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The Three Musketeers — Quintessence at Sedgwick Theatre

untitled (72)Ian Rose’s swordplay, Connor Hammond’s youthfully obtuse take on D’Artagnan, and horseplay of all kind, including some that looks as if it might break an actor’s back, contributed to keep Quintessence Theatre’s group adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s “The Musketeers” funny and breezy. The show entertains more than it involves you, but Hammond’s incorrigible Gascon bravado, combined with Rachel Brodeur’s subtle juxtaposition of sincerity and sardonic intellect as Madame Bonacieux, Julia Frey’s distressed heroine as Queen Anne, and Ken Sandberg’s sinister take as Rochefort allow some of the texture behind Dumas’s action-filled tale of intrigue, chivalry, and romance in King Louis XIII’s 17th century court to come through.

Alexander Burns’s staging seems to get comfortably looser and more humorous as his production proceeds. Early scenes, in which Dumas’s complex plot must be established, seem more self-conscious, as if a style is being sought but not quite found. The comedy, broad throughout, seems more forced, the romance more melodramatic. A scene involving the treacherous Lady de Winter barely plays at all. Burns and company promise a good time they are only partially delivering. You’re willing to go along with the show because you want to catch story details, admire the gambits that work, and appreciate Burns’s intention to incorporate Dumas’s portrait of free-wheeling, bantering, bawdily bathetic barracks camaraderie with the author’s view of serious intrigue, as France is constantly on the brink of war and rebellion, and soldiers loyal to Louis compete for military supremacy with the legions loyal to the influential Cardinal Richelieu The reward comes in the second half as the comedy becomes more off-handed and sophisticated, and the fate of the queen and her indispensable lady-in-waiting, Madame Bonacieux, become sources of real concern.

Except that they are noble at heart, the three musketeers can be models for The Three Stooges. Athos, their leader, is intellectual and has some refinement. He’d rather read or sip wine than fight or help his more quarrelsome companions out of their latest bout with trouble. Porthos is an oafish battering ram who is always bumbling into conflict and looking for his confréres in Louis’s elite Musketeers troop, to come to his aid. Aramis is the romantic who finds military life, and the boudoir, exciting. Then there’s D’Artagnan, the fourth musketeer, who comes to Paris from Gascony at age 18 full of vinegar and eager to prove he is as competent, useful, and reliable as any who defends the king’s honor and safety. Under Burns’s direction, Michael Brusasco (Athos), Gregory Isaac (Porthos), and Alan Brincks (Aramis) convey the boisterousness, rivalry, ribaldry, and companionship of a soldier’s existence. Dumas is smart of give each of his characters big, distinct personalities, and Burns is shrewd about how he brings all this fellowship and color to the Quintessence stage. It isn’t a matter of the actors having to settle into their characters as much as the audience’s need to take in, and take to, the individual traits of the musketeers. Burns starts his production in high dudgeon, and we have to catch up with him to appreciate and root for Dumas’s high-spirited quartet.

Burns and his audience benefit as “The Three Musketeers’s” plot becomes more defined. While establishing his characters and their milieu, the Quintessence production relies on a lot of short takes that seem to exude gratuitous action and raucousness more than they pull you into the rabid power struggles with Louis’s kingdom or make you care about any of the characters, except maybe the rambunctious, ambitious, delightfully calamitous D’Artagnan. The feelings and fate of the queen, and the struggle between Richelieu’s church and Louis’s state, seem of little importance.

As Dumas’s plot thickens, Burns’s production takes on more depth. Rachel Brodeur is to be credited for making Madame Bonacieux such a likeable go-between and catalyst, so honorable and empathetic a character, she galvanizes the action on the Quintessence stage and gives us someone to watch and protect. The usually minor Madame Bonacieux is the one we want to see succeed. She is the one who attracts and claims our loyalty. Everyone else, even D’Artagnan, fades into either comic relief or becomes heroic or villainous based on his or her willingness to aid or thwart the woman who has commanded our attention and concern.

