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This revisionist update on the myth of Robin Hood was off to a promising start when it premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011. The Heart of Robin Hood, a family production with stunts and derring-do, earned respectable reviews before jumping the pond to North America where one critic called it “Cirque de Sherwood Forest,” inadvertently pegging the show’s strengths and weaknesses in a single phrase.
At center stage, scenic designer Borkur Jonsson’s vertical wall, via which actors slide into scenes, puts the emphasis squarely on stunt work and spectacle. As family entertainment goes, all that sliding and gliding amuses for a while, but it’s one of the main reasons the show seems more suited to a theme park than a theater.
Thick trees flank Jonsson’s wall of green, with a leafy canopy rising to the proscenium and spilling into the wings, transforming the Wallis into Sherwood Forest. Icelandic pop star Salka Sol and her four-piece band set the mood with a folksy ditty, popping in and out through the evening and providing a movie-like soundtrack.
A carriage makes its way through the forest carrying an insufferable couple of married nobles. In the next moment they are raided by Robin Hood (Luke Forbes) and his men, Will Scarlett (Sam Meader) and Much Miller (Kasey Mahaffy), hunky guys with a passion for leather accessories who swear off women for the company of one another.
The independent-minded Princess Marion (Christina Bennett Lind) is to be married to the evil Prince John, stoking the flames under her younger sister Alice (Sarah Hunt), who eagerly wants to marry but must wait her turn. An adventurous spirit, Marion makes off into the forest with her aide Pierre (a scene-stealing Daniel Franzese), in the hope of meeting Robin Hood who, in short measure, relieves her of her jewels and sends her on her way. In a second attempt, she disguises herself as Martin, a forest thief who eclipses Robin Hood’s fame by stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.
In this Marion-focused take by playwright David Farr (best known for his widely traveled adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis), Robin and his men steal from the rich and give to themselves until they meet the princess. In some folkloric accounts, she is deemed the personification of Mary. But in Farr’s play she is mostly an outdoorsy royal with a taste for adventure. And whatever woke points are gained by this feminist twist might be canceled by the idea of royalty teaching charity to commoners.
Lind better fulfills the tomboy elements of her character, as when she’s playing Martin with his comically broad swagger and fearlessness in sword fights. The fan to her flame is Forbes’ Robin, a role that requires flying on ropes, as well as sliding down that wall (again), sword-fighting skills and sufficient acting chops to deliver a handful of heartfelt passages, all of which he ably tackles along his arc from brutish thug to dreamy paragon.
Paradoxically, the most enjoyable performances are among the supporting cast. As the aforementioned Pierre, preening aide to Marion, Franzese (whose credits range from Mean Girls to HBO’s Looking) channels James Coco as a man more suited to the salon than the sunshine, with an eye for fashion and an epicurean taste for finer things. In other words, a gay best friend. Above all, he is true blue to Marion, his loyalty providing emotional ballast to an otherwise frothy role.
Eirik del Barco Soleglad is alternately hilarious and chilling, with just the right dose of cartoon villainy in his portrayal of the evil Prince John. And in her too-brief appearances, Hunt gets big laughs as Marion’s matrimonially obstructed sister Alice, especially late in the show when she canvases the audience for a fitting suitor, one who is “not from the Valley!”
The stars of The Heart of Robin Hood are fight director Joe Bostick and flight and aerial director Jeremy Crawford, (who plays Little John). The vertical-trajectory combat sequences, often staged around Junior Olympic gold medalist and 4th degree black belt Moe Alafrangy, are balletic mayhem that often slips deliriously into Matrix-style slo-mo.
Designer Jonsson’s great wall facilitates action sequences in a unique way, but it’s a big commitment. While it’s all well and good for a forest thief to make an entrance sliding on his butt, a little dignity is sacrificed when it’s a princess in a ball gown.
Directors Gisli Orn Gardarsson and Selma Bjornsdottir of Icelandic theater group Vesturport have tried the play with a variety of casts and musicians since its debut in 2011. With stops in Boston, Winnipeg and Toronto in early 2015, they were poised for their Broadway debut in March of that year. But ticket sales at the Marquis Theater failed to materialize and the one-time hot little import went cold, postponing the run. Now they’re back with a new cast and new music for the show, though improvements can’t hide the fact that when it comes to The Heart of Robin Hood, the stunts are the thing.
Venue: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Beverly Hills
Cast: Moe Alafrangy, Jeremy Crawford, Patrick de Ledebur, Luke Forbes, Hugo Fowler, Daniel Franzese, Paige Herschell, Sarah Hunt, Lize Johnston, Jake Justice, Leonard Kelly-Young, Gavin Lewis, Christian Bennett Lind, Kasey Mahaffy, Sam Meader, Ian Merrigan, Tennyson Morin, Lily Rose Silver, Salka Sol, Eirik del Barco Soleglad, Jeff Verghies, Patrick Woodall
Directors: Gisli Orn Gardarsson, Selma Bjornsdottir
Playwright: David Farr
Music and lyrics: Salka Sol
Set designer: Borkur Jonsson
Costume designer: Emma Ryott
Lighting designers: Ken Billington & Ed McCarthy
Sound designer: Brian Hsieh
Fight director: Joe Bostick
Presented by Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts and Vesturport
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