By Richard Ades
Actors’ Theatre seems to be focused on giving adults a good reason to come to Schiller Park this season. Judging from the huge crowd that gathered there last Saturday night, it seems to be succeeding.
The troupe launched the season with Shakespeare’s Othello, a tragedy in which the key murder was depicted in such painful detail that it could well have terrified impressionable youngsters. The current play has nothing that grim, but it does feature a complex plot and a large cast of characters that likely would confuse younger patrons.
Based on Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, The Countess of Monte Cristo is a world-premiere drama written by Philip J. Hickman and Jennifer Feather Youngblood and directed by Youngblood and Adam Simon. Recasting its protagonist as an early 19th century Frenchwoman named Amelie Dantes (McLane Nagy), it begins as she prepares for her upcoming marriage to Merced Herrera (James Harper).
Amelie’s happiness turns out to be short-lived. Thanks to the machinations of George Danglars (Benjamin Isaiah Black) and Fernanda Mondego (Kasey Leah Meininger)—who wants Merced for herself—Amelie is accused of possessing a treasonous letter that she actually knows nothing about. At first, it appears prosecuting attorney Gerard Villefort (Ken Erney) will right the wrong, but he changes his mind after realizing his own family will suffer if the contents of the letter become public.
Amelie ends up in prison, where she spends long, miserable years wondering just how she got there. It’s only after she meets a fellow inmate named the Abbess Faria (Catherine Cryan) that she finally figures out who put her there and why. It’s also thanks to the Abbess that Amelie eventually escapes and reinvents herself as the mysterious and vengeful countess of Monte Cristo.
All of this happens in the first act, which benefits from breezy storytelling and punchy portrayals by all concerned. Nagy is consistently watchable as Amelie, who makes a believable transition from a naïve fiancée to the fierce and resourceful countess. Memorable supporting roles are played by Meininger as the ruthlessly ambitious Fernanda; Harper as the weak-willed Merced; Cryan as the wise and kindly Abbess; and Derek Faraji as Ali, an enslaved doctor who is promised his freedom if he aids Amelie’s fight for justice.
Remember that I said the plot might confuse younger viewers? Truth is, I was confused myself after Amelie’s search for vengeance brought her into contact with the grown daughters of those who did her wrong. One problem is that we meet Alberta Herrera, Valentine Villefort and Eugenie Danglars (Mary Paige Rieffel, Myia Eren and Maggie Turek) totally apart from their parents, and it’s hard to keep it straight who’s related to whom.
Act 2 also suffers from talky scenes whose relationship to the plot isn’t always clear. Meanwhile, key developments take place offstage, making it even harder to follow the progression of Amelie’s quest for vengeance.
Sarah Fickling’s costume designs are handsome and sometimes glamorous, especially the gowns the countess wears before she, for reasons that aren’t quite clear, begins donning masculine clothes. Sound-wise, one or two characters’ mikes seemed under-amplified at the performance I attended, but otherwise the dialogue comes across remarkably clearly for an outdoor production.
Like most new works, The Countess of Monte Cristo has room for improvement—specifically, improvement that would make it easier to keep characters and plot developments straight. Still, playwrights Hickman and Youngblood deserve credit for what they’ve accomplished. Feminizing the Dumas classic was a daunting task, but they’ve done it in a way that allows them to explore gender issues without undercutting the original’s intriguing tale.
Actors’ Theatre will present The Countess of Monte Cristo through July 17 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Admission is free, but donations are requested. Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.