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Treachery, romance, redemption

It is not a coincidence that the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is offering a swashbuckling stage production of Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel “The Count of Monte Cristo” in the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre, while Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” will mesmerize audiences in the festival’s Thomas Theatre.

“These two plays have a history with one another,” says Lydia G. Garcia, the dramaturg for both “Long Day’s Journey” and “Monte Cristo.”

O’Neill’s father, actor and theater impresario James O’Neill, performed the role of Edmond Dantès in actor-playwright Charles Fechter’s adaptation of “Monte Cristo” more than 6,000 times. It became one of 19th-century America’s most popular plays.

“'The Count of Monte Cristo’ is so central to ‘Long Day’s Journey’ that it is almost a character in the play,” says Garcia. “O’Neill’s father was still performing ‘Monte Cristo’ at the time ‘Journey’ takes place. Even the Tyrones' summer home is called Monte Cristo Cottage. By doing the two plays in the same season, we are bringing to life a slice of the history of American theater.”

“The Count of Monte Cristo” has all the elements of classic melodrama — treachery, romance and redemption. There is the virtuous hero, falsely accused; a lost love who must be regained; and an intricate plot with many denouements and a sweet, savored revenge.

It begins in 1815. Napoleon is exiled at Elba, the French monarchy has been restored and tensions run high between royalists and Bonapartists. Edmond Dantès, a junior ship’s officer, is falsely accused of treason. He is betrayed through the connivance of three men — a romantic rival, a jealous colleague and an ambitious prosecutor — and condemned to an island prison.

A priest in the next cell offers Dantès solace, the location of a buried treasure and, ultimately, a means of escape. Returning to Paris 18 years later as the immensely wealthy Count of Monte Cristo, Dantès is in a position to exact revenge.

“We watch as Edmond Dantès designs his retribution,” says Garcia. “He has a genius for manipulating events and trapping people by using their true character.”

Alexandre Dumas was a literary superstar of his time, best known for “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers.” His many novels were instant bestsellers. They were often published as serials, with his readers breathlessly awaiting the next installment.

Dumas was one-quarter black. His father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, was born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), the son of a French nobleman, Antoine-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, and his slave, Marie-Cessette Dumas. When Thomas-Alexandre was 14, his father sold the boy’s mother and siblings and returned to France, bringing Thomas-Alexandre with him. Thomas-Alexandre was educated as an aristocrat’s son and subsequently rose to the rank of general in the French army, later supporting the Revolution and then Napoleon Bonaparte. A bitter argument with Bonaparte during the Egyptian campaign ended Thomas-Alexandre's military career, and he was captured and imprisoned by Italian forces on his way home, which destroyed his health.

Alexandre Dumas used the events of his father’s life — illegitimacy, divided loyalties, betrayal and imprisonment — liberally in his literary works. He was continually torn between republican and monarchist sensibilities.

The OSF production, directed by Marcela Lorca, uses James O’Neill’s version of Fechter’s successful 1868 adaptation along with elements from the sprawling Dumas novel.

“We introduced Dantès’ father into the play,” says Garcia. “Seeing him onstage makes Dantès’ discovery of his death that much more poignant and makes Dantès’ revenge even more personal.”

Actor Michael Winters, who plays James Tyrone in “Long Day's Journey,” plays Dantès' father, further linking the two plays.

“Monte Cristo” is director Lorca’s first OSF production. In addition to directing at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre and other regional theaters, Lorca has been the Guthrie’s movement director since 1991 and choreographed more than 20 plays. She is using music and movement, along with minimalist sets and vivid visual projections by scenic designer Sibyl Wickersheimer and lighting designer Karin Olson, to propel the story through its many settings.

OSF veteran Al Espinosa plays Dantès, with Michael Sharon playing Fernand, Peter Frechette as Villefort, Raffi Barsoumian as Danglars and Vilma Silva as Mercedes. Derrick Lee Weeden plays Abbé Faria.

“There is a reason ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ was so popular,” says Garcia. “It defies so much of what we think of as melodrama. The play has a vibrancy and life that we didn’t expect when we chose it as a companion piece to ‘Journey.’ It has an artistic merit, a sense of grandeur, that stands alone.”

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

Al Espinosa plays Edmond Dantes in 'The Count of Monte Cristo,' opening June 14 in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre. OSF photo by Jenny Graham
Alexandre Dumas wrote 'The Count of Monte Cristo' in 1845-46.