“Evil deeds cost the doers in the end,” says the bitter and jealous Fernanda Mondego just before she finalizes plans to basically destroy the life of Amelie Dantes. Little does Fernanda know how prophetic her words would be, as the wronged Amelie Dantes will one day return with power and vengeance on her mind as The Countess of Monte Cristo, the Actors’ Theatre of Columbus production currently being performed in Schiller Park. Based on the Alexander Dumas classic The Count of Monte Cristo, this adaptation by artistic director Philip J. Hickman and co-director Jennifer Feather Youngblood reimagines the story with a woman as the lead, shifting the locus of power within the story from male to female, presenting a different portrait of what female revenge can look like to those of us familiar with it only from Stephen King’s Carrie.
Amelie Dantes has her world turned upside down when she is imprisoned for a crime she didn’t commit through the efforts of Danglars, an envious captain; the aforementioned Fernanda Mondego, a bartender with her eyes set on nabbing Merced Herrera, Amelie’s fiancée; and Villefort, a Magistrate with family secrets to hide. Each has something to gain by getting Amelie out of the picture, but they don’t count on her meeting and being tutored by Abbess Faria in prison, escaping her life sentence after fourteen years, or claiming a hidden fortune; this enables her to return with the wealth and influence necessary to exact veiled revenge on each of them.
I was completely unfamiliar with the plot of The Count of Monte Cristo before seeing this production, which was both a blessing and a curse. The story was new and fresh to me as a result, but it was also quite difficult to follow at points. The summary I’ve presented here doesn’t go into the pirates, kidnapping, the involvement of the daughters of the Countess’s enemies, the cargo ship business, and several incriminating letters that fall into the wrong hands. The intricacies of the story may not be completely clear (I thought of the business with the letters as simply a MacGuffin, a trigger for the plot), but the overall theme of female empowerment and growth is very much in evidence. It is clear that Amelie’s enemies don’t recognize her upon her return, and it is indeed interesting to see how the Countess infiltrates their lives to bring about their ruin.
It must be a special kind of challenge to perform outdoors with unpredictable weather and technical aberrations (one performance I attended was plagued with intermittent static) and still find a way to tell the story. This talented cast manages to perform grandly to reach an audience spread out over the park on lawn chairs and blankets without appearing to be yelling or overacting, no small feat considering this material or venue. Standouts in the cast are McLane Nagy as Amelie Dantes, the Countess of Monte Cristo; Kasey Leah Meininger as the conniving Fernanda Mondego; James Harper as Merced Herrera, Amelie’s handsome but doomed former fiancée; Derek Faraji as Ali, Amelie’s faithful companion; and Catherine Cryan as both the nurturing Abbess Faria and the caustic Madame Villefort (wife of one of Amelie’s enemies).
Ms. Nagy is sweet and unassuming as Amelie, plaintively stating, “I am a woman. I wouldn’t presume to concern myself with matters of state,” during her interrogation; her metamorphoses into the formidable Countess is complete when she wails, “I die, and all forgiveness with me!” Ms. Nagy brings an athletic agility necessary for us to believe in her journey, and yet her heart isn’t frozen; “I would never wish to instill vengeance in your heart,” she says to a daughter of one of her enemies, her delivery making clear the burden that kind of anger can have on a person.
Ms. Meininger’s Fernanda is boldly conniving, forcing Amelie out of the picture to claim Merced for herself. The way that she embraces Merced from behind as she coos to manipulate him into framing his fiancée demonstrates that she will stop at nothing to get what she wants, making her ultimate comeuppance all the more enjoyable to witness. Ms. Meininger has a bigger than life performance style uniquely suited to playing such a heartless villain the audience loves to hate.
Mr. Harper’s Merced is powerless to resist Fernanda, but his internal agony at having played a part in Amelie’s imprisonment shows in his posture and movement when he returns to the story. Mr. Harper can play conquered without appearing weak or simple, turning his anguish inward at himself; as such, he comes off as the only one of Amelie’s enemies with any kind of conscience. His breakdown when the Countess reveals herself to be Amelie is devastatingly intense, his actions those of a tortured soul.
Mr. Faraji as Ali submits to the Countess’s wishes and yet is not a subservient person; he chooses to do her bidding instead of coming off as obligated. It’s clear from Mr. Faraji’s gaze this his character’s respect for his mistress blossoms into love as he assists in her quest. Ali emerges as the kind of ally we should all be so lucky to have, his interactions with the Countess revealing a genuine affection for her and her plight; he was also wronged in his past when he was sold by Merced, so helping her enact revenge supports his motive as well.
