On Stage: The Man in the Iron Mask

by Chuck Conconi

The musketeers return in Synetic Theater’s staging of the Alexandre Dumas novel. 

Image courtesy of Synetic Theater

Nicklas Aliff (Porthos), Shu-Nan Chu (D’artagnan), Ryan Sellers (Aramis) and Ben Cunis (Athos) (Photo by Johnny Shryock, Courtesy of Synetic Theater)

Few literary characters can compete with Alexandre Dumas musketeers – Athos, Aramis, Porthos and D’Artagnan – swashbuckling swordsmen living for adventure and loyal to their king. Paata Tsikurishvili, Synetic Theater’s artistic director, who staged a kinetic, superb “The Three Musketeers” three years ago, has brought the musketeers back in “The Man in the Iron Mask.”

Dumas understood that time also runs out for fictional heroes who grow old. Their days of swashbuckling flashing swords, tavern drinking, brawling and womanizing are over. We find them now in much different circumstances: Athos has gone off to become a farmer, Aramis is a Jesuit priest with ambitions, Porthos upholds the musketeer tradition, still spends his time drinking, brawling and womanizing, and D’Artagnan has become captain of the king’s musketeers and has developed a rigid sense of loyalty and duty.

This production doesn’t feel or look as entertaining as the 2013 production. Part of it is “The Man in the Iron Mask” is a darker story with a darker ending. There is less fun, even though there are Synetic’s colorful acrobatic, almost ballet, fight scenes. The creative Synetic choreography by the inventive Irina Tsikurishvili, with dramatic fight choreography by Ben Curtis and Vato Tsikurishvili, feels less energetic this time.

Mask is the tale of a mysterious man locked away in the Bastile whose identity is hidden by an iron mask. A scheming Aramas learns that the man is actually King Louis XIV’s identical twin brother, Phillip. He determines that if he can replace the corrupt, spoiled king with his brother, who with gratitude, would use his influence to recommend his elevation to pope when the pontiff dies.

Aramis, portrayed with a singular ambition by Ryan Sellers, is aware he cannot handle the subterfuge alone, and sets off to bring his old colleagues together. Porthos, a carousing, lovable Nicklas Aliff, is more than ready to recapture the past just for something to do. Athos, a sincere, settled Ben Cunis, isn’t interested. His son, Raoul (Will Hayes) is about to be married. That leaves Shu-nan Chu’s, D’Artagnan, a man of torn loyalties who cannot see beyond his unbending duty to the king.

The brothers Ben and Peter Cunis adapted the massive, some 600 page Dumas tome with a smart efficiency and brought the interlocking multiple characters and the Dumas plot complexities into an effective narrative.

Alex Mills smoothly handles the dual roles of the king, a spoiled, indulgent monarch, with that of Phillip, the confused brother whose years at the Bastile have left him timid and lacking in self-confidence. Aramis is aware that pulling off the switch is dangerous.

Athos does come around after the king seduces his son’s intended and sends Raoul off to the front lines of a war in Spain where he is killed. It is a bit reminiscent of King David sending Uriha off to battle to die so he can have Bathsheba.

The final story of the musketeers is Dumas recognition that there can’t be a happy ending, and that like a Shakespearian tragedy, the deaths pile up and are heroic but final. It is the end of the musketeers and in an emotional finale with Brittany Dilberto’s mystical lighting and Thomas Sowers creative sound design, the four heroes ride off toward the audience and into legendary history and D’Artagnan utters a puzzling last words: “Athos, Porthos, farewell until we meet again! Aramis adieu forever.”

The Man in the Iron Mask runs through June 19 at Synetic Theatre. Tickets begin at $35. Visit synetictheatre.org for more information. 

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