Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Boy and Robin Hood digs into the well-known legend of the outlaw and his band of merry men who inhabited a space deep within Sherwood Forest in the 12th century (give or take). Robin Hood, as most of us know him, robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, waging a constant battle against greed and injustice in which he always triumphed. That is how the mythology evolved, aided by the influence of Hollywood. However, in its earliest renditions, going back to the late 14th century, Robin was a more ambivalent character. Yes, he enjoyed slashing away at both the treasure and the pride of the ruling class, but he was not necessarily motivated to "re-gift" his bounty to those in need. He was also quick to angeran anger which could be reckless and invoke needless violence.
That is the Robin we meet in the new play, well-crafted by writer Tyler Mills and gracefully enhanced with David Darrow's music and lyrics, which sing with the sounds of traditional English folk music. Key characters from the legendsRobin's band including Alan O'Dale, the Friar, Little John, Will Scarlett, and Much the Miller's Son; the maiden Marian; Robin's foil, the Sheriff of Nottingham; and his nemesis, Guy of Gisborneeach play an important part in this new account of the old story.
The play begins with a shaft of light illuminating the shape of a young boy. The hungry orphan has found an open pantry in his search for food. When people approach, he hides. In comes the old woman whose pantry it is, the Sheriff, and the Sheriff's two henchmen. The Sheriff prevails menacingly on the woman to reveal the whereabouts of a certain man. When they discover the boy, he flees into the forest with the henchmen in pursuit. He is about to be caught when a stranger comes to the boy's aid. This is Alan, and the boy is Much. Alan brings Much to the forest lair to meet Robin and the rest of the Merry Men. Impressed by Much's pluck, they devise a series of sham tests of courage and wit before embracing him into the fold, capped by a celebratory dance.
As Much settles in with the band, we learn Robin's origin story, watch Much practice the skills needed as one of the Merry Men, and meet Marian, who was once a member of the band but now lives in town. A successful attack on a transport conveying the King's gold prompts another celebratory dance. It seems a good life, but things go awry when Much reveals the incident that sent him running into the forest. Determined to find out what happened to the old woman whom the Sheriff had threatened, Robin hatches a plan that puts the entire band in peril. Meanwhile, the King is impatient with the Sheriff's failure to capture Robin Hood. Now under great pressure, the Sheriff turns to Guy of Gisborne, a sinister man of violent temperament, with his own reasons to destroy Robin Hood.
Things go from bad to worse, with loss of life to the Merry Men. Much is deeply shaken, disillusioned with the life of daring-do. Marian provides a safe harbor for the boy, and confides the reasons she left the band. In the end, the notion of a glorious and righteous outlaw proffered by Robin Hood turns out to be rather shallow. In fact, others in the band act with more integrity and wisdom than does their leader. If there is to be hope, it is found in Much: hope that the boy melds what was good in his heroes with a new kind of strength given by Marian.
A five member ensemble provides most of the musical moments, using song to bridge scenes or as a narration to scenes without spoken dialogue. The song of Robin Hood's origins is beautifully sung by Nathan Barlow, as Alan, and a sweetly mournful song accompanies the funeral of a fallen hero, in contrast to the lively celebration dances. The music serves the play well, adding emotional resonance to the narrative. Where the play alone would surely entertain, with the music we are both entertained and moved, finding heart beneath the rough-hewn story.
Riley McNutt (Ragtime, Six Degrees of Separation) is Robin Hood, fully inhabiting the character's bravado and self-righteous temperament, and conveying the thin line between heroism and vanity. He is physically well suited for the part: lean, agile and handsome. McNutt creates a larger-than-life persona that fully commands the stage, and a remarkable young actor named Peder Lindell shares center court with McNutt's Robin as the boy, Much. Indeed, Much, not Robin, provides the play's heart as he processes his journey from abject orphan to acceptance in the company of men, to finding a path to his own heart, striking balance between strength and kindness. Lindell, an eighth grader with an impressive theater and opera resume, makes Much into a three-dimensional character, radiating emotion from his face and carriage. He is spry, full voiced, and surprisingly self-possessed.
Kendall Anne Thompson portrays Marian as a woman who embraces both her strength and her kindness, able to be direct in dealing with adversity, nurturing toward those in need, and playful when all is well. Nathan Barlow is a soaring presence as Alan, kind and insightful in his understanding of others. Paul Rutledge projects wisdom as John, who argues for restraint and reason against Robin's reflexive vengeance. Ryan London Levin as Will Scarlett, and Theo Langason as the Friar have less to do, but each effectively conveys his character's place in the band. Jason A. Rojas has precisely the right blend of menace and self-deprecation as the Sheriff, and Dan Hopman plays Guy of Gisborne as a stony-faced killer, a 12th century version of a mafia hit-man. The ensemble members all sing beautifully and handle small roles effectively, with Tim Beeckman Davis contributing a turn as a particularly creepy King.
A single set, designed by Sarah Brandner, creates the secretive atmosphere of a deep woods. Thick, dark tree trunks rise from the floor up to the flies, and a series of flat stone slabs create different levels on one side of the stage. Sarah Bahr's costumes reflect the materially spare lives of the Merry Men, while the Sheriff and the King wear costumes that convey their level of authority. Mary Shabatura's lighting design and Nicholas Tranby's sound design both aide in establishing rich visual and aural stage scenes. Annie Enneking must have worked overtime as fight director, given the number of fights, duels, brawls, and other forms of physical conflict, all of which is play with both flair and authenticity.
The Boy and Robin Hood is a joyful work of theater. I don't mean it is happy, for it takes a decidedly dark turn as it revisits an old tale and strains harsh truth out of vainglorious mythology. But the show is a joy to watch, from its first moment to its last, and everyone on stage conveys a sense of joy in creating theater. It is full of action, yet offers moments of reflection and raises some serious questions along the way. With a well-written script, lovely music, a cast blooming with talent and beautiful work by his creative team, Mr. Michael's first foray with Trademark Theater delivers exactly what it set out to do. I can't wait to see what next it has in store for us.
The Boy and Robin Hood, a Trademark Theater production, continues through June 11, 2017, at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $20.00. Students with ID, $15.00. For tickets call 612-339-3303 or go to www.trademarktheater.org.
Writer: Tyler Mills; Music and Lyrics: David Darrow; Director, Choreography and Movement: Tyler Michaels; Scenic Design: Sarah Brandner; Costume Design: Sarah Bahr; Lighting Design: Mary Shabatura; Sound Design: Nicholas Tranby; Props Design: Abbee Warmboe; Fight Director: Annie EnneKing; Technical Director: Bethany Reinfeld; Stage Manager: Lisa M. Smith; Assistant Stage Manager: Haley Walsh.
Cast: Anna Beth Baker (ensemble), Nathan Barlow (Alan), Tim Beeckman Davis (King/ensemble), Benjamin Dutcher (ensemble), Elizabeth Hawkinson (Sarah/ensemble), Dan Hopman (Guy of Gisborne), Theo Langason (Friar), Lars Lee (ensemble), Ryan London Levin (Will), Peder Lindell (The Boy), Riley McNutt (Robin), Jason A. Rojas (The Sheriff), Paul Rutledge (John) and Kendall Anne Thompson (Marian).