and all like one

In his book Swashbuckling: A Step-by-Step Guide to the Art of Stage Combat and Theatrical Swordplay, author Richard Lane says, "The best stage fights ... are fueled by life itself: Those experiences shared by actors and audience." Lane isn't suggesting that the average person's daily existence is fraught with fisticuffs (though depending on where you live in the world, fighting might be as germane to survival as food and shelter). Rather, his Methodlike approach sees theatrical tussles as being rooted in our most basic reactions to disputes — from the way our blood pressure, pulse rate, and respiration go into spasms when we feel threatened to our habit of curling our fingers into fists. The urge to tear an adversary to pieces should spring from deep within us. The motives for action should be clear.

t's hard to imagine a story more obsessed with the impulses underlying human aggression than Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers. Originally conceived as a serialized novel in 1844 but adapted for stage and screen countless times ever since, the intricate plot concerns d'Artagnan, a provincial, wannabe musketeer (the 17th-century French equivalent of a Jedi Knight or samurai), and his adventures with accomplished men-at-arms Porthos, Athos, and Aramis — also known as the Three Musketeers. Packed with duels, bar brawls, and battles, Dumas' bloodthirsty novel covers practically every motive for drawing a weapon there is: defending a lady's honor, avenging the death of a friend, assassinating an enemy, chastising infidels for their wayward beliefs — you name it, it's all in the book.

Intricate swordplay is central to Shotgun Players' ambitious adaptation of the novel for the outdoor stage — both physically and metaphorically. Let's start with the latter. One of the sharpest aspects of this otherwise lolloping production is co-adaptor/director Joanie McBrien's interest in presenting the good and bad sides of the characters in equal measure. You could say that each one of them — from the heroic Musketeers to the sly Milady de Winter — is a double-edged sword. Far from being entirely virtuous (as these mercenaries are so often depicted on stage and screen), they have their faults. Eric Burns' Falstafflike Porthos is vain and gluttonous. He spends his entire time on stage sashaying about in a loud, pink brocade cape and wondering when he'll get his next drink or tussle with a rich widow. Athos (a hotheaded Dave Maier, who also serves as the production's fight director) is an indiscriminate killer. He shows no mercy even to innocent bystanders. And Dave Weiss' ascetic Aramis is a devout hypocrite. Meanwhile, Fontana Butterfield gives the devious, double-crossing Milady a no-nonsense side. She brings a flashy duel scene to a smart conclusion by taking out her opponent with a single crack of the hilt of her dagger.

If only the rest of the action matched up to this brief moment of wit, suave swordsmanship, and psychological depth. I lost count of the number of fight scenes in the production. There must be around 20 at least. The entire cast, it seems, has been studying hard to nail those thrusts and parries, for all 14 actors (with the exception of one) get to cross swords at some point or other during the 2 1/2-hour show. Yet the "life" that Lane talks about in his book is largely lacking from the production's many fight scenes.

It's unfair to be overly critical of the cast's martial efforts. For one thing, it takes years to learn how to wield a rapier on stage like you mean it. For another, the theater (and the open-air theater, in particular) poses special challenges for making fights look dangerous and arresting. With the aid of editing techniques and special effects, these sequences generally come across more viscerally in movies. To mitigate issues further, a previous injury to one of Shotgun's actors had forced the director and cast members to readjust some of the fight scenes the afternoon I caught the show. Yet from the first skirmish to the last, it's hard to stay involved with the action. With the exception of one or two inspired moves, such as one character's swinging from a beam above the door in the back of the makeshift set to kick his opponent in the chest, the combat sequences become predictable after a while. Each one is fought with the same level of enthusiasm and pedantic determination as its predecessor. Forget "One for all and all for one." "One like all and all like one" would be more accurate.

Judging by the stage directions, McBrien (and her co-adaptor Dave Garrett) intended more variety in the swordplay. The outline for the opening bout between the Musketeers and the scheming Cardinal Richelieu's henchmen promises to put us on the edge of our seats: "This first fight should show all the specific characteristics of the Musketeers," they write. "Porthos in particular should use a fight move with his lavish cloak — he is all about style, grandeur. Aramis: would love him to use the 'Aramis' dagger at a key point in the fight. Athos is the street fighter. The style of the Cardinal's men should be mathematical. By the book, yet also deadly."

If the actors were utilizing different combat styles, they were lost on me. In general, what comes across is a deliberate forward-and-backward motion accompanied by clanking swords, intermittent grunts and groans, and the occasional keeling over of a corpse. The fights appear workmanlike because they often seem unmotivated. The actors appear to be going through the motions without quite knowing why. It neither helps the thrill factor any that the dialogue is, for the most part, as stilted as the dueling ("Enough! I will not have this haunting of vile places, this quarreling in the street! The Cardinal's men are respectful and they do not suffer the indignity of surrender," etc.) nor that the fight scenes are underpinned by an underwhelming musical accompaniment. Critics used to make fun of Royal Shakespeare Company productions in the late 20th century for constantly staging battle scenes against the backdrop of thunderous trumpets and drums. But at least brass and percussion are warlike. There's nothing aggressive about the combination of a warbling flute and scratchy violin.

It's curious that The Three Musketeers should miss its target so widely, given the fact that Shotgun Players knows a thing or two about how to stage a damn good scrap. Maier is a skilled fight director, and his razor-edged work on the company's firecracker production of Cyrano de Bergerac a couple of summers ago is a case in point. But as far as this show is concerned, some of the fight sequences might be better excised. Or maybe it's a question of inspiring the actors to get in touch with their own aggressive impulses more deeply, as Lane suggests, to make the rapier-work truly come alive.



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