Intrigue put the comedy and Rose’s exciting fencing scenes into perspective. Burns’s package seems more whole. Everything fits, and it no longer looks as if the cast is working out ideas or going that scooch too far to entertain or establish character quirks. Quintessence’s “The Three Musketeers” always gives you something to watch and some tidbit to amuse, including the range of benighted and perceptive expressions on Hammond’s malleable face as D’Artaganan, but its second half engages. The production stops being cute, Carol Burnettish, and callowly bold, and begins to have dimension, dash, and a storytelling purpose.

You won’t be bored or unsatisfied in the early going. Hammond, Brincks, and Andrew Criss’s droll, what-am-I-to-do-with-these-clowns commander of the Musketeers, Treville will see to that, as will the inventive Mr. Rose. But your reaction will be one of contented amusement. Theatrics abound, and they are impressive, but they don’t move or bring you into the action as more than a pleased observer. The charm, drive, wit, and sparkle are all on the surfaced. They’re to be admired and enjoyed more than savored. “The Three Musketeers’s” second part takes all the best parts of its first and adds palpable heroism, palpable bravery, and palpable romance. Hijinks, confrontations, and duels are not simply comic. Something beyond D’Artagnan’s Gascon pride and Treville’s tussles with the Cardinal is at stake. Both a heroine and a damsel in distress emerge. You like them and long to see the Musketeers’s derring-do evolve from mischief and response to taunts to having a genuine and laudable purpose. A piece that was fun suddenly turns exciting and suspenseful. Drama seeps in where theatrics alone reigned. Burns’s “The Three Musketeers” elevates from happy diversion to a work that divides comedy, adventure, conspiracy, emotion, and romance in the correct proportions and knits them together into a play that rivets and delights as much as it entertains. You come to cheer the Quintessence “Three Musketeers” as much as it cheered you.

Connor Hammond is all brash, juvenile eagerness as D’Artagnan. The constant twinkle in his eye speaks of a man who seeks adventure and the chance to make a reputation as a brave and daring soldier. Along with confidence that borders on belligerence or arrogance, Hammond’s D’Artagnan can convey stultifying confusion or piercing intelligent. It’s interesting to trace what the character misses entirely and understands at a glance.

Hammond shows D’Artagnan’s fearlessness in the scenes in which each of the musketeers in Dumas’s title challenge the upstart to a duel he accepts, the Quintessence script cleverly setting each contretemps for a hour after the last. He shows his boyishness in the way he looks at Constance, a young woman in Queen Anne’s service. He shows his mettle by going recklessly through the world without being skewered on even killed.

NealBoxHammond takes cues from D’Artagnan’s Gascon stubbornness and obsession with making a name for himself as a great soldier and servant to the king. No matter what the odds or necessity of a fight, this D’Artagnan does not back down and seeks danger with his pugnacious attitude and knack for summoning trouble.

Hammond’s performance is darling, as it shows D’Artagnan’s puerility and how that causes the soldier to take three steps back to each step forward as he evolves into the dependable man he is destined to be. Hammond’s D’Artagnan begins as callow poseur and develops into a genuine threat as an adversary. His ability with a sword is matched with discernment. He has a reason besides youthful energy to fight. He trusts his feelings and realizes his responsibility to come to the aid of the Madame Boncieux and the queen.

Hammond is always funny, even as D’Artagnan’s most elegant or swashbuckling. He carries amusement in his smirk and eye. Green though he is, he becomes a force to be reckoned with.

This is an important turn for Hammond, who showed his talent in Quintessence’s “Richard II” and “As You Like It” last fall and now proves his ability to tackle a big, pivotal part and ace the opportunity.

Almost singlehandedly, Rachel Brodeur takes “The Three Musketeers” from a lark to a play with substance. She endows Madame Boncieux with such honor, and so pronounced a sense of loyalty and purpose, you would be crushed if she was hurt or did not prevail in her mission.

Brodeur elicits immediately sympathy. Her Madame Boncieux is the first character we meet who is adult without being overbred as a knight, nobleman, religious leader, or monarch. Both her willingness to risk all to help the queen, and her resourcefulness, are real. Madame Boncieux’s brand of palace intrigue is not a stand-off between a king and a prelate. It registers as a matter of life and death. Much is at stake, and Madame Boncieux is the only one with the freedom and the courage to see matters, as Dumas spells them out, to their best and most logical end.