Ms. Cryan makes the most out of playing Abbess Faria, the knowledgable tutor who becomes a surrogate mother to Amelie in prison. She is able to convey a maternal warmth that is welcoming while still being a force to reckon with; she teaches Amelie how to fence and quizzes her on Latin because these are the only gifts she has to give while they are both imprisoned. Ms. Cryan and Ms. Nagy are able to share moments together on stage that feel intimate and quite personal even across an audience spread about on the grass. Ms. Cryan’s touching performance as Abbess Faria is nearly matched when she reappears as Madame Villefort, a woman so morally bankrupt that the idea of poisoning her family in the pursuit of wealth and power seems like a good idea. Her Madame Villefort sinks to depths that are startling in their disregard for human life, and the audience reacts with glee when her husband Gerard Villefort (played menacingly by her real-life husband, Ken Erney) turns on her in the end.
It’s nice to see smaller character parts imbued with the kind of life that Elizabeth Harelick, Michael Carozza, and Cat McAlpine bring to them, demonstrating that there are no small parts, just small actors. Ms. Harelick is giddy with madness as de Bouville, the mistress of a prison; Mr. Carozza brings wide-eyed comedy to the fore as Peppino, a thickly-accented member of the Countess’s gang; and Ms. McAlpine uses her substantial height and imposing presence as both Marie and Pastrini, and then switches things up again as Louise, an unexpected romantic interest for Eugenie Danglars (Maggie Turek).
Directors Adam Simon and Jennifer Feather Youngblood have their work cut out for them with a plot of this complexity and size. The show is a bit rocky at first, opening with a pantomimed scene in a bar with music in the background, all of it going on far too long before we get to some substantial dialogue. Too many scenes end awkwardly, with a lull before the next scene begins. When this break is to denote a passage of time it’s understandable, but too often it just slows down the action. The three daughters of Amelie’s enemies (Mary Paige Rieffel as Alberta Herrera, Myia Eren as Valentine Villefort, and Maggie Turek as Eugenie Danglars) are also presented in a manner conducive to generating confusion, each with brown hair styled up and similar costume coloring. This isn’t so much a problem up close, but much of the audience is spread far out from the stage where the similarities between their appearance is amplified. The personalities of the characters are all quite different, but more care should be taken to help them stand apart as it just adds confusion to an already densely plotted story.
I find it odd that as Amelie gains power and wealth that she becomes more masculine in appearance. She begins as a pretty young bride on her wedding day, is reduced to rags while in prison, reappears as the Countess in an Arabian-inspired hooded cloak covering what looks like lounging pajamas, and at last has her hair pinned back and is dressing in a suit like a man. This conceit reminds me of a moment in the film Tootsie where Dustin Hoffman as Dorothy Michaels first appears to audition for a strong female role in a soap opera and is rebuffed as being “too soft and genteel” by the director. “You want some gross caricature of a woman to prove some idiotic point that power makes women masculine or masculine women are ugly,” Mr. Hoffman says as Ms. Michaels, wagging a finger with, “Well shame on the woman who lets you do that or any woman that lets you do that!” It’s this stereotype that I feel is being perpetuated in the visual transformation of Amelie’s character in this piece. Why couldn’t she have grown more glamorous and beautifully stylish as each bit of retribution is delivered, showing how power and strength can also still be incredibly feminine and alluring? Images of dangerous but strong women from old ’40s noir films come to mind when I think of the ways Amelie as the Countess is able to manipulate events in her favor once she returns to her old stomping ground, except she doesn’t rely on sex to do it (another stereotype). The costumes that Ms. Nagy wears as the Countess are often quite ornate and attractive; I just don’t agree with the way femininity is drained from her appearance as her strength increases.
Despite some storytelling and design shortcomings, The Countess of Monte Cristo is a lively production that only improves as it continues to play out. Some familiarity with the plot of the original story might help those who might otherwise stumble to connect all of the plot threads (I saw it twice and still didn’t catch everything); still, there is enough action, drama, and raw emotion on display to keep a crowd of hundreds focused on the stage. This is the kind of show that is worth seeing for its cast, a veritable “who’s who” of some of the best actors in Columbus. These performers work together to create an experience that is more than the sum of its parts, and Actors’ Theatre of Columbus is to be commended on tackling such a complicated tale with this fresh reworking that emerges as a real crowd pleaser.
*** out of ****
The Countess of Monte Cristo continues through to July 17th in Schiller Park at 1069 Jaeger Street, and more information can be found at http://theactorstheatre.org/2016-season/the-countess-of-monte-cristo/