"The Heart of Robin Hood," a new play by David Farr, is a delightful modern-day retelling of the Robin Hood story that owes more to J.M. Barrie's "Peter Pan" than to the swash and buckle of any 19th century legend of the benevolent forest bandit, that early practitioner of income redistribution and social justice.
Joyfully and inventively directed by Joel Sass, "The Heart of Robin Hood" opened Saturday on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Elizabethan Stage.
Farr is the associate director at London's Royal Shakespeare Company. "The Heart of Robin Hood" premiered as the troupe's Christmas production for 2011. The play's structure is an updated version of the British tradition of the Christmas panto, an elaborate, campy retelling of a familiar fairy tale filled with slapstick humor, frequent asides to the audience, cross-dressing of both men and women and the more than occasional bawdy joke. Farr added a bit of the outrageousness of "Monty Python," some cartoonish gruesome violence and plot devices liberally lifted from Shakespeare.
Here, Marion is the protagonist. Fleeing the evil, usurping Prince John, she becomes "Martin of Sherwood," an altruistic — if naive — bandit, in contrast to Robin Hood, who has all the social conscience of Al Capone. Martin and Robin join forces to save two children from John's dastardly clutches. Robin, smitten with the memory of the beautiful Marion he has only glimpsed, is shamed into his better instincts by Martin's example.
In Farr's version, Robin Hood is more like Peter Pan, the eternal adolescent, swinging from ropes, dangling from forest branches and robbing the wealthy — duh, that's where the money is — with narcissistic abandon. His Band of Merry Men is a group of happily galumphing "Lost Boys" with all sorts of backyard battleground rules, including "eww, no girls." John Tufts pulls off this rather dim Robin with athletic glee and gives him a sweetly growing awareness of the responsibilities of adulthood.
While our Marion may be modeled on Shakespeare's earnest cross-dressing heroines such as Rosalind in "As You Like It" or even Imogen in this season's offering of "Cymbeline" — determined, impetuous, often clueless but with her heart always in the right place — there is an awful lot of the mothering Wendy in this Marion. Kate Hurster carries off all this elaborate role-playing with aplomb.
Marion is given a loyal, if reluctant, sidekick, her jester Pierre. Pierre — whom Martin dubs "Big Peter" — is uncomfortable in the forest and would rather be safe and warm in the castle, at least until he is called upon for unexpected bravery, to fight for something he believes in.
Starting with a tender prologue and possessed of a lovely singing voice, Daniel T. Parker provides a narrating story thread through this romp, the voice of reason — if there is any rhyme or reason — through all the derring-do.
And, in the panto tradition, we have a genuine moustache-twirling villain in Prince John. He is deliciously played by Michael Elich, complete with snarl, snarky asides to the audience and a fetish for smelling Marion's body.
Add to this a horsehead-wearing henchman who plays a mean violin (Eduardo Placer), a snotty sister (Erica Sullivan), a loyal retainer (Michael J. Hume), two plucky children in peril (Christopher Vincent and Madeline Day), not to mention a vicious companion wolf named Fang (Sabina Zuniga Varela) and a clever dog, Plug (played on opening night by acting company trainee Alyssa C. Rhoney), and you have the makings of a rollicking, audience-pleasing melodrama.
For "The Heart of Robin Hood," Michael Ganio's forest-simulating set adds ropes, ladders and a shiny trapeze ring, of which Tufts and Hurster make graceful, Cirque-du-Soleil use, and some wonderfully evocative video projections by Alexander V. Nichols.
How do you get to "The Heart of Robin Hood"? The directions could be reminiscently simple: "Second star to the right and straight on 'til morning."
Better yet, get thyself to OSF's box office.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer who lives in Ashland. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.