Andrew Criss is equally effective as the sniveling, duplicitous, obsequious Monsieur Boncieux, D’Artagnan’s landlord and one who would fawn on the king or the cardinal to be in an august presence and to believe he is serving France.

Criss shows how Boncieux is both foolish and dangerous as the property owner curries favor the court is not sincerely extending and puts wife in dire jeopardy out of ignorant jealousy and an eagerness to please the powers that be.

Criss’s Boncieux is a cringingly good portrait of cowardice and blind faith in a government that will cheat you every time. The actor also shows wit, and justified exasperation as the head of the Musketeers and the one who must keep this troops’ behavior in check.

Burns’s technique is to advance Dumas’s narrative by having a performer portray Dumas as a narrator. Anita Holland shows great wit in that role, sometimes commenting to Dumas’s text and plotting solely by a tone or expression of voice.

Gregory Isaac takes obviously joy in portraying the subtle but genuine megalomania of Cardinal Richelieu, a man who in spite of what Henry VIII accomplished in England, uses the power of the Roman Catholic Church, and its Pope, to retain sway over a wavering Louis XIII.

Richelieu is sure of his gifts for scheming and coercion, and Isaacs conveys that confidence and conscienceless repercussions it fosters.

Criss is also good as the fundamentally lazy, bull-in-a-China-shoplike Porthos.

Alan Brincks brings great amiability to Aramis, the Musketeer who seems to look on his and his comrades’ adventures as entertaining escapades and whose nonchalance lends the Musketeers an air of urbanity. You can see why he would be successful with women. Brincks gets to show his antic side and the inept servant, Patrick.

As Athos, Michael Brusasco easily conveys his character’s impatience with people who would bother him, or indulge in pranks on or around him, while he’s trying to do his favorite activity, read. Brusasco keeps a nice balance between being less than tolerant of the Musketeer’s constant joshing and losing his temper over it.

Turning tables, Brusasco is properly courtly as the man who loves Queen Anne and would whisk her to England.

Julia Frey displays great dignity and great sadness as Queen Anne, who is an arranged marriage that brought peace between nations but engenders enmity and disgust in the bedchamber. Like Madame Boncieux, she is a sympathetic character, and you want he to have her way.

Ken Sandberg is dead serious as Rochefort, and his strict portrayal looms in contrast with the more spirited performances around him. Because Rochefort views the world so coldly and focuses only on his nefarious task at hand, Sandberg’s refusal to smile or find amusement in anything adds to the sinister, threatening feeling we get when Rochefort, D’Artagnan’s particular nemesis, comes on stage.

Sean Close makes King Louis XIII seems glib and fey. You see no sign of the monarch who united France and ruled it with an iron hand. Nor do you see much of the man who was father to France’s fabled king, Louis XIV,

Close’s Louis is sarcastic. He comes across as a tamer, less flamboyant Paul Lynde, playing a king. You can see why Anne would want to flee him, and although Louis shows his cunning in various ways, how Richelieu can dominate him.

Close is more like a parody of a king than a royal presence. He’d rather concentrate on flippancy than on posture or politesse.

As always with an Alexander Burns production, imagery is rife, props are creative, and jokes come as much from sight gags as from dialogue. I felt bad watching the Musketeers, especially the heftier, jump on the backs of the castmates playing their horses. Toting the diminutive Hammond around is one think. The other Musketeers, particularly Isaac, must be quite a load.

The Quintessence committee that adapted “The Three Musketeers” are Burns, Close, Josh Carpenter, and Mattie Hawkinson. They did a good job in general. Dumas’s congeniality and humor are retained, both in tone and execution,, and the dialogue was clear and brisk.

Burns’s open set gave him a lot of playing spaces to use as a director, and you always had a sense of place, even if only from a character stating where he is or has been.

Ian Rose’s fight choreography is sensational. It excites and makes you worry someone will be mortally wounded or injured in a way from which he will never recover.

The Three Musketeers” runs through Sunday, May 10, at the Quintessence Theatre’s home base at the Sedgwick Theatre, 7137 Germantown Avenue, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $34 to $27 and can be obtained by calling 215-987-4450, extension 1, or by visiting www.quintessencetheatre.org.

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