What, you may wonder, another Icelandic swashbuckler? The current production by American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, “The Heart of Robin Hood”, is ostensibly about the legendary (and quite possibly mythical) hero of British folklore, as re-envisioned by playwright David Farr, but is in fact profoundly formed and informed by the mythological heritage of its other creators, from Iceland, led by Director Gisli Orn Gardarsson. As Farr himself has noted about the work, first performed by no less than the Royal Shakespeare Company of London in 2011, here “forests are places where what we thought we knew is turned on its head, where the subconscious becomes conscious, where dream becomes reality”. The theme of man (or woman) vs. nature, and the metaphorical transformations that occur, and what he also refers to as the “shamanistic quality of the forest”, is at its center, but it’s far less ponderous and somber than that sounds. Any performance that lists among its crew an Aerial Consultant (Associate Director Selma Bjornsdottir) and a Fight Director (really a choreographer, Joe Bostick) should give you the first clue that we’re not in anyone’s previous vision of Sherwood Forest anymore. Add to the mix a live roots band of five singer/musicians, Connecticut’s Poor Old Shine, fulfilling the role usually played by a troubadour like Alan-a-Dale (a la “Brother, Wherefore Art Thou?”), with such original tunes as “Don’t Let Your Burden Touch the Ground”, and you’ve yet another clue. Add a cast of extraordinarily athletic actors and you end up not really in Sherwood Forest, but in the primeval land of Gymnasia.
What you have here, without having to pay the airfare to London, is a perfect portrayal of the modern British “panto”, that seasonal mainstay across the pond with its broad humor, outrageous puns, and frequent cross-dressing. This time around it’s Maid Marion (the beautiful and commanding Christina Bennett Lind) putting on the green tights to masquerade as Martin of Sherwood and teach Robin Hood (the very handsome and dashing Jordan Dean) a thing or two about brigandry, especially the part about redistributing the guineas from the rich to the poor. With more than a slight nod to Shakespeare in “As You Like It” and “Twelfth Night”, it’s tremendously clever fun. From the moment Marion’s servant Pierre (Christopher Sieber, Tony nominee for his dimintutive Lord Farquaad in “Shrek”), later to be known as Big Peter (!), begins his narration of the story, we know we’re in good hands. It’s truly the tale of Marion and how she transforms not only herself, but the rest of the kingdom, a cast of fourteen but often seeming like thousands, including Will Scathlock (Zachary Eisenstat), Little John (Jeremy Crawford), Sarah Summers (Claire Candela), Jethro Summers (Andrew Cekala, Theo in last season’s “Pippin”), Prince John (Damian Young), and, each playing as many as seven roles, Louis Tucci, Laura Sheehy, Katrina Yaukey, and David Michael Garry. At the opening performance, the role of Much, usually played by Andy Grotelueschen, who had torn a meniscus, was played by Director Gardarsson, to be played in subsequent performances by local actor Daniel Berger-Jones (known for his roles in Lyric Stage‘s “Stones in His Pockets”, and Bruno the Dog in Lyric‘s “Shipwrecked”). Each one of them acted and moved splendidly in this amazingly fluid piece, most especially the incredibly agile Moe Alafrangy, also in several roles. Along the way (parents with sensitive urchins beware), some fairly gruesome fates await; a slight stabbing here, a beheading there, a hanging, an arrow to the chest, and even (shudder) a de-tonguing, but it’s all tongue in cheek. And there’s even a shark (no spoilers here). What is most engaging and enthralling is its pure physicality and its gravity-defying acrobatics that have to be seen to be believed, but are ultimately unbelievable.
The Set Design by Borkur Jonsson is a marvelous wonder, from its huge oak tree overhanging the audience to its outdoor playroom chockfull of incredible entrances and exits (again, no spoilers here). The Costume Design by Emma Ryott, including the “extremely iconic costumes (Pierre) just made”, is brilliant, as are the Lighting Design by Bjorn Helgason, the Sound Design by Jonathan Deans and the Musical Direction by Kris Kukul.
In the end, what you have here is a historical and hysterical romp. The core of this production though, amidst all the hilarity, lies in its title: its heart. Even when the titular Robin was seemingly cruel and heartless, Marion saw the heart inside him. When they finally connect, it is not in the cathedral of “marble and gold but the bark and branch” of the forest, as Robin declares. What we’ve witnessed has been theatrical magic, truly prestigious prestidigitation, and, for those weary of yet another dose of treacle, a perfect holiday treat!