CLEVELAND, Ohio — Alexandre Dumas wrote “The Three Musketeers” in 1844. Since then, the swashbuckling tale of mustachioed swordsmen in feathered hats has been told and retold countless times in literature, on stage and on screen.
But chances are you’ve never seen a version like the one now playing at Cleveland Play House.
Originally scheduled to open in early February, the play was delayed due to the omicron surge. But following a month of rehearsals, the curtain finally rose for preview performances at Playhouse Square’s Allen Theatre on April 30. The show officially opens Thursday and runs through May 22.
“It is such a wonderful feeling to finally be able to share to share this incredible show with the community,” director Laura Kepley said. “This is the perfect show for people who are craving getting out and having live experiences. This show really packs it all in.”
In case your memory needs refreshing, the story tells of the adventures of D’Artagnan, a young, but skilled dueler in 17th century France who dreams of joining the Musketeers of the Guard, protectors of the king and queen. But he quickly runs afoul of the sinister agents of the evil Cardinal Richelieu, who means to embarrass the queen and undermine the king’s power. Along the way, D’Artagnan meets three musketeers — Athos, Porthos and Aramis — who befriend him and take him under their wing. Drama, tragedy and comedy ensue as the now four musketeers encounter political intrigue, secret dalliances, stolen diamonds and, of course, daring sword fights.
“For me, this is a story about friendship and how we find ourselves by finding our friends and what it means to stand up for other people,” said Kepley. The play is her last as CPH’s artistic director after announcing her departure in March after nearly 12 years of service.
“It has been an honor,” she said of her tenure at the venerable cultural institution. “Having this play as a beacon on the horizon has gotten me through some of these really difficult pandemic moments and circumstances. I’m very confident this play will remind people of why theater is so fun and so essential in their lives.”
The director had wanted to tackle “The Three Musketeers” for a while, reading six or seven adaptations over the last ten years. But when she read playwright Catherine Bush’s version, which was commissioned in 2014 for the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia, and premiered in New York City three years later at the Classical Theatre of Harlem, it immediately captured her imagination.
“It was fast, it was fun, it was fleet and it was so theatrical,” Kepley said.
The production employs narrative techniques such as flashbacks, flash-forwards and scenes within scenes. There are ten fight scenes ranging from classic swordplay to martial arts and even a food fight. In fact, the action sequences, choreographed by fight director Rod Kinter, take up 50 of the play’s 120-minute runtime. The centerpiece features all four musketeers, who at times battle multiple adversaries at once.
“The audience’s hair will be blown back,” Kepley said. “I don’t think people have seen this caliber of fighting on stage in a long time.”
But there was something else besides the movement and physicality of the play that drew her to Bush’s adaptation.
“She wanted to create a ‘Three Musketeers’ for the Me Too era by making sure that the musketeers were honorable in a way that we see honor today,” the director said.
Kepley and the CPH team took the playwright’s vision and ran with it, creating a version that resonates with today’s audiences. One way the show accomplishes that is through identity-conscious casting.
“This is casting that opens up the range of possibilities for who gets to play and interpret these roles and then asks that the actors bring their full selves to the roles,” Kepley said “We’re not trying to fit actors into sort of a standard classic white, western sensibility, but we’re allowing people to show up as their full selves and pull the character closer to their own identities.”
D’Artagnan is played by Hassiem Muhammad, a Black actor. His nemesis Cardinal Richelieu is portrayed by Latinx actor Leraldo Anzaldúa. Jasmine Rush brings Porthos to life as a Black woman. Eli Lynn, a trans nonbinary actor, takes on the role of Aramis.
“This really allows us to see this classic story in a whole new way,” Kepley said. “The rallying call of this play is ‘All for one and one for all.’ We felt a responsibility that as many people as possible were represented in that ‘all.’”
To modernize the show further, Kepley and her staff used Dumas’ 17th-century setting as a springboard for their imaginations and then took creative liberties with the set, costume and sound designs. For example, the director describes the costumes as a mashup between 17th-century silhouettes and current, high-fashion runway styles. The score features the kind of classical harpsichord baroque music you’d expect but intercuts it with contemporary hip hop and pop beats.
Add everything up and you’re in for a thrilling — and culturally relevant — night at the theater.
“There are laughs, thrills, gasps and a surprising amount of depth for such a rollicking adventure story,” Kepley said.
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