Thursday, December 19, 2013

"The Heart of Robin Hood" Hits A Bullseye At The A.R.T - A Holiday Treat for The Family

There has been quite a bit of advance buzz about this production of "The Heart of Robin Hood" currently playing at the A.R.T. in Harvard Square (through January 19, 2014).  Please indulge me for a few paragraphs of personal confession and reflection before I launch into the heart of my review of this extraordinary play.

The main thing I had heard was that the play had been written to make "Maid Marion" the real hero.  That small part of me that still harbors elements of the crusty old curmudgeonly male chauvinist reacted by grumbling inwardly "Come on; give me a break!  Just tell the story as we have come to love it." 

But then the better angels began to win the battle, and subsequent reflections followed this train of thought.  "Diane Paulus is still the Artistic Director at A.R. T.  You have come to trust and be delighted by her and by her artistic judgment.  She won't let you down.  Besides, the thing you love about art is that it is ever new, inventing new ways of telling the old stories.  Give this thing a chance."

And then I read the notes by the author, David Farr.  Part of his motivation for writing this play with the focus on Marion was to give his daughters a credible female role model who does something on the stage other than "kiss the hero, swoon, cook pretty pastries, and sew"!  How could I argue with that noble fatherly impulse.

And then they opened the doors to the Loeb Theater, and I walked into an enchanted forest and was instantly transported to another place and another way of telling a beloved classic tale.  The old English oak trees that make up a large part of the set (brilliantly designed and executed by Iceland's Börkur Jónsson) contain gnarled limbs, branches and leaves that extend as an enormous canopy across the ceiling of the theater - cocooning the audience inside Sherwood Forest and inviting us to be part of the action.

An integral part of the telling of this tale is the vibrant music provided by the amazing Connecticut-based bluegrass band, Poor Old Shine.  Band members include Antonio Alcorn, Chris Freeman, Harrison Goodale, Erik Hischmann and Max Shakun.  

Poor Old Shine website

The show opens with these musicians on the apron of the stage, setting the mood that helped us leave behind the slush of Cambridge and to fully enter into the lush of the forest.  At frequent intervals throughout the show, band members leave their grove/orchestra pit and enter into the action of the play.  The effect is delightful.

I will not reveal too much of the plot, for there are surprises in store for those who only know the traditional telling of the Robin Hood legend.  The stagecraft throughout is pure magic.  I want you to make the trip to the A.R.T. and to Sherwood Forest to be charmed by Mr. Farr's story, which is skillfully directed by another gifted Icelandic artist, Gisli Örn Gardarsson. (In last evening's performance, Mr. Gardarsson filled in for an injured actor, playing the role of Much Miller.  In subsequent performances, that role will be played by local Boston actor Daniel Berger-Jones).  Let me simply add that in terms of the writing, Mr. Farr's use of language has a vibrancy and poetic quality that make it invigorating, ennobling and uplifting.

Jordan Dean (Robin Hood), Christina Bennett Lind (Marion/Martin),
Christopher Sieber (Pierre,) Zachary Eisenstat (Will Scathlock)
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

The cast is nothing short of wonderful.  They each deserve mention for the part that they play in weaving this web and spell of magic:

  • Moe Alafrangy - Henchman/Soldier/Prison Guard
  • Claire Candela - Sarah Summers
  • Andrew Cekala - Jethro Summers
  • Jeremy Crawford - Little John
  • Jordan Dean - Robin Hood
  • Zachary Eisenstat - Will Scathlock
  • David Michael Garry - Duke of York/Bishop
  • Christina Bennett Lind - Marion/Martin
  • Laura Sheehy - Rebecca Summers
  • Christopher Sieber- Pierre/Peter
  • Louis Tucci - Makepeace/Friar/Robert Summers, et al.
  • Katrina Yaukey - Lady Falconbury
  • Damian Young - Prince John

Among this solid company of actors, several performances stood out to me.

  • Zachary Eisenstat, Jeremy Crawford are Robin Hood's constant companions, and their energy, physical stamina and dexterity create just the right atmosphere for Robin's "Merry Men."
  • Moe Alafrangy's martial arts moves and balletic entrances and exits add a level of kinetic energy to the show that are essential.
  • Andrew Cekala continues to impress each time he steps on the stage.  Recently returned home to Weston from his six month stint as Theo in "Pippin" on Broadway, Andrew's Jethro is nuanced and sympathetic as he struggles to care for and protect his traumatized sister in the wake of their mother's death and father's execution.
  • Damian Young's Prince John is deliciously evil, plotting to overthrown his brother, over-tax the peasants and seduce poor Marion.  He virtually drips with malice and is a villain we love to hate.
  • Christopher Sieber's Pierre is a tour de force of foppery.  As Marion's servant and companion who reluctantly joins her in the forest, he would rather accessorize than burglarize!  He has his macho  moment in the sun that is a wondrous transformation.
  • Jordan Dean is simply perfect as Robin Hood.  He has enough of the swashbuckling swagger some of us remember from the Errol Flynn portrayal to have the girls and women (and Pierre - but that's another story!) in the audience swooning.  His stubbornness about women gives way to a touching vulnerability as he allows Marion to teach him that a woman can be multi-dimensional and every inch a match for a strong man.
  • Christina Bennett Lind as Marion and Martin, Marion's male persona, is the heart of this story.  She not only shows her own stalwart and intrepid heart, but she wins the heart of Robin and of every member of Robin's crew and every member of the audience.  She is perfectly cast, and carries much of the emotional burden in the telling of this lovely legend.
The picture below depicts a scene near the end of the story.  Having overcome the many barriers and forces that sought to keep them apart, Robin Hood and Marion discover and declare their love for each other. They are married in the forest, and perform this lovely aerial pas de deux, literally rising above the mundane forest floor, and simultaneously raising the emotional response level of the audience to new heights.

Jordan Dean and Christina Bennett Lind.
Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva

As I sat in the theater and let the spectacle of "The Heart of Robin Hood" wash over me, I felt like I do each time I watch "Peter Pan."  The magic of the story and the artistry of the telling of the story turn me back into an awe-struck little boy again.  It is a wondrous and magical transformation that lies at the very heart of great theater.  During the Second Act, I kept thinking, "When can I return to see this show again, and whom should I invite to join me on the adventure?"

I invite you to treat yourself to the same journey many of us took last evening - a journey that ended with us rising as one to our feet to acknowledge and to applaud the remarkable artistry we had seen on  display.

American Repertory Theater - The Heart of Robin Hood

The production runs through January 19.  Tickets are going fast, so act now.  Tickets to this and subsequent A.R.T. shows make great stocking-stuffer gifts for the family, friends and business colleagues.  This show is suggested for children 10+.



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