By | The Denver Post

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s adventurous new staging of “The Three Musketeers” is like those four (!) famous swashbucklers: One for all, and all for one.

But trying to be all things to all people is its downfall.

This roller-coaster staging of Alexandre Dumas’ classic is filled with creative parries, but rarely have comedic and dramatic tones ever been so at odds on the same stage.

“3M” could easily be staged as a family-friendly adventure, sanitizing the tale in favor of its famously fun swordfights, which here draw deserved gasps and cheers from the audience. Or director Carolyn Howarth might have resolved to uncompromisingly present what is, at its heart, an examination of evil every bit as unsettling as “Macbeth.”

But it can’t be both without having a seriously split personality. Because Howarth never chooses, the play devolves into an overly long and maddening anachronism that’s constantly at odds with itself.

One minute it’s a fun, Saturday-morning action cartoon. The next it’s a downright dour Shakespearean-type drama. And three hours isn’t exactly kid-friendly. Neither is the bloodthirsty behavior displayed by the villainess or the frightening appearance of a shrouded executioner and his ax.

What to do? You can almost sense the problem solving gone bad: Keep it in 1625 France in speech and costume. But keep it light and accessible with a (groan-inducing) ’70s classic-rock soundtrack, in which everything from the Rolling Stones to AC/DC is set to strings.

At first, it’s a clever gimmick that establishes a nice, hip vibe. Every few minutes is an exercise in “Name that Tune” frivolousness — “Foxy Lady!” … “As Days Go By!” But as time goes by, it becomes an exercise in pandering that cheapens the telling of a story that gradually becomes more sober and morally complex.

Imagine a formal ball set to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” — just before a heroic woman has a knife plunged into her back. After the tale’s hardly happy end, it’s just painful watching exhausted, red-faced actors being made to stamp and clap along to “We Will Rock You.”

“3M” is no more a musical comedy than “Les Miserables.” In terms of family appropriateness, it more closely parallels “Henry VIII” than, say, “Indiana Jones.”

Then again, my 10-year-old godson thought it was “awesome” (his one-word review). And unlike me, he never once grew restless.

That’s because it is, intermittently, tons of fun. Geoffrey Kent, who doubles as fight director and plays romantic musketeer Aramis, has choreographed many huge fights that are precise, aerodynamic and, best of all, believable. 

The fest always seems to turn into a showcase for an emerging young actor, and this year that designation undoubtedly goes to Denver Center conservatory student Mat Hostetler. First as Malcolm in “Macbeth,” then as the boy “king” in “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and now, as the suave yet morally compromised d’Artagnan, the wannabe who joins the three inseparable swordsmen who try to embody honor and friendship.

But “3M” is also blatantly misogynistic (“women were created for our destruction!”) and a politically complex potboiler. As in “Henry VIII,” a wicked Cardinal machinates against the wife of his king (here a delightful imbecile played by Chip Persons, in shocking contrast to his creepy “Richard III” from 2002). Dumas’ plot includes betrayal, infidelity, adultery, spying, subterfuge and blackmail. Tough terrain.

The most formidable embodiment of the dark side comes from Karen Slack, who’s also playing Lady Macbeth in repertory this summer. Ironically, “3M” affords the chance to show much greater range. As the Countess de Winter, Slack first gets to show off her charming comedic skills, but by the end she transforms into something nakedly cold-blooded.

If only the gimmicky soundtrack transformed as profoundly as time goes by.