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The words “Three Musketeers” may conjure up images of three white men with fancy mustaches, outlandish hats with feathers and shiny swords. That’s definitely what came up when I did a quick Google search of “three musketeers.”
When I saw the Front Porch Arts Collective and Greater Boston Stage Company’s co-production of “The Three Musketeers” by Catherine Bush, that image completely changed. Athos, Aramis and Porthos were all played by actors of color and two were women. As a biracial woman, there’s something very satisfying about seeing a woman of color brandish her sword and assert, “en garde!”
This silly retelling of “The Three Musketeers” reminds us that funny plays matter. Humorous productions with a cast of diverse actors matter. Actors of color are often offered roles that, despite their depth and complexity, ask the actors to depict some sort of trauma or oppression in order to shift the audience’s perspective or spark conversation. Stories like “Pacific Overtures” and “The Niceties” serve as valuable opportunities for actors of color that weren’t there before. Cultural institutions across the country reflect the wider culture, which is hungry for narratives that have often gone uncommissioned or unnoticed. The state of theater is arguably defined by productions like “Slave Play” or “White Noise” — meaningful and severe explorations of the heavier themes in the zeitgeist.
But, plays that allow actors of color to revel in silliness and offer joy to an audience are just as vital. By putting these stories on stage, we continue to remove the boxes put around people of color and broaden the contexts in which we see them represented on stage.
Sarah Shin, a young Korean-American actor, who plays Anne of Austria and Kitty among other various roles, described the play and the process as both “joyful” and “bad-ass.” Shin said, “[the play] is not villainizing or putting any identity on a pedestal. We are not putting any commentary on race or gender. We are just going to do it and own it.” Humor is an existential characteristic of what it means to be human. It's a means of catharsis and builds resilience. We often combat sorrow and grief or express love with laughter. If people of color are not seen in funny roles, they are not being portrayed in the broadest spectrum of their humanity.
The action-packed sword-fights and hilarious bar-brawls in this production of “Three Musketeers” underscored by adventure and hip-hop music, mixed classic with contemporary. I burst out laughing during one particularly chaotic bar-fight when a fisherman used a whole fish as a weapon, pointing it as a gun and slapping her opponents in the face with it.
The production embraces archetypes that are familiar to us and shape our understanding of comedy: the lover, the hero, the villain. Athos, one of the musketeers played by Lyndsey Allyn Cox, has a complicated relationship full of love and betrayal with villain M’Lady played by Margaret Clark. We’ve seen this classic dynamic usually depicted as a man and a woman: the illustrious hero and the femme fatale. In this “Three Musketeers,” it is two women.
In one surprising encounter, the two share a passionate kiss, until Athos pulls away and says, “You are so beautiful. I would have loved you forever.” Before M’Lady can say anything, Athos snaps her neck. My jaw dropped at not only how, to use Shin’s word, “bad-ass” the on-stage revenge murder was, but also how unapologetically queer the production was. The moment was so classic, it could have been plucked out of any action movie, yet it exploded all heteronormative expectations.
Shin is challenging expectations of her own. She opened up about how new and refreshing it has been for her to play comedic and romantic roles. Anne of Austria is regal and poised, a Queen. Kitty is sweet with hearts in her eyes for Planchet, Madame Treville’s servant. Being cast in these parts is a reminder for Shin that “there are people out there that actually see me playing certain things and now I just need to live up to it and own it.”
Shin told me that growing up, she never truly saw herself as capable of playing these types of parts. Asian-American representation in romantic comedies has recently seen a slight uptick, but has been slim to none during Shin’s upbringing. “I’ve set my own obstacles up being raised that I could not play certain roles that I now don’t have the confidence in it,” said Shin.
Seeing people that look like us on stage can be so formative, especially at a young age. It shapes the way we see the world, ourselves, and how others see us. How would Shin’s work be shaped had she seen a production like the one she’s in now as a small girl?
Shin combats self-doubts by living fully in the joy of playing characters like Anne and Kitty and reminding herself that letting her insecurities get the best of her will just “get in the way of the work that needs to get done.”
It takes thoughtfulness and stamina to challenge comedic norms. But Shin explained that there is something revitalizing about creating with a group of diverse artists. She reflected on a moment in the dressing room when she looked around and realized how rare it is to be a part of a cast and creative team that is so diverse. “I’m trying to take that in as energy and strength for the next show I do that doesn’t have that diversity.”
The Front Porch Arts Collective and Greater Boston Stage Company’s co-production of “The Three Musketeers” runs until June 30.
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