The highest praise for a stage villain is when the audience still hisses during his or her final bow. Bronwen Shears, who plays the devil-in-a-ballgown, Milady, in the Sonoma County Rep’s production of The Three Musketeers, accepted this accolade with a perfectly Milady-like smile at her curtain call after last Friday’s show.
Milady, on the page, on the screen, and on the stage, is a wonderful villain, or more accurately, villainess. (There is nothing gender neutral about her). I doubt the book would even have worked without her silken, deadly presence. Shears rose to the occasion, playing her alternately as cold, mercenary, sexy, seductive and faux-virtuous when the situation required. I almost think Shears took her inspiration from an earlier silken, deadly character, the Marquis de Merteuil from Les Liaisons Dangereuse. She is a perfect foil for the more innocent characters of Constance and this production’s new character, Sabine, who, dressed as a male servant, accompanies her big brother D’Artagnan to Paris.
Ken Ludwig, who wrote this adaptation of Dumas’s novels, substituted a tomboy younger sister for D’Artagnan’s servant Planchet. I was skeptical about this, but it worked. Sabine is a multifaceted character, irreverent but loyal to her brother; impulsive and brave; virtuous and girlish. She even succumbs to a crush on Aramis (Derek Fischer). Emily Brown inhabited the part completely, even though, as the Sig-O pointed out, “Oh, yeah, I’d believe she was a boy.”
Benjamin Stowe’s D’Artagnan, even saddled with a little sister, was convincingly hot-headed and warm-hearted, and he had some good fencing moves.
Richelieu, as played by Eric Burke was a good match for Milady, and the most hilarious performance of the night was John Shillington as King Louis. The bee-keeping scene alone. . .
The pacing of the play was odd in spots. The ball scene, for instance, seemed too long, while the last 20 minutes rushed an assassination attempt that happens off-stage, the confrontation between the dour Athos (Keith Baker) and Milady (which isn’t even needed in this version), and a discussion of the famous carte blanche, the original get-out-of-jail-free card. All of this zooms past us so that we converge at the convent in time for Milady’s ultimate act of villainy. Some of this is what comes of squeezing two novels into two hours, but it still could have been smoother. It is hard to tell whether this was a problem with the direction or with the writing. Since Ken Sonkin’s direction was so good otherwise, especially the action scenes, I’m leaning toward the writing as the culprit.
Ludwig’s language shifts between courtly and contemporary. That works perfectly. This was the gala night, with an audience well lubricated by wine. We cheered the musketeers, booed the Cardinal, hissed like a clowder of angry cats at Milady, and even shouted, “No! Don’t do it!” to a character who seemed poised to make a fatal mistake. (Alas, that character did not heed our helpful warning).
Costumes were gorgeous, from the sweeping capes and cuffed boots of the musketeers to Milady’s traveling dress of duponi silk that shifted colors from blue to pink and her stunning ballgown, glittering in silver and lavender like a diamond.
And sword fighting! Lots!
Catch this show if you can. It isn’t highbrow and it isn’t perfect, but it’s galloping good fun. The kids will like it too. Say it with me, now; “All for one, and one for all!”