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Sunday, 2 June 2013

All for One and One Husband for Two Spirited Wives: The Three Musketeers and Blithe Spirit

(Forgive me, but seven plays in six days doth a tired reviewer make...)

The Three Musketeers, by Peter Raby, adapted from the novel of Alexandre Dumas

Directed by Miles Potter; designed by Douglas Pasaschuk (set), Gillian Gallow (costumes), Michael Walton (lighting), Peter McBoyle (sound) and John Stead (fights)

The Story: The young D'Artagnan travels to Paris from rural France to join the Musketeers, and finds himself immediately at odds with the Compte de Rochefort, an agent of the Cardinal, and three of the King Louis XIII's best Musketeers - Athos, Porthos and Aramis. Determined to earn a place among them D'Artagnan helps them defeat the Cardinal's men in a brawl, and they take him under his wing. Through his attraction to Constance, a lady in waiting to the Queen, he learns of the Cardinal's plot against the Queen, and soon becomes embroiled in one intriguing escapade after another, until he comes face-to-face with the deadliest foe of all - the beautiful Milady de Winter.
Left to right: Graham Abbey as Athos, Luke Humphrey as D'Artagnan,
Jonathan Goad as Porthos and Mike Shara as Aramis.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Dumas' lengthy novel, distilled down to barest plots for the stage in an adaptation commissioned for Stratford, is an exciting, swashbuckling tale of romance and high adventure - yet could probably stand to be further trimmed of a plot-twist or two to make the second half of the play as fast-paced as the first. Not that director Miles Potter doesn't have a firm grip on the pacing, which seems lightning fast for a play with some forty-odd scene changes, helped along by Leslie Arden's score (reminiscent at times of Badelt and Zimmer's  Pirates of the Caribbean) and gorgeous lighting from  Michael Walton. But the many plot-twists are confusing to the young 'uns at whom this production is aimed, so the straight-forward story-telling for which Mr. Potter is renowned is undermined by his very material.

This is a slight quibble, since buckles are swashed very nicely by his cast. In particular Luke Humphreys as D'Artagnan is a charming fellow, likeable in his gumption, naivety and even while he romances three women at once. Michael Blake plays his nemesis Compte de Rochefort with cool suaveness - and of all the rapier-wielders carries his fights off with the most confidence.

Deborah Hay as Milady deWinter and Graham Abbey as Athos.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
The title characters - Athos, Porthos and Aramis - are portrayed by Graham Abbey, Jonathan Goad and Michael Shara, respectively. Mr. Abbey's broody, alcoholic Athos does not quite reach the depths of his character (the only Musketeer given any depth in the text), while Mr. Shara's Aramis is nearly foppy. But who knew Jonathan Goad could do slapstick so well, and fill out a fat-suit with such aplomb? It was a nice surprise to see one of Stratford's leading men have such fun with a role.

Steven Sutcliffe as Cardinal Richlieu. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
The evil-doer's of the play are supplied by Steven Sutcliffe as Cardinal Richlieu and Deborah Hay as Milady de Winter. Mr. Sutcliffe also plays a cool customer, but with less evil; one gets the feeling he really does have the state's best interests at heart (especially since the King seems a bit of a fool, at least in this production). Not the case for Ms. Hay's Milady, a woman determined to take what she wants by seduction or force, no matter what. A last little smirk over the shoulder of a pitiable puritan she manipulates her sealed the deal - Ms. Hay's Milady is evil incarnate, and there is no room for sympathy when she is finally held accountable (a scene that is brilliantly staged, by the way).

A bit long with almost as many cast members as scene-changes, The Three Musketeers is nevertheless a fun way to spend an afternoon or evening at the Festival Theatre, where it continues in repertory until October 19.
Three Musketeers, company. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann


Blithe Spirit, by Noel Coward

Directed by Brian Bedford, designed by Simon Higlett (set), Katherine Lubienski (costumes), Paul Miller (lighting), Jim Neil (sound) and John Stead (fights)

From left to right: Sara Topham as Ruth, Ben Carlson as Charles,
Michelle Giroux as Elvira. Photo by Daivd Hou.
The Story: Charles and Ruth Condomine, happily married, are holding a seance so Charles can gather material for a character in his new book. They expect his subject, Madame Arcati, is nothing more than a charlatan, so imagine their surprise when she conjures up the spirit of Elvira, Charles' first wife.

No one does the British drawing room comedies of Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward better than Brian Bedford, and he makes sure his casts can pull it off too. So it is no surprise that Ben Carlson is the slightly stuffy Charles who becomes unhinged at the ghostly reappearance of his first wife until he begins to enjoy himself, and it is likewise nothing new that Michelle Giroux, with that voice that drips derision, was drafted to play the first wife Elvira who enjoys tormenting her corporeal counterpart.

The supporting cast is equally at home with the material, James Blendick and Wendy Thatcher as Dr. and Mrs Bradman and Susie Burnett as the harrassed Edith (whose comic timing and dead-pan is so lovely one wonders if she is related to another Burnett in the world of comedy).
Seana McKenna as Madame Arcati. Photo by David Hou.
What are surprises, however, are the performances by Sara Topham and Seana McKenna. As Ruth Condomine, Ms. Topham, usually playing an ingénue (ie Juliet) or lady of elegance, loses her bottle in the most marvelous manner on both husband and the ethereal Elvira - she has never been better. And Ms. McKenna's Madame Arcati, instead of a bohemian charlatan, is utterly delightful as a stout, obliviously frumpy, hearty English gentlewoman, British Empire to the core. She tosses back dry martinis with relish, munches loudly on cucumber sandwiches, and goes into her trances with a version of a Monty Python Silly Walk - all very unlike what you might come to expect of the character and Ms. McKenna, but enjoyably hilarious.

Simon Higlett's stylish set and Paul Miller's lighting of it don't quite qualify as a Scooby-doo haunted mansion, but the poltergeist effects near play's end, I confess, did raise the hair on the back of my neck to a degree that I will never again be able to hear the song "Always" without feeling just a tad creeped-out.
From left to right: Michelle Giroux as Elvira, Seana McKenna as Madame Arcati,
Ben Carlson as Charles, Susie Burnett as Edith and Sara Topham as Ruth.
Photo by David Hou.

Blithe Spirit continues in repertory until October 20 (not Halloween?) at the Avon Theatre.

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