The Acting Company
THE THREE MUSKETEERS
Somehow, swashbuckling never gets old. The Three Musketeers, written in 1844 by Alexandre Dumas, tells the story of d’artagnan and his three sidekicks, Porthos, Athos, and Aramis, and involves a lot of sword fighting. The 1921 silent film version starred Douglas Fairbanks; a 1948 movie featured Van Heflin, Lana Turner, June Allyson, Angela Lansbury, and Gene Kelly; Mr. Magoo played d’artagnan in an animated version from the 1960s; Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds was a Spanish-japanese anime in which the characters are all played by dogs; an animated Barbie and the Three Musketeers came out on Nickelodeon in 2009; in the video game world, the Pokémon characters Cobalion, Terrakion and Virizion, known as the Swords of Justice, are based on the Musketeers.
The version coming to University of New Mexico’s Popejoy Hall on Saturday, Feb. 18, emphasizes something totally different than previous productions: that Dumas was actually of Haitian descent. His grandfather was a French nobleman, and his grandmother was an African slave. An actor playing Dumas narrates the adventure-filled story.
Kirsten Childs, who teaches in the graduate musical theater writing program at New York University, started off as a Bob Fosse dancer on Broadway and won an Obie, Off-broadway’s highest honor, for her semi-autobiographical first play, The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin (2000). She was commissioned by The Acting Company, the national touring group behind this production of the Dumas classic, to rework the French tale of honor and adventure. Her version, like the blockbuster Broadway musical Hamilton, modernizes history, uses a mostly African American cast, and features hip-hop rhythms.
A national touring group designed to season young actors by sending them to perform in small towns and universities around the country, The Acting Company was founded by John Houseman and Margot Harley in 1972 with the first graduating class from the Drama Division of The Juilliard School in New York. Acting Company alumni include Kevin Kline, Patti Lupone, Keith David, Rainn Wilson, Lorraine Toussaint, Frances Conroy, Harriet Harris, Lisa Banes, and Jeffrey Wright, among others. The current artistic director of the company, Kent Gash, has directed at many of the leading regional theaters across the country and has a reputation for bringing current relevance to classic theater.
“There were Black musketeers in France,” Childs says. “The narrative is still the same. All for one and one for all. We play with sword-fighting, silliness, danger, sadness . ... I get reports every day as the show tours the country. The
actors are having a blast. And so are the audiences. We keep the spirit of the original story but tell it in a more contemporary way.”
Dumas’ father, General Thomas-alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie, was a military hero, the first person of color to achieve the top rank in the French military. And at age 31, he commanded 53,000 troops of the French Army of the Alps. He worked closely (and eventually had a falling out) with Napoléon Bonaparte. Although the writer was only 3 years old when his father died, the theme of many of his works — about righting wrongs done to men — were clearly influenced by his father.
“A lot of his stories were about reclaiming glory,” Childs says. “His father had great success at a particular moment in France. And then the tide turned.” Although slavery had been outlawed in France in 1794, racism survived, and the writer was raised in poverty and was unable to afford to continue his education after his mother was denied the financial support owed to her as the wife of a general. She worked in a tobacco shop to support her family.
The Three Musketeers is one of Dumas’ best-known works, but he was a prolific writer who published more than 100 plays and novels during his career. He wrote books about religion, history, fantasy, adventure, and romance, as well as travel books (he traveled widely, lived in Russia, and started a newspaper in Italy). Although he rarely wrote about the racism he faced in France, the novel Georges, published in 1843, takes place on the French island colony of Mauritius. The title character is a light-skinned “mulatto” son of a wealthy planter who moves to France for his education and returns to lead a slave revolt. French President Jacques Chirac had Dumas’ ashes reinterred at the Panthéon in Paris in 2002 as a way, he said, of acknowledging the racism that existed in France and honoring Dumas by placing his remains alongside those of renowned white authors like Victor Hugo and Émile Zola.
In addition to The Three Musketeers, The Acting Company will present Romeo and Juliet at Popejoy, featuring the same performers. Shakespeare’s play is directed by Leah C. Gardiner.
“These actors make it look so effortless,” Childs says.