A swashbuckling adventure awaits audiences when the Pocket Sandwich Theatre opens its first production of 2024, “The Three Musketeers: The Fate of France.” The show is the newest edition of the long-running theater’s melodramas, frequently characterized by the audience’s tradition of throwing popcorn at the dastardly villain.
“It’s often a parody, not too dissimilar from a Monty Python style, but they are real characters. You get to boo the bad guy, cheer the good guy, ‘aww’ in the tender moment, so it’s very audience participation (driven). The audience is invited to be involved in the story,” “The Three Musketeers: The Fate of France” Director Nick Haley said of the typical Pocket Sandwich Theatre melodrama, calling it a “tried-and-true style that has been very, very successful” for the theater during its four-decade history.
Over the course of that time, the theater has created a number of fan-favorite shows that have become staples of its seasonal rotation, like the pirate-themed “Captain Blood” or the theater’s twist on the classic story of “Dracula.” “The Three Musketeers: The Fate of France” marks a new entry to the theater’s repertoire, however, when the show opens in Historic Downtown Carrollton on Jan. 5.
“It’s a love letter to all the old pocket melodramas from when they were first starting,” the show’s writer, Jared Seman, said, referring to those long-running shows that “made the pocket what it is.” “This is a slightly modernized version of that, but it’s something that I was trying to stay really close to the traditional style of the big bad and the perfect hero, and then building everything else while kind of making it more (of an) ensemble.”
It also means crafting plenty of moments for audiences to fling some popcorn, something the Pocket Sandwich Theatre production team helps work into the show itself.
“There’s a lot of bringing people up to the lip of the stage, especially when they’re having a moment of particularly nefarious monologues or whatnot because that is, especially with the front row, what they’re looking for,” Haley said. “They’ve got buckets of popcorn.”
Nonetheless, Haley’s careful not to overindulge in the popcorn tossing. He explained that each night brings with it a different audience that might have its own unique reaction to a particular scene or moment. It makes it all the more important to strike a balance between audience engagement and storytelling.
“A Pocket audience is different than anywhere else, because on some level, you have to win them. They don’t want you to fail, but they’re not going to help you win, so you actually have to earn that,” Seman said, describing how he writes audience-engaging moments for all the characters while showcasing the expected acts of heroism and villainy needed to fulfill the melodramatic style of the production. “By the end of the show, if you’ve got the entire audience losing their minds at the villain, that’s the win. You want to see him get his comeuppance, and if you haven’t earned that, then everybody kind of leaves a little bit disappointed.”
When it comes to “The Three Musketeers,” that means helping Pocket Sandwich Theatre veteran Matt Doden be the best bad guy he can be.
“For me, personally, it’s been a couple of years since I’ve done a mainstage show with the Pocket, and I was really excited when they were doing ‘Three Musketeers’ because it’s a new show,” Doden, who’s performed “since 2004 on-and-off” at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre, said.
Doden will play the musketeers’ foil, Cardinal Richelieu, a role Seman was likewise excited to see the actor cast in.
“I was so thrilled when I saw Matt auditioning because I knew he could do any of the roles in the show, but having someone who can be a proper villain – like capital V Villain – is fantastic because that is the heart of a melodrama,” Seman said.
Of course, that means Doden will once again be familiarizing himself with a face full of popcorn come opening night, a phenomenon that initially took the actor a bit off-guard.
“I had seen pocket melodramas before I started doing shows there, and so I knew all about the popcorn and everything, but that very first one you go out, and it’s like, ‘Oh my god, they’re really throwing popcorn here,’” Doden said.
Over time, Doden’s embraced the improvisational nature of the shows and has come to expect the unexpected. He found that plenty of rehearsal time going through scenes with his fellow castmates is key to being ready for anything, a sentiment echoed by one of the show’s musketeers, Lauren Hearn.
“By the time we’re ready for (the) stage, we know the scripts. We trust each other, and that’s one of the biggest things on stage, especially with all the variables and all the unexpected – either interruptions or perfectly timed popcorn throws or whatever,” Hearn, a fellow veteran of Pocket Sandwich Theatre who plays Aramis in the show, said.
She views trusting her scene partners to have her back as critical to the show, especially in an ensemble environment like “The Three Musketeers,” in order to help work through the twists and turns of a night’s performance.
Those elements of trusting your scene partner and meticulously practicing stage work together form the basis for the show’s swashbuckling action as well. It’s an element that leaves no room for improv in order to provide a safe environment for the cast to go along with the kind of steel-on-steel swordplay that audiences crave from a show like “The Three Musketeers.”
“We have actual stage swords. They’re safe. They are designed for stage combat. They’re all blunted. They’re dull, but…you still swing it at a certain rate, you could hurt somebody, so it’s very important that when we do the (fight) choreography that we do it exactly as choreographed, exactly as rehearsed,” Haley said.
Haley knows the spectacle of sword fighting excites both the cast and audience. He views the swordplay as tapping into the production’s inner 12-year-olds to create the best action scenes possible.
“We make it as fantastic of a spectacle as we can while making sure it’s completely safe,” Haley said.
It’s all part of delivering the Pocket Sandwich Theatre melodrama experience to audiences by showing them the spectacle of a larger-than-life story unfolding before their eyes. A story that transports them into the theater’s fantasy world full of heroes and villains, drama and action.
“Every melodrama we do, you see people change by the end. They’re a little bit lighter, a little bit happier, so it’s theater therapy,” Hearn said. “It’s also therapy for us on stage because we’re also getting to pull ourselves out of whatever’s going on in life for a while, and it’s an exchange of emotion. It’s an exchange of joy, and you couldn’t ask for more than that.”
The Pocket Sandwich Theatre production of “The Three Musketeers: The Fate of France” runs from Jan. 5 through Feb. 17. in Carrollton. For more information about the show, including how to purchase tickets, visit https://www.pocketsandwich.com/.
These interviews have been edited for clarity.