The beginnings of the Robin Hood saga dates back to the fifteenth century, but on stage at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, Robin’s legend gets a bold re-imagining.
Folklore is flipped upside down. Instead of ancient madrigals, blue grass rhythms ring through Sherwood Forest in this cockeyed contemporary retelling. Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company, perhaps inspired by Mel Brooks 1993 mad movie comedy “Men in Tights,” has reworked the myth, stirring copious quantities of musical action with slapstick humor. Every legendary hero has to start somewhere, and playwright David Farr has conjured a wildly imaginative, theatrically dazzling new spin on the familiar fable with Shakespearean overtones.
The forest bandit gets greedy with the loot lifted from the aristocracy, sharing the spoils with his band of ne’er-do-wells, ignoring the needs of the peasants. Good deeds and nobility be damned….Robin does it his way. “There’s nothing merry about us,” he says. It never occurred to the thugs to give anything back to anyone.
However there’s a moral turning point. When silkily snide villain Prince John threatens all, bold Maid Marion presses feminine logic to protect the poor and transform the self-centered, callous Robin from hood to good, thereby restoring order and serenity to the medieval woodlands. At their first meeting (she’s in the forest to escape the attentions of the creepy, ambitious Prince), the suspicious Robin holds a sword to Marion’s throat. She’s passing herself off as “Martin,” a youthful bandit who wants to join his band. This being an old-school tale, all their bluster at each other can’t conceal the immediate attraction.
Izzie Steele, London born with Polish ancestry, makes her Canadian debut with an impressive take as Marion. Her male disguise and manner convinces the characters, though her androgynous appearance and manly physical movements delight the audience.
The tall, lanky Gabriel Ebert scores a straight-as-an-arrow splendid interpretation of history’s elusive notorious good-guy, bad-guy outlaw. He has a likeable swagger, showing the menace of the more callow Hood as well as his sly humor to great effect. Gradually we become aware of the chemistry between these two.
The ending is of course predictable, but getting there provides the fun. The action explodes off the stage, taking place in front, above and on all sides of the audience. Creative resourcefulness abounds as horses are portrayed by athletic actors with trombones, as well as a dog with a clarinet. Actors vanish down hidden holes while others burst with soaking suddenness from a pond. The jug band, Connecticut-based roots group Parsonsfield, plays before, during and after the two-hour (plus intermission) romantic comedy. The minstrels wander through the scenes as characters descend by ropes, slide down the upstage curved sets while engaging in swashbuckling, acrobatic, comedic, dramatic, cross-dressing cartoon violence.
From the start, “The Heart of Robin Hood” is a crowd-pleasing stage spectacle scoring a bull’s-eye in its aims to dazzle the eye, the ear and the heart of spectators. It’s a giddy romp in Sherwood Forest. This forest dweller is an ancient hero for our time. Evoking vaudeville entertainments of old with gender-swapping comedy, and music tweaking hard knock memories of the Dust Bowl era, the show presents family values and morals with tongue-in-cheek glee even though there are wink-wink references to brutal acts. The clever set also shares a starring role with the cast acting with astonishing skill while displaying Olympic dexterity in implausible tongue-in-cheek shenanigans.
First staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011, the show crossed to the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA., in 2012, then played the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Winnipeg in 2014. Robin Hood and his merry band of misfits are on stage through March 29th at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre. The production then is slated for a Broadway run.
By: Alex Reynolds