Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also se Arty's review of How to Avoid Burnout in 73 Minutes
With Sherwood, Yellow Tree Theatre happily joins the ranks of companies reopened after 18 months of virtual programming, or in some cases no programming at all. The play that is reopening their intimate thrust stage is also their first production under the helm of Artistic Director Austene Van. This is fitting as Van directed the outstanding Skeleton Crew at Yellow Tree, which closed just two weeks before the protracted shut down of live theater.
The tale of Robin Hood has been told so many times on stage and screen that one may wonder whether there is call for yet another telling. Maybe not, until you consider the witty dialog and engrossing narrative arc crafted by Ludwig. Playwriting this good is always welcome, and in the hands of Johnson and his crackerjack cast, it is a cause for celebration.
Sherwood follows the familiar path of other Robin Hoods. Virtuous King Richard, off fighting the crusades, leaves England in the hands of his greedy, corrupt brother, Prince John, who raises taxes on the poor and inflects cruel punishments on those unable to pay. Robin emerges as the unlikely champion of the downtrodden, stealing from the upper class and distributing their wealth back to those from whom it was so callously taken. He acquires a band of devoted followers, as well as the attention of beautiful maid Marian, who harbors ambivalent feelings about this man who is both outlaw and hero.
While there is nothing new about this Robin Hood, the use of contemporary stereotypes bestowed on the male characters creates the impression at the start that we are in for a parody of the ancient story. This is tempered, however, through the course of the play, as self-centered Robin of Locksley develops both courage and convictions, so that by the climactic scene when he mortally wounds an enemy, his response is not one of giddy victory, but of shock, realizing the profound price of seeking justice. As Robin, Damian Leverett brings a perfect blend of naiveté, hunger for experience, and emergent compassion to his performance. His boyish good looks add to the feeling that this Robin Hood is growing up before our eyes.
None of the other male characters are treated with anything akin to the depth of character as Robin. His compatriots Little John and Friar Tuck are certainly devoted to the cause, but spend their days dropping wisecracks with some forays into physical shtick. No complaints though, with Darrick Mosley's energetic Little John, nor with Karen Wiese-Thompson's pugnacious Friar Tuck, who serves as the play's narrator. Wiese-Thompson mines and delivers humor in every line and gesture. By my count, there is no better comic actor in the Twin Cities.
We also have a trio of villains: the nefarious Sir Guy of Gisbourne, a lecherous, snarly mouthed serpent, deliciously portrayed by James Rodriguez; the Sheriff, Sir Guy's sniveling henchman who would just as soon forgo all the violence, brought to vivid life by Ryan London Levin; and Prince John, a preening egotist with a knack for coining phrases that will later turn up in Shakespeare, