Review: The Man in the Iron Mask
By: Perry Tannenbaum
Hand it to Shakespeare Carolina and Amy Schiede. Producing their own adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s The Man in the Iron Mask outdoors at the Winthrop University Amphitheatre, they haven’t stinted on the swordplay or the fighting. Even though two of the major swashbuckling roles – identical twins who take turns ruling France as Louis XIV – have been handed over to women (including Schiede herself), the hostile action sustains a high standard.
Better yet, in choosing the final installment of the epic Three Musketeers saga, they’ve also maximized the drama and the suspense. Some of our heroes didn’t survive when Dumas closed the book on Aramis, Porthos, Athos, and D’Artagnan. Like the film and TV series before it, Schiede’s adaptation takes a free-range approach in incorporating plot points, assigning actions to various characters, and determining their fates. Perhaps the most suspenseful element is Schiede’s choice of which identical twin, Louis or Phillipe, ultimately sits on the throne.
The 1937 Hollywood version had it differently than the novel, serialized between 1847 and 1850.
There’s no hurry in unveiling Aramis’s plot to unseat King Louis as he brings Athos to a tailor to be measured for evening attire worthy of a reception that superintendent of finances Fouquet is hosting at his home for the conceited monarch. Aramis will need both Athos and Porthos to help free Phillipe from the Bastille, where he has been imprisoned since birth, unaware of his own royal origins. But we won’t learn the motives for Aramis’s machinations until much later. Needless to say, only lofty ambitions would justify such risk.
Fellow musketeers, Athos and Porthos don’t question Aramis closely at the outset, After all, didn’t they originate the famous gung-ho “All for one, and one for all!” slogan? But Aramis is sly enough not to divulge his scheme to D’Artagnan, who is fiercely loyal to the king despite reservations about Louis’s character. So with finance minister Colbert intriguing against Fouquet, D’Artagnan protecting Louis, and Phillipe totally ignorant about all that reigning as the king of France entails, there is plenty of suspense surrounding the success of the three musketeers’ plot.
Obviously, the perils won’t be over if Phillipe is secreted onto the throne.
With straight-arrow D’Artagnan on the royalist side of the conflict, you might experience some ambivalence about whom to root for as the moon rises over this production. David Hensley is rather starchy and subdued as D’Artagnan at the outset, making it easier for us to lean toward Aramis and Philippe, but Hensley does perk up when his king imperils his pals.
Tom Ollis makes sure that we see Aramis as more rascally and duplicitous than noble, but Schiede epitomizes naïveté and nonchalant regality as Philippe. She is surely the more righteous and beneficent claimant to the throne, especially since Katie Bearden revels in Louis’s arrogance, even when the monarch is cast into the Bastille and encased in the iron mask.
Charles Holmes directs at a near-galloping pace, which accounted for some bobbled lines on opening night and some audibility dropouts, particularly from a couple of the women. Nobody will find Holmes’s set designs particularly lavish when Louis holds court, nor do we descend into dim dreariness when we shift to the Bastille. Yet I liked the overall concept, placing the kings’ dungeon up a flight of stairs and above the action rather than below or in a dingy corner. Homage is paid to the idea that royals are imprisoned in towers awaiting their fates – and angelic Phillipe’s early monologue about being content with the daily sight of the skies plays better there.
Holmes also lurks onstage as Athos, sufficiently lighthearted to be carried along in the perilous drift of the musketeers’ plot, yet tender enough to be broken by the death of his son. David Hayes is even more rightfully cast as Porthos, the Ajax among the musketeers. Unfortunately, the prop fashioned for him at a climactic moment – the barrel of dynamite that he hurls into a tunnel – doesn’t sufficiently emphasize his preternatural strength.
A richer script from Schiede would have given Chris O’Neill more to work with in evoking Fouquet’s corrupt tendencies, but that opens the door for Gina Belmont to come off all the more wicked as his rival, Colbert. More detail might have helped us determine whether Anne, the queen mother, was duped by Colbert or strategically taking his side. Amy Hillard is so icily imperious as Anne that she’s also mysterious. Watch her faint when she sees the two twins standing in front of her for the first time. You’ll never know whether she’s shocked to learn she has two sons – or shocked to find that her evil plot against one of them has failed.