Saturday, September 24, 2016

Don't know much about history, or swordfighting? No matter, as Indiana Repertory Theatre opens with "The Three Musketeers"

Stage combat has a way of distracting me, but only momentarily. When it is well done, as it is in Indiana
A "Three Musketeers" swordfight: You'll put the nagging question aside.
Repertory Theatre's
new production of "The Three Musketeers," the question keeps popping up: "How do they do that?"

In magic shows, that's part of the entertainment, the wonder of the genre. Watching a drama with fight episodes is a different matter. If the question keeps nagging at you, you're of course removing yourself from the dramatic illusion you should be embedded within.

It's funny that technical wizardry, which may be even more mysterious to the outsider, rarely poses this problem. Consider Ann G. Wrightson's lighting design for this show, the way it seems to mold figures sculpturally. It's lighting that gives extra animation to motion onstage, of which there is plenty. Like the model she cites as inspiration, Rembrandt's "Night Watch (The Company of Frans Banning Cocq)," she has light and shadow play around moving figures, deepening upstage into silhouette. The effect in Rembrandt's case is that Cocq's men seem to advance toward you out of the still canvas. Maybe that's what provoked a paranoid vandal to slash the 1642 masterpiece several years after I saw it at the Rijksmuseum in 1966. Asking oneself how it's done, with either Rembrandt or Wrightson, tends to arise in retrospect.

Nonetheless, marveling at fight direction and its execution is a good problem to have when it is so thoroughly part of the drama as it is in Catherine Bush's stage adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas' novel. Rapiers, even blunted ones, seem capable of injury. When they clash, blades slip and slide off each other. How can that be controlled? How can those viciously thrown punches never really land, as they appear to? How do heads that snap back and bodies that fly sprawling to the floor escape injury? (Admiring kudos to "Musketeers" fight director Paul Dennhardt!)
D'Artagnan and the Three Musketeers sing their motto: "All for one, and one for all."
At opening night Friday, "The Three Musketeers" wove the violence smoothly into the story of the French kingdom's struggle to become centralized in the monarchy. That process was to come to full flower with Louis XIV, the successor to this story's Louis XIII. At the heart of the conflict is the wandering affection of Queen Anne, who has formed a romantic liaison (more certain here than in history, apparently) with a foreign aristocrat, Lord Buckingham of France's traditional enemy, England. Louis XIII has allowed his narcissism to move into the void of a marriage without an heir. Questions of treason necessarily bob up from the depths.

The loyalty of Cardinal Richelieu to the king has taken the form of general repression and a personalized consolidation of power against which the honorary troop of royal musketeers, especially the three comrades of the title, vows opposition. Keeping the churchman from besmirching the queen becomes their cause, and that of D'Artagnan, the rustic nobleman eager to join their company. Bush's adaptation reduces or irons out some of the complications of the original. Underhanded tricks and daring rescues, conflicting loyalties and verifiable suspicions, coincidences and subterfuges — all keep the plot at full boil.

Cardinal Richelieu in nefarious conference with Milady de Winter.
I can hardly believe I followed the plot competently when I read the novel in my early teens. What has stayed with me was my first exposure to the secular influence of the religious hierarchy in regimes of aligned, though often irritated, church-state direction. Richelieu is a villain well worth hating in the Dumas fictionalization of 17th-century royal friction, and I was appalled at his lack of more than perfunctory attention to his Christian faith. I had a lot to learn.

Henry Woronicz directs IRT's production, which has a cunning, imperious portrayal of Richelieu by Dan Kremer as one of its virtues.  Among the others is the spinetingling, "bromantic" rapport among the title characters — each with his own reasons for being an independent thinker and actor — by Ryan Artzberger (Athos), Nathan Hosner (Aramis) and David Folsom (Porthos). They are impulsive and quick to take offense, weapons drawn, as D'Artagnan (Jeb Burris, radiantly soulful and smitten) discovers soon after coming to Paris with an era-appropriate vision of conquering the big city.

Shedding his bumpkin status quickly, D'Artagnan becomes enmeshed in the fight to rescue his beloved, Constance (ingenue-to-the-hilt Amanda Catania), and earn the favor of the musketeers and their advocate, Monsieur de Treville (Robert Neal at his booming, blustering best). The alienated king and queen are poignantly at odds in their separate worlds as played by Charles Goad and Emily Ristine. Villainy more lurid than Richelieu's is given lip-smacking flair in the performances of Rob Johansen as Rochefort and Elizabeth Laidlaw as Milady de Winter.

With everyone splendid and dashing in Devon Painter's costumes, the production revels in the elaborate plush of Hollywood historical dramas. Props and architectural elements move smoothly into and out of place as if in a cinematic "dissolve." Barry G. Funderburg's music provides not only the equivalent of title-music magnificence (evoked perfectly in the modern era by John Williams' "Star Wars" march), but also snatches of underscoring for moments of menace and outright violence.

Bush's stylized dialogue abounds in the crisp elegance, bon mots and full-paragraph speeches (with handy revelations and confidences) so essential to the formula. Woronicz allows his cast to project the lines in a manner more acceptable to our grandparents than it has been for many years on either stage or screen. Pregnant pauses, verbal thrusts and parries, a heightened tone in speaking of love and war alike — such traits were exhibited as if natural, which they are in this type of play. Everyone stops well short of hamming it up.

The whole package will have you putting aside the "how do they do that?" question for the most part. Your pulse will race as the fights break out and conclude, and you'll recognize that all such long-ago battles and florid intrigues can bear the imprint of real human passion when credibly presented. This production makes you ready for them. En garde!