Jordan Dean, Christina Bennett Lind, and Christopher Sieber in American Repertory Theater’s production of “The Heart of Robin Hood.” (Photo: Evegnia Eliseeva/ART)
Theater that is highly physical and breathtakingly kinetic is more common in Boston than ever before. This explosively energetic, acrobatic style requires actors who can both act and move to develop their character and forward the storytelling. In these parts the primary advocate for this style is American Repertory Theater’s artistic director Diane Paulus. Her oft-cited credo since coming to Cambridge has been to bring the theatrical experience closer to the audience (and bring the audience closer to the production, not always the same thing.) Paulus continues to find inventive ways to break that traditional mode of separating the theater goer from the performers. Her vision is to allow everyone to feel participatory in a wild collaboration of adventure, surprise and engagement. This is something that live theater particularly excels in and cannot be achieved easily by most other art forms. (Paulus’ success at achieving that goal has been written about here previously: Sleep No More, Pippin and Porgy and Bess, among several others.)
The latest production at A.R.T is “The Heart of Robin Hood.” Written by the playwright/director team of David Farr and Gísli Örn Garðarsson—whose “Metamorphosis” came through Boston earlier this year at ArtsEmerson—this reworking of the story of Robin Hood is pure and unadulterated fun. Farr and Garðarsson have taken license in repurposing and restructuring this mythic legend from the 12th century and made it much more amenable to contemporary values: In this version Robin is a scoundrel and a brute, and it is Marion who takes on more of the Robin as Friend of the Poor persona. With a strong nod to Shakespeare and most notably his “As You Like It,” “King Lear,” and “Twelfth Night,” the Duke of York’s daughter Marion goes rogue and creates a new identity for herself, Martin of Sherwood. Dressed as a young man, she escapes her life of luxury for adventure, independence and a chance to help the poor. Part of her motivation is that she has met Robin in the forest and has fallen for him on the spot. It isn’t an easy connivance since his credo is that no women are allowed in their band. “Women cause tempests in the heart of man. They make us rash and unreliable.”
The basic story is a familiar one which makes it easy to pay close attention to the set and fast paced acrobatics. Börkur Jónsson‘s ingenious design fills most of the Loeb Theater’s proscenium. A giant English oak bespeckled with thousands of tiny lights sprawls out across most of the ceiling, and the stage floor is a verdant patchwork of grassy knolls, hidey holes which appear and disappear, and even a pond that is used inventively as both an entrance and an exit. At the back of the stage Jónsson has built a giant ski slalom-like hill covered in grass. Characters make their entrances sliding down, their exits by climbing back up on ropes. Cantilevered platforms emerge from the hill from time to time which transform the Sherwood forest into a castle or a cathedral.
In speaking about the inspiration for this fantastical and flexible stage set, Garðarsson puts an Icelandic spin on an underlying theme:
The story of an outlaw is echoed through the old Sagas of Iceleand, where to this day we still believe that the Elves are their own castles inside our mountains. So creating a huge slope for the production that reminds us of a mountain where the “castle” can magically appear, has been inspired by our own upbringing.
The outlaws are rough, ruthless and experts in blending in with nature. They hide in the waters, travel on ropes, and run over mountains. They are at one with nature. This is where Marion wants to be: free and surrounded by nature. It sounds, in a way, like being Icelandic.
(Many of the performers are members of Garðarsson’s award winning theater company, Vesturport, based in Keykjavik.)
As elemental as the spectacular set is, the music of an American roots band from Connecticut, Poor Old Shine, is just as essential. Steeped in their Steinbeck/Dust Bowl attire, they accompany high wattage harmonies with mandolins, banjos, guitars and a full on bass. Strangely, their Americana styling blends beautifully with this Shakespeare/Ye Olde English narrative.
This is not a great work of writing although the gags and humor are spot on and frequent. But it is a great theatrical experience because everything comes together with such muscular surefootedness. This is a “universal donor” kind of show—kids to oldsters will be delighted. And in the way of a nod to the younger generation, Farr and Garðarsson both mention in their program notes that this production was influenced by having daughters. Farr’s two pleaded with him to write a play that had female characters who did more than “kiss the hero, swoon, cook pretty pastries, and sew,” and Garðarsson sums up the show as “a female heroic story.” Delivered.
The production is at the Loeb Theater through January 19th.