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Plunge into the vengeance of ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’

Maybe you read “The Count of Monte Cristo,” as I did, in junior high or middle school. I remember crying at the end.

I didn’t remember the whole complicated, vengeance-driven plot. So I, like all audiences should, had to pay close attention during Piedmont Players’ production of the play based on the Alexandre Dumas’ book.

“The Count of Monte Cristo” is a bit of a melodrama, with big emotions and a relentless revenge plot downing one, two, three, four … victims.

Tim Campbell is the count, formerly known as ship’s first mate Edmond Dantes. When a jealous shipmate decides to destroy him, he uses a dastardly method. He employs Edmond’s rival for the love of sweet Mercedes, Fernand Mondego, who writes a letter containing a false accusation of Edmond. When a corrupt prosecutor sees a chance to advance his career, he’s only too happy to throw Edmond into the Château d’If, a hopeless, horrid prison. There he meets Abbe Faria, played by Jim Esposito, who teaches him all he knows and gives him the secret location to family treasure. The only way to leave the prison is to die.

In a body switch, Edmond goes over the prison wall in a weighted sack, but makes his way to the tiny island of Monte Cristo, home to the treasure.

Edmond Dantes transforms himself into the Count of Monte Cristo. Armed with a huge fortune and a thorough education, he sets about to punish the people who sent him to prison and stole his love.

Campbell is the mysterious count, on stage for much of the play. He plays the man with a cool demeanor — revenge is a dish best served cold. His false accusers, John Eddy as Eugene Danglars, the purser, and Edward Whitney, the rival, Fernand, easily fall into his plot. Whitney, as Fernand, has proven before he can play a villain, and he finesses this one rather well. He sees his downfall and reacts with utter disbelief. Shame is the ultimate weapon for him.

Eddy, the banker Danglars, is an easy mark due to his greediness, and the fabulously wealthy count leads him by the nose to bankruptcy. Eddy is appropriately envious and equally slimy.

Russell Bennett Jr. is a commanding presence in red as the corrupt Villefort. His wife, Heloise, played by Amber Watson with a sneer, is equally corrupt, and jealous of her husband’s daughter by his first marriage, Valentine, played by Amery Barton.

Danglars’ wife, Hermione, is interested in status and power, and willing to marry her daughter, Eugenie, played by Susannah Dixon, off to the highest bidder — a false count Edmond sets up only to embarrass the family. Alison Byrd is haughty and demanding as Hermione.

The count’s marks are almost too easy. And he does not care what the children suffer, though he spares Valentine, who is in love with Maximilian Morrell, son of the ships’ captain who was so good to Edmond Dantes.

Edmond/Monte Cristo does this for himself, of course, but also for his one true love, Mercedes, the only one who recognizes him. But after he destroys her husband and brings about death and madness on Danglars, Villefort and others, she cannot love him. She cannot forgive him, but she promises to pray.

Monte Cristo uses a beautiful weapon in Haydee, played with dignity by Alaina Gillman, the daughter of a deposed and murdered Greek vizier, as his weapon to destroy Fernand. Monte Cristo buys her from slavery and helps her exact her own revenge for her father’s death.

The count shows some mercy at the end, and though the play does not end the same way the book does, it has an appropriate moral. Monte Cristo calls himself the hammer of God, but he learns that he cannot be God. He is humbled by the damage he has caused.

Director Reid Leonard has designed a beautiful set of elaborate embellished columns for the rich, and a large, red-tone backdrop of the avenging count. It’s been a tough start for this play, with snow delaying the opening by one night. The performers seemed a little delayed, as well, and a bit flat, emotionally, at times. Some of the players need to speak up since it’s so important to follow the plot. But there’s a fair bit of swashbuckling. As temperatures and the audience warm up a bit, so should the performance, which definitely has its moments of cold, hard revenge.

Salisbury Rotary Club is the underwriter for this production, which continues tonight and Feb. 19-22 at 7:30 p.m. at the Meroney Theater. A 2:30 p.m. matinee is scheduled for this Sunday. For tickets, call the box office at 704-633-5471 or go to www.piedmontplayers.com.

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