Ellen Geer, doyenne of the leafy Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon, employs some 50 thesps for almost three hours in Alexandre Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers,” adapted in the cram-it-all-in-there spirit of the RSC’s “Nicholas Nickleby” and Steppenwolf’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” Cinematic rather than theatrical — which is to say, played as straight naturalism — the yarn is lively and action packed, a diverting if overlong evening under the stars.
There’s a reason these staged leviathan novels are so often assigned third-person narration passages and a post-intermission recap: The plots are absurdly complicated. Moreover, contempo audiences often need help on the given social and political context, in this case Louis XIII’s 17th century court during Cardinal Richelieu’s intrigues against Protestant England.
Geer’s troupe just plays the story, so we don’t always know whether we’re in the environs or Paris, or where in Paris, or how much time has elapsed between scenes. No verbal or visual cues distinguish English people and locations from French ones; when auds realize they’ve been, say, in London for the past 10 minutes, it can be mildly dismaying.
Geer may have wanted to avoid the distancing effect created by explicit acknowledgement of the stage environment. But it’s a lot more distancing when one can’t follow what’s going on.
Best bet is to sit back, and not worry about the details and dropped lines. There’s plenty to enjoy in the endless swordplay, choreographed by Aaron Hendry, plus lots of dash and comic brio from a mostly effective troupe.
Jackson McCord Thompson is a splendid young puppy of a D’Artagnan, though he should find more places to man up along the way; we don’t yet fully apprehend his arc of maturing into the Musketeers’ ranks.
His titular comrades are nicely defined by Jim LeFave, Kelly C. Henton and Melora Marshall (a gender-bending stunt that shouldn’t work but does), while William Dennis Hunt leavens the plot as the wily Cardinal.
The femmes don’t fare as well, with Willow Geer and Anne Goen Nemer identically screechy and unpleasant as two of D’Artagnan’s amours. And Abby Craden urgently needs to bring guts and backbone to the infamous Milady de Winter, whose rep as the apotheosis of evil is constantly belied by her droopy weepiness and flat attempts at comedy.
Helmer Geer finds room for one unabashedly presentational sequence, dramatizing the rape and forced Catholic conversion of Huguenot haven La Rochelle in full-cast mime and a ballad led by Marshall’s musketeer Aramis. Similar boldness could have brought welcome spark to the otherwise stolid, and largely music-free, adaptation.
The show runs in rep with “Hamlet” and others, well into the autumn.