Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
I recently attended the first performance of The Gest of Robin Hood, one of two theater works in their earliest stages of development that compose the 2016 Fresh Ink Series at Illusion Theater. In this case the work was extraordinarily new, as it was the first complete read-through of the play, the actors in street clothes, seated in a line of chairs and working from the script, with stage directions and descriptions read with panache by actor Adelin Phelps.
The Gest of Robin Hood is a new take on the centuries old legend, noted as the bandit who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. In studying the origins of Robin Hood mythology, creator Tyler Michaels and writer Tyler Mills discovered that in its earliest form, Robin Hood was not necessarily the do-gooder we have come to know. Yes, he was daring and took pleasure in prickling the constraints of law and order laid down by the monarch and his deputies, but there was no notion of doing so to improve the lives of those struggling under poverty and oppression. This is the nature of the Robin Hood depicted in this new work.
We meet Robin Hood played by Riley McNutt with boyish exuberance, a sharp sense of humor, disdain for authority, and great skill with bow and arrow. The company of Merry Men with whom he lives in the forest include the Friar (H. Adam Harris), John (Davis Brinker), Will (Andy Schnabel), and Alan (Max Wojtanowicz), joined early in the going by a boy named Much (Henry Constable). In most Robin Hood tales these fellows are more fully identified as Friar Tuck, Little John, Will Scarlett, Alan o' Dale, and Much the Miller's Son. Part of the group, but living apart, is the lovely Marian who, in Meghan Kreidler's fully immersed performance, is depicted as strong-willed, high spirited and capable, as much able to rescue as to need rescuing. Their nemesis is the Sherriff (Garry Geiken) who governs over Nottingham Forest at the pleasure of the King (H. Adam Harris, serving double duty), who has no tolerance for complaints about Robin Hood and his gang, simply expecting the Sherriff to fully eliminate the nuisance. The final character of note is Guy of Gisborne, a towering man of brute strength brought in by the Sherriff to destroy Robin Hood played with bug-eyed menace by James Ramlet.
In the course of the narrative, Robin Hood and his comrades go through significant change coming to terms with the true cost of their life of merry-making. Indeed, what starts out feeling like a lark concludes on quite somber a note. We know there is a fractured relationship between Robin and Marian, though we learn neither how it began nor why it has broken down. Through Marian, we get a glimpse of the potential for Robin and his ilk to do more than live a free-spirited life, antagonizing authority, but to use that energy to serve others. We don't see this change occur, only allusions to its potential, especially in the next generation as represented by young Much. The Sherriff is presented as a comic figure, inept and blustering. At the very start of the play Robin roundly humiliates him in a practical joke, allowing us to have sympathy for his campaign against Robin and to be skeptical about the virtuous of the supposed hero of the piece.
The Gest of Robin Hood offers a novel and provocative approach to the hero's tale. The dialogue is well-wrought, and the stage directions attest to vivid and engaging action scenes. The cast taking part in the reading was top drawer, each and every one, and when the show evolves into a full production, Illusion would be well served to bring back as many of these talented actors as possible. As a work in the earliest stage of development, its dramaturgy naturally raises numerous questions, which are opportunities to clarify the work and deepen its impact. These include more understanding of the relationship between Robin and Marian; a larger role for John, whose demeanor stands in contrast to Robin's; and a more compelling rational for Robin's reckless behavior, which seems to betray rather than to uphold the honor of his band.
A funeral sequence to honor Alan reveals each of the men and Marian's own values and desires, but it goes on too long, depleting the story of momentum and energy. A debate among the men about whether or not to rescue Robin from the dangerous fray ends abruptly when Robin returns on his own, negating the preceding scene's consequence. The show is graced with composer David Darrow's lovely music, well-performed by musician Kristian Anderson, but a rousing musical number for the Merry Men that has the feel of musical comedy seems at odds with the primary use of music to embroider Alan o' Dale's character, as his legendary persona is as a minstrel and musician.
I had the opportunity to talk with creator and director Tyler Michaels after the four Fresh Ink performances had run their course. He told me that by the last of those performances, the play was markedly different than the one I saw fresh out of the gate. For example, he mentioned that considerable work had been done to flesh outs a backstory to the Robin-Marian relationship, which provides understanding for so much of what follows.
A "gest" is a tale of grand adventure, especially one with romance laced through it. This certainly applies to Robin Hood. What is exciting about Fresh Ink is the opportunity to see the ideas and visions of the writers, composers and directors at the point of their conception, knowing that with hard work, talent (which this team has in spades) and the support of nurturing companies like Illusion Theater, this infant work of theater can mature into a fully realized play with the capacity to inspire and entertain as only theater can.
The Gest of Robin Hood was presented July 21 - 24, 2016, as part of Illusion Theater's Fresh Ink Series to nurture new work. For more information on Illusion Theater go to illusiontheater.org.
Created and Directed by: Tyler Michaels; Writer: Tyler Mills; Music and Lyrics: David Darrow; Lighting Design: Mike Wangen; Technical Director: Aaron Schoenrock; Stage Manager: William Harmon; Production Manager and Prop Design: Sarah Salisbury; Production Assistant: Jazz Kopp
Cast: Kristian Anderson (musician), David Brinker (John), Henry Constable (Boy), Garry Geiken (Sheriff), H. Adam Harris (Friar, King), Meghan Kreidler (Marian), Riley McNutt (Robin Hood), Adelin Phelps (Stage Directions reader), James Ramlet (Guy/Driver), Andy Schnabel (Will), Max Wojtanowicz ( Alan).