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Sword Play 

Musketeers at GU battles Hollywood and woos the young with blades, fists and a hook hand

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A woman screams, and the young D’Artagnan leaps into action. In a pure and romantic act of chivalry, he draws his sword before he even knows what is happening. “What’s happening?” he asks, as his rapier shings out of its scabbard.

He jumps down over the side of a tall stair before he knows what is below.

Seeing a man with a hook (Count Rochefort, must be evil) holding the screaming damsel (Milady de Winter, a slender, long-necked, bottle-redhead with bush-baby eyes), the aspiring hero lunges. His sword catches in the man’s hook, though, and Rochefort jams him up, forcing him back against the stair, punching him in the jaw with his non-hook hand and relieving him of his weapon.

With D’Artagnan subdued, Milady stops screaming. She walks up to him and kisses him deeply. This confuses D’Artagnan. She punches him in the mouth. This renders him unconscious.

In Gonzaga’s new production of The Three Musketeers, things are not exactly as they seem. They are mostly as they seem — the good guys wear blue, the villain has a hook — but there is treachery enough to keep things interesting. Also keeping things interesting: a shitload of fights. Seventeen of them, “plus three isolated slaps,” according to director Kevin Connell, in a little under two hours.

It is a show by young people aimed at much younger people. When it opens this Friday, it will be in direct competition for those much younger people with a million-dollar 3D film of the same name.

These are odds that only a musketeer could overcome.

It’s mid-evening on a Friday in early October and much of GU is already partying. Students course through the neighborhoods in groups approaching a dozen. There is a school bus in the parking circle next to Magnuson Theater, engine running, playing the hits of Ke$ha out of tinny speakers. Two girls dance in the headlights.

Inside the theater, though, the swords are out and it’s mostly business. It has been a long week. Outside of class, most free hours have been spent here, student thespians learning the fundamentals of swordplay and then implementing them under the tutelage of Adam Critchlow, an L.A.-based fight choreographer and Richland, Wash., native. It is his last day on campus, so these hours must count. Everything that follows depends on it.

When Taylor Pedroza, who plays D’Artagnan, and Heath Walters, a redwood of a man who plays Athos, come to the end of a duel, Critchlow takes them aside.

“You’re both suffering from the same issue here,” he says. “You shuffle. Walk and plant. Step. Stop. Don’t shuffle or you move too far forward.”

Limber and graceful, but compact and broad-shouldered like a halfback, Critchlow demonstrates, keeping his movements economical and short. If the quarters get too close, Critchlow says, “[the audience] doesn’t understand why you don’t just kill him.”

To make the swordplay look authentic, his system takes concepts from 17th century fencing manuals. These concepts are then modified and exaggerated to make it clear who is attacking and who is defending.

You want audiences to be able to follow the action, the way you want actors to enunciate and project to the back row, Critchlow says, because stage combat is story-telling. If it doesn’t serve the story, it has no place. “A good choreographer will guide the characters to a place where they have no other choice but to pick up swords and tell that story,” he says.

The story they are telling, adapted into a play by Ken Ludwig, is a swashbuckling, child-friendly adventure. The Times of London recently called Ludwig “the purveyor of light comedy to Middle America,” and that’s more or less what his Musketeers is. Light comedy with copious action.

That will probably describe the new Hollywood blockbuster as well. Gonzaga’s Musketeers and the one starring Orlando Bloom both open this Friday. Connell didn’t plan it that way (“I knew it was coming. I didn’t realize it was the exact night,” he says), but in a way, it’s fitting.

Gonzaga does one production every couple of years to appeal to elementary- and middle-schoolers. Connell thinks of it as outreach, and — in a media ecosystem saturated with explosions and interactivity — survival. “We want kids to see theater as a real alternative to videogames and TV,” he says.

There are stakes for the student thespians hacking their way through Dumas as well, especially those who want to make acting a career. (Connell says about half the cast are theater majors.)

Hollywood is famously a gauntlet, but elsewhere in America, too, there are more actors than roles. Critchlow says he owes much of the work he gets in Los Angeles not to his acting chops, but to the supplemental skills he has. He doesn’t have a role in the new Musketeers movie, but he spent time as a “training dummy” for Logan Lerman, the Hollywood heart-throb-of-the-moment who stars as D’Artagnan onscreen.

“It’s one thing to have a talent,” Critchlow says, “but another to have a marketable skill.”

With the success of the Marvel Comics franchise and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, to say nothing of comic books coming to Broadway, there are few skills as marketable in show business right now as being able to throw a good stage punch.

On Critchlow’s last night in town, while their classmates unwind from a hard week, the cast runs each of 17 fights twice, sometimes three times.

There is a lot to remember. In addition to memorizing lines, the cast and crew must manage wardrobe changes, weaponry changes and the heavy choreography of swordplay. There are 19 cast members who get in at least one fight. The hook-handed Rochefort (played by Kelley Dennehy) has five.

“This is an epic production,” Connell says. “We stop every few minutes and start hitting each other.”

Moments before the scene where he is kissed and punched, Pedroza can’t remember if he was supposed to be carrying his sword or if he would pick it up somewhere. No one else on cast could remember either.

They ultimately figure it out, with only a nudge from Critchlow and Connell. The scene proceeds in fits and starts, ending with D’Artagnan dragged, limp-legged, offstage, in the cartoony way unconscious people are dragged in light comedies.

From downstage, in the front row, Critchlow asks, “So, do you remember it now?”

“Yes,” “Yep,” and “Now, yeah,” they say.

“Good,” Critchlow says, leaning forward in his chair, “do it again.”

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The Three Musketeers • Oct 21, 22, 28, 29 at 7:30 pm; Oct. 22, 30 at 2 pm • Magnuson Theater • 1161 N. Astor St. • $15; $10, students • 313-3606

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