From left, Reynaldo Piniella, Brandon Carter, Miriam Hyman and Emmanuel Brown in “The Three Musketeers,” at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park. Credit Richard Termine
Many, if not most, theater companies with the word “classical” in their names fall back on Shakespeare for their summer outdoor shows. Happily, the Classical Theater of Harlem thought outside of the Elizabethan box and is presenting “The Three Musketeers” at Marcus Garvey Park.
Admittedly, Alexandre Dumas’s 1844 swashbuckling epic does not have the literary reputation of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Then again, it’s hard to beat for nonstop action.
This, of course, is what has made the Musketeers’ battle against the cunning Cardinal Richelieu and his henchman Rochefort so popular in movies and on television. It’s also why the novel is so fiendishly challenging to theater directors, who must figure out how to handle the fast-paced action and scene changes, and find actors with outsize personalities and athletic grace (all that sword-fighting!).
Jenny Bennett’s staging, working from Catherine Bush’s adaptation, squarely emphasizes the book’s more extroverted and humorous side: The biff-bang-pow production is to the novel as Adam West’s Batman was to the grim Dark Knight. (Coincidentally, aficionados can catch a competing take on Dumas’s masterpiece in Riverside Park, courtesy of the Hudson Warehouse company.)
One smart decision was to clad several characters in outfits reflecting the style and familiar vivid colors of the Caribbean. This is a reference to Dumas’s mixed-race roots in Haiti, and it works well in a playful show that also drops a couple of raps and features a fancifully dramatic score by Shayshahn MacPherson.
The biggest change, however, is that D’Artagnan is now a woman, played by the amusingly swaggering Miriam Hyman. Nothing has been tweaked to accommodate the transformation, so this Mademoiselle D’Artagnan is still a country bumpkin who moves to Paris to join King Louis XIII’s Musketeers and has an eye for the ladies. Seventeenth-century France must have been some hitherto unknown gay-friendly haven, because nobody bats an eye when D’Artagnan falls for the fetching Constance Bonacieux (Ava McCoy).
Less obvious to those unfamiliar with the story, but almost as radical an alteration, is the tone of the relationship between D’Artagnan’s friend Athos (Emmanuel Brown) and Milady de Winter (Piera Van de Wiel). Because the show puts all its chips on comic action, it misses the book’s more adult sentiments: We never get a sense of the intensity of the hatred between Athos and Milady, which is matched only by the power of their past love.
Still, Ms. Bennett’s production moves cartoon-fast and hits all the essential plot points, including our heroes’ skirmishes with the eye-patched Rochefort (R. J. Foster). By the end, you may find yourself longing for Classical Theater of Harlem to tackle Dumas’s two sequels next.