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Kelly Smith, Published February 19 2009

Expert guides South’s stage swashbuckling

Gives ‘Musketeers’ fights authenticity

Gwen Stark didn’t flinch as a girl shrieked and a fight broke out between two long-haired boys after school recently.

“They’re excellent,” the Fargo South High School drama director said of the students who were actually practicing a scene for an upcoming play.

But another reason the combat scenes don’t faze Stark is the trusted expert behind the scenes.

“You can’t really do ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or ‘Macbeth’ or ‘The Three Musketeers’ without someone who can teach (students the fight scenes) and make it safe,” Stark said.

Cue fight choreographer guru David Wilhelmi.

“En garde!” he yelled to students as the clang of clashing swords filled the auditorium. “The audience will love it – this is great.”

Wilhelmi manages the Fargo School District’s five theaters, but also has a “very unusual, special talent” – certified stage combat instructor.

Behind the scenes, it’s this

38-year-old theater buff who, like dance choreographers, plans every sword stroke and move in this week’s “The Three Musketeers.”

The high school show, which opens today, features 13 fight scenes and other “miscellaneous violence” as actors spar with carbon-tempered steel rapiers and daggers.

“Some shows they’re minor, but in this show – it’s really what it’s about,” Wilhelmi said of the combat scenes.

“It’s ‘The Three Musketeers’ – that’s what these guys do.”

Combat choreography is also what Wilhelmi does – becoming a staple behind the scenes of countless area productions.

“As far as I know, I’m the only certified (combat choreographer) north of Minneapolis,” he said.

So, during the past 15 years, organizations from Trollwood Performing Arts School to Minnesota State University Moorhead have looked to Wilhelmi to help with everything from set design to stage combat.

Before him, Stark said they just didn’t do plays that involved combat.

“It’s really amazing what he’s done,” she said. “It’s fun for him, and it’s great for the kids.”

Great for building up biceps, too, sophomore Devon Ball said, showing off the muscular benefits of three-hour sword fighting practices two times a week.

Ball, who plays antagonist Rochefort, sported neck-length long hair along with his fellow actors, striving to look the part of 17th-century French fighters. But, he also showed off the not-so-great side effects.

“I got stabbed over there just today,” he said as fellow actor junior Alex Gudding showed off bruises and scratches from hours of combat practice.

“Without David, we wouldn’t have combat,” said curly haired Gudding, who’s in a majority of the fights as protagonist d’Artagnan. “After awhile it just becomes muscle memory.”

Scratches aside, Wilhelmi’s expertise is needed for keeping these advanced moves safe.

“That’s my No. 1 thing – it’s gotta be safe,” he said. “That’s why the training is so essential.”

If you go

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515