Sunday, February 01, 2015

Theatre: The Heart of Robin Hood

The Heart of Robin Hood is a rollickingly entertaining production based on the traditional Robin Hood lore, but with some clever twists.  It features everything from adventure, romance, comedy, well-choreographed fights, acrobatics, aerial gymnastics using ropes and pulleys, swashbuckling sword battles and lively music provided by the on-stage bluegrass indie band Parsonsfield, who are incorporated as peripheral characters in the show.

Instead of the well-known tale of the altruistic Sherwood Forest outlaw who robs from the rich and gives to the poor, playwright David Farr reverts back to the original 15th Century ballad-poem where Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men rob the wealthy and keep the spoils for themselves.  In this play, Robin Hood starts out as a common ruffian and thief who only cares about self gain and forbids his men from interacting with women.  Of course, this all changes by the end of the show, when the heart of Robin Hood is captured by the love of his life.  The trio of "Merry Men" provide comic relief and seem like they stepped straight out of the movie "O Brother Where Art Thou".  Traditionally the character named "Little" John is ironically played by a large man.  In this version, Little John is actually befittingly miniscule in stature, in another clever deviation.

Maid Marion gets a modern-day empowered feminist spin, which seems to be the new standard for fairytale heroines these days (think of Disney princess Merida in Brave, Rapunzel in Tangled or M.K. in Epic).  In The Heart of Robin Hood, Marion, the eldest daughter of the Duke of York, is a good-hearted, feisty and courageous noblewoman who can hold her own in a sword fight.  Rather than submit to an arranged marriage to Prince John for political purposes, Marion runs away to Sherwood Forest with her manservant Pierre and tries to join Robin Hood's gang.  When he rebuffs her, she disguises herself as Martin and together with Pierre (now Peter), forms a rival gang who actually do rob from the rich to help the poor.  To further drive home the point of the role-reversal, it is Martin who wears the traditional green costume that has been portrayed in countless retellings of Robin Hood including the one where he is a cartoon fox.

Prince John is still the throne-usurping, evil protagonist of this story and stays pretty much true to form.  I guess there is only so much you can do with this archetype of the villain.  A character added for comic relief and to act as a foil for Marion is her vain, man-hungry sister Alice, who cannot marry until her elder sister does.  We drew distinct parallels between the relationship of Marion and Alice to the dynamics of Kate and her sister in Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew.

The fight scenes, with Prince John's henchmen taking on Robin and the Merry Men, are boisterous and well choreographed, and often involve the added comedy of Little John jumping on the back of his much larger adversary.  But the best duel is the sword battle between Robin and "Martin", which involves the action-movie trope that has Robin arching his back as Martin's sword passes across his face–accentuated by spot-lighting and mood music as the parry is completed in slow-motion.

The set design for Sherwood Forest is stunning and includes a steep, 12 meter high slope on which the athletic actors scamper up and slide down.  Trap doors descend from the slope in various configurations, forming platforms that represented the manor home of the Duke of York, Marion and Alice, as well as the cross of the chapel where Marion goes to pray.  On multiple occasions, various characters including Marion would perform somersaults or back flips to descend from or ascend onto these platforms.  At the front of the stage is a small pond of actual water that various characters jump into, or emerge from, dripping wet.  It makes one wonder, how did the actors access the pond from underneath the stage?

We are used to shows that break the proverbial 4th wall, which actually happens when Alice speaks directly to the audience towards the end of the show.  The Heart of Robin Hood has incorporated a 5th and 6th "wall" with the cast taking to the air with aerial moves including climbing, swing and dangling upside down from ropes, as well as dropping below the stage through a trap door.  It is not surprising that this show is so acrobatic, considering its director Gisli Orn Gardarsson is the former gymnast who also directed Metamorphosis, featuring the man who turns into a fly and spends most of his time dangling from a wall or ceiling.

The Americana band Parsonsfield wrote and sang all the songs performed throughout the show, with the musical styles ranging from bluegrass to folk with influences from rock and roll.  They played an assortment of instruments including the mandolin, violin, banjo, guitar, saw, bass, pump organ, percussion, and more.  The 5-man group were treated as honorary "Merry Men", often dancing on stage and even sliding down the slope with their instruments in hand.  At one point, Robin Hood and his men proclaimed that they would all willingly march into danger to save Martin ... even the band, to which the band looked at each other nervously.  In two interesting scenes, instruments were used to represent animals, both audibly and visually.  In the first scenario, two band members playing trombones provided the illusion of a pair of jittery horses pulling a carriage through Sherwood Forest.  The trombones were played while raised into the air as the "horses" reared and "whinnied".  Later on, the squeals of a cello were used to simulate a wild boar, which was eventually killed and roasted on a spit.

The Heart of Robin Hood was so much fun that we plan see it again.  The first time, we watched it from our Mirvish subscription seats in the upper balcony of the Royal Alexandra Theatre.  Although it was a bit further back, it was actually a good vantage point for our first viewing, since we could see the entire stage including the trap door and pond that were at ground level, as well as the choreographed action and aerial work. The play is doing so well that it has been extended for another month before heading off to Broadway.  In a great marketing movie, Mirvish has offered subscribers the chance to watch the show again and buy tickets to any section of the theatre for only $49.  Our next seats will be in the centre orchestra level, 5 rows from the stage.  This time, we will be close enough to see the expressions on the actors faces, providing us with a different viewing experience.

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