Alexandre Dumas’ historical novel The Three Musketeers has been adapted for the stage, film, television, and animation numerous times. The story of the young D’Artagnan seeking to find fame, fortune, and a place among the King’s Musketeers in 17th-century France at a time of political and religious struggle is highlighted by the frequent swordplay of the Musketeers Athos, Porthos, and Aramas fighting against the swordsmen of Cardinal Richelieu.
Staging multiple swordfights, including scenes involving several that occur simultaneously, is among the challenges for Tony Simotes, who is directing the Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Three Musketeers” at UConn’s Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts from Nov. 21 through Dec. 8.
As artistic director for Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., Simotes is familiar with having to incorporate swordplay on stage, but doing it with a combined cast of professional actors and students in the Master of Fine Arts program, presents challenges.
“There’s any number of sequences in Shakespeare filled with mayhem, death, and slapstick,” Simotes says. “But a lot of times when you go outside the company … you get actors who are sometimes playing roles they can’t handle in terms of the physicality. So you may have a Romeo who can’t fight. You’re always trying to adjust to how you can do the physical story telling.”
Simotes says the UConn program trains the actors well. “The MFAs are being taught by Greg Webster, who is a terrific actor as well as fight choreographer. We’ve had him at Shakespeare & Company. When I found out I was doing this job and he was going to be helping me, I felt really blessed because this play literally has a swordfight on every page.”
Simotes also has the assistance of James Jelkin and Olivia Saccomanno, both third-year MFA students who are choreographing the fight scenes as well as having roles in the production, which is an adaption of the Dumas novel by Linda Alper, Douglas Langworthy, and Penny Metropulos.
“It’s like teaching someone who’s never thrown a baseball to throw a baseball and make it look like they’ve been playing in the major leagues for a few years,” Jelkin says. “You have to walk their body through every step, piece by piece. UConn is a very physical acting program in general. If you’ve been accepted into the program, you’ve got some kind of sporting background.”
The preparation for the actors in the production includes a website that is part of what is known as dramaturgy, the process of shaping a story for acting. In the case of “The Three Musketeers,” the website includes details about the Dumas story, relationships between the main characters, a general history of the time period, photos of the architecture of the Palace of Versailles and Luxembourg Palace, and video clips of sword fighting scenes from film adaptations of the novel, from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, and CRT cast production rehearsal fights.
Saccomanno says that in addition to their training as actors, MFA students work to get into “the best physical condition of our lives” in order to maintain their focus and concentration in a role, especially those that are physically demanding.
In rehearsals, Simotes says, he has drawn the parallel between fight scenes and wrestling matches, which may only last two or three minutes but requires an all-out physical and mental effort. Then the actor returns to his or her lines in the story.
“Even more than being in physical shape is the concentration and the ability to be there. You make one wrong move and you can seriously injure someone,” Saccomanno says. “Once you’re done with the fight, you’re not done with your concentration. Where does this fighting take us in the storyline? A fight is like a pivot point in the storytelling. The way it ends – it’s broken up, someone is hurt – is driving us along in a new path. The focus the actors and fighters have to have is intense.”
Another challenge for Simotes, Jelkin, and Saccomanno with the sword fighting action is the lack of stage direction. In most dramatic plays, playwrights indicate specific movements and location of the actors on stage. There are no such directions for the physical action, much like Shakespeare’s plays.
“Doing Shakespeare I’m used to not having stage directions. The directions, if the actor is sensitive to it, are in the text,” Simotes says. “So many modern plays give you a detailed description of the setting. In this situation they’ve combined a little bit of both, except when it gets to the physical action. It literally will say: they fight, or D’Artagnan proves himself. They allow us to create the story. We’ve stood there in rehearsal and asked: What are they really saying here? It’s like a puzzle to be solved with what our particular story is.”
While the action of the fight scenes and the romance in the story may be what many in the audience remember, Simotes says there are deeper issues explored as part of the history of the period, a time when the French monarchy was in transition. The actors discover that contemporary issues resonate with the story of the Musketeers.
“We really have some great conversation about what’s taking place in the play,” he says. “There is a consequence about what we’re doing, so there is the sociopolitical ramification to these things, where a village can be starved or an army can be slaughtered or an individual can take a knife to another individual. It’s not just an adventure story about a hero. I’ve tried to challenge the actors in their characterizations to really come up against what it means to hold a sword, to take a life, to be aggressive or to be passive when you do become the victim. It’s been a terrific kind of research and development process for them as well. When you are in an acting class, it’s one thing. When you hold steel, it’s something completely different because of the reality of that blade. You are dealing with something that historically has given power to both bad and good. It’s a fascinating process.”
The Connecticut Repertory Theatre production of “The Three Musketeers” opens Nov. 21 and continues through Dec. 8 in the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre, 802 Bolton Road, Storrs. For information, call 860-486-1629 or go to the Connecticut Repertory Theatre website.