The Count of Monte Cristo

Leave it to Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Theatre Company to take a looooong 19th-century French novel and turn it into a play that is powerful and rich with symbolism, but also smashingly entertaining.

“The Count of Monte Cristo,” playing at PTC through Nov. 14, was adapted for the stage and directed by Utah theater mainstay Charles Morey. Having the same man write and direct is dangerous, for it eliminates some of the checks and balances that normally exist. (The writer isn’t going to correct the director on some of his interpretations, for example.) And especially with a work as complicated as Dumas’ “Monte Cristo”! But Morey and his superb cast and crew pull out all the stops and present a marvelous, well-balanced show.

At first the play seems almost to be a shallow, frivolous tale of buried treasure and adventure, like it’s going to be a pirate story or something. (There is one sword fight, but it’s not of the swash-buckling variety.) Edmond Dantes (John Rensenhouse) is locked in prison, having been wrongfully accused and turned in by his former “friends.” The years he spends in jail turn him cynical and bitter, and he plots revenge. As is generally the case in these situations, an old man who has been in prison much longer than Edmond tunnels out of his cell into Edmond’s and teaches him stuff. In particular, he tells him where a treasure is bured on the isle of Monte Cristo, and that with that money, Edmond can do much good and learn forgiveness.

Well, forgiveness, shmorgiveness, that seems to be Edmond’s response. He escapes from the prison by pretending to be dead — they just toss dead prisoners into the ocean, and there’s actually a pit of real water built into the front of the stage! — and he swims to shore, gets the treasure and shows up in Marseilles, Rome and Paris as the Count of Monte Cristo. He’s dressed all in white, acts like a gentlemen, and very gently and cordially plots the death and anguish of all the people who wronged him (none of whom seem to recognize him, don’t ask me why).

And quite a list that turns out to be! There’s Mercedes (Gloria Biegler), his fiancee who left him in prison and married one of his traitorous friends, Mondego (Tracy Griswold), instead. There’s Danglars (Ross Bickell), a now-successful businessman whom the Count seeks to ruin. There’s Villefort, the state prosecutor who has a bit of a dark history that the Count intends on making public. In all, there are four whom the Count wants destroyed, and he will stop at nothing to meet his goals.

As Edmond (or “the Count”), Rensenhouse strides nobly around the stage, seldom lurking, seldom creeping. He is perhaps the creepiest of villains because he makes himself part of normal society, rather than being a raging psychopath. His plans are methodical, never enacted out of rage or sudden inspiration. And his access to old documents and disturbing information makes him reminiscent of the Phantom of the Opera: dignified, intelligent and extremely resourceful. Indeed, he is a super-villain, incapable of being fought because no one realizes until it’s too late that they need to be fighting ANYONE, let alone him.

The Count fancies himself the “hammer of God” — a phrase he uses several times. He sees himself as merely exacting justice upon those who deserve it, being an instrument in God’s hands. However, it is near the end that he realizes what he has really been doing, when Mercedes tells him, “Like Satan, you thought yourself equal with God.” The Count makes reference a few times to his “former life,” and having been “reborn.” Indeed, when he played dead and was tossed in the ocean out of the prison, that seems to have been his journey through death and back again — an unholy baptism, as it were. (He emerges from the water all dressed in white, and remains that way until the end — when his black deeds are so heinous as to show themselves in his now-black attire.)

And somewhere in all that, the play stops being just a cool, exciting story of revenge and becomes a powerful statement on justice, God and forgiveness. The Count cannot forgive; however, when he kills Mondego, Mondego’s son Albert (John Hansen) frankly forgives the Count. This is as hellish a torment as one can conceive.

In an all-too-rushed wrap-up, the Count sees the error of his ways and attempts to make amends, to finally use his vast wealth for good instead of evil.

“The Count of Monte Cristo” is a play that LOOKS fabulous. George Maxwell’s sets, as always, are amazing, with pieces flying up and falling down and sliding off — not to mention the cool water pit in the front! Linda Sarver’s costumes are beautiful and perfectly befitting the time period, as well.

Obviously a 3-hour play cannot entirely do justice to all the themes and plots presented in Dumas’ lengthy novel. But there are only a couple times where things seemed too rushed in the stage version, things you can be certain were developed more carefully in the book. The turnaround at the end is one example, but there are very few others. Overall, this production is fabulously entertaining, not to mention meaningful and important. It’s theater at its finest: well-acted and directed, with plenty of fun and excitement, and a bit of a “take-home” message too.

I had not one ounce of faith in this play being at all entertaining. I'd never read the book, but I knew it was extremely long and extremely French. It turned out to be quite delightful: cool plot (murder, etc.), good acting, and a water pit in the front of the stage.

I cannot overemphasize how much I enjoyed the water. It reminded me of my high school days, when I frequently suggested to the drama instructor that we fill the orchestra pit with water and do a production of "The Little Mermaid." (I also recommnended a musical version of "Silence of the Lambs," which suggestion also was never used.)