Theater Review | THE HEART OF ROBIN HOOD by David Farr at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Hoods in the woods – with the goods.

Fast-moving adaptation of olde English tale delights all ages on OSF’s outdoor stage.

4-stars

Ah, linear narrative. Oh, gripping plot. Lo, strong character.

And yea, hear this: Love.

Throw in over the top theatricality, visual slights of hand, aerial aerobics, light shows, uproarious brawls, an enchanted forest, seeping mist, camp fires, ropes to swing on, a moon, a clown, a swarthy villain, a pair of copiously proportioned peasants rolling around in their knickers, state of the art digital projection, a case of mistaken identity, baddies in tights, a piano, swords, horses, severed heads, some good old (but not too smart) boys, highway brigands, an insanely unhinged sister, a faire maiden with a problem (but in disguise as a man), a hero with buns and jaws of steel, AND a dog (one hell of a dog), and behold: you’ve got yourself a play.

And in the case of David Farr’s roguish adaptation of the Robin Hood epic, now making upwards of 1,100 souls a night (women, children, and men) at Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s outdoor stage go all starry-eyed and weak in the knees, what we the audience have got is a breathtaking and laugh-giving summer blockbuster.

Don't worry: This IS going to end well.  Robin Hood (John Tufts) crashes the wedding of Marion (Kate Hurster) and Prince John (Michael Elich). Ensemble. Photo: Jenny Graham.
Don’t worry: This IS going to end well. Robin Hood (John Tufts) crashes the wedding of Marion (Kate Hurster) and Prince John (Michael Elich). Ensemble. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Let’s not over complicate theatre. What does the audience want? Wonder. Magic. Emotion. Beauty. Story. An unbelievable and yet somehow true story. Where stuff happens. A lot of stuff. All kinds of stuff. Stuff that’s preferable to what you can see staying home watching paint dry and grass grow.

Knowing this, British playwright David Farr (with plenty of able assistance from director Joel Sass and choreographer Jessica Wallenfels) rolls up his sleeves and delivers an old-fashioned, timelessly crafted comedic barn burner that feels custom made for OSF’s audience and capabilities. Yet this may not be the Robin Hood you remember. And that’s part of the appeal. Both the story and style have been updated and even Shakespeare-ified a bit. Scenes move at top speed, characters get to the point in a hurry, and there is always a lot at stake. You can almost hear the collective audience wondering internally as the unfolding action races onwards: “Will he…?” “Is she…?” “Oh no, is that the…?” Disaster (and salvation) is never far away.

In this 2011 version Marion (played by the phenomenal Kate Hurster) is at least as central to the story as Robin (the always hilarious and compelling John Tufts). What is the same as the original is the pure sense of adventure and delight. More than a few adult audience members may find the play stirs up memories of the forests (literal or metaphorical) of childhood, where pretend life and death struggles and romances were staged long ago.

As our story begins, Robin and crew are hangin’ in the forest of Sherwood, robbing and pillaging as needed to keep daily operations liquid. Hey, a fella’s gotta live. Any high bred voyagers foolish enough to travel through the gang’s territory (of course there are some) will be reliably relieved of excess valuables. And life is pretty good. But this land belongs to Prince John (a fiendish and seriously nasty Michael Elich), and such challenges to royal authority (namely his) will not stand (man).

A life of crime looks pretty good in Sherwood Forest.  Robin Hood (John Tufts) and his band are up to robbery again. Ensemble. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.
A life of crime looks pretty good in Sherwood Forest. Robin Hood (John Tufts) and his band are up to robbery again. Ensemble. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

Enter Marion with her clown manservant Pierre (wonderfully played by understudy Robert Vincent Frank in place of the regular Daniel T. Parker the night I was there). Lovely Marion is a royal and has, in possibly the worst idea on earth, been promised by her father in marriage to the greaseball Prince John. After a quick face to face meeting with Robin near the start of the play, at which point the air vibrates and we know there’s some good potential between the two, Marion proceeds to spend most of the story in disguise as a man – Martin of Sherwood – working side by side with Robin.

Robin may need to rethink the “no girls allowed” policy. Marion (Kate Hurster) takes to life in the forest. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

Why does she dress up as Martin? Because according to Robin, the fairer sex have no place among the band of forest ruffians: “Women cause tempests in the heart of man. They make us rash and unreliable.” All the audience can do after a line like that in front of beautiful Marion is collectively go: “Awwwwwwwwwwwww!”

Then and there we begin to quietly root for Robin to divest his personal portfolio a bit to include romance and love on the ledger alongside robbing and thieving. And when it does indeed happen later in the show, even the hardest of hearts (admittedly not a group with huge representation in the OSF audience demographic) will find dry eyes in short supply.

Farr gets great mileage out of Marion being there on stage a lot of the show, but invisible to Robin. Towards the end as a rendezvous between Robin, Martin and Marion nears, “Martin” has to to do some double time work to keep all the balls in the air, dashing off stage to “get” Marion. Then Marion returns alone and Robin wonders where his blood brother Martin has gone off to. This familiar setup never gets old.

Robin Hood (John Tufts) assures Martin (Kate Hurster), the disguised Marion, that he and his band (Howie Seago, Miles Fletcher) will kill him if he does not stop robbing carriages and giving to the poor. Photo: Jenny Graham.
Robin Hood (John Tufts) assures Martin (Kate Hurster), the disguised Marion, that he and his band (Howie Seago, Miles Fletcher) will kill him if he does not stop robbing carriages and giving to the poor. Photo: Jenny Graham.

The overall narrative includes several extremely enjoyable sub threads. There’s Marion’s wingnut, scheming sister Alice, played by Erica Sullivan as if her finger were permanently stuck in an electrical outlet. Manly and tough (not) Pierre takes up as “Big Peter” to bolster Marion’s cred as badass outlaw Martin. This improbable duo of wannabe thugs keeps us laughing all night long. Then there’s Prince John’s purring and prancing as he plans his sexual conquests, depravities, and random acts of torture. A head or two go missing – but all in good fun. And there is even a dog (Tanya Thai McBride), doing what dogs do – including at one point setting down some skid marks on the forest floor. McBride’s physical talent captures our complete attention any time she romps on stage.

Amber Alert.  Marion (Kate Hurster), disguised as Martin, learns that Prince John (Michael Elich) is seeking her out for marriage. Photo: Jenny Graham.
Amber Alert. Marion (Kate Hurster), disguised as Martin, learns that Prince John (Michael Elich) is seeking her out for marriage. Photo: Jenny Graham.

This summer the three outdoor shows are all sharing the same stage (design by Michael Ganio), and there is some wondrous projection by Alexander V. Nichols. The entire backdrop and structure is covered with swirling patterns, colors, and stars at different moments. It’s beautiful and theatrical to the core.

The Elizabethan Stage set by designer Michael Ganio and lighted by Mary Louise Geiger, with video projections by Alexander V. Nichols serves for all three productions outside this season.
The Elizabethan Stage set by designer Michael Ganio and lighted by Mary Louise Geiger, with video projections by Alexander V. Nichols serves for all three productions outside this season.

About a half hour out from the end, as the story’s many plots and challenges head down the final forest alleyway toward a satisfying and hilarious climax, I could already feel the standing ovation that was surely building. For we knew this was one for the books. Under the fading dark blue glow of a summer night in Oregon’s Rogue Valley, with scores of favorite OSF actors hitting the boards (sometimes face first) to breathe life into this witty, intoxicating madcap dash, it simply does not get much better. The evanescent joy of theatre: It’s here, and then it’s gone.

And in the end, what’s it all about? Director Joel Sass sums up succinctly in a program note: “To seek refuge in the heart of another human being is like a journey to the heart of the forest – you might end up there before you even know you want to go; and you must be brave, for there is no map. It’s the dreams and merriments within your own heart that provide the truest compass.”

Everyone together now: “Awwwwwwwwwwww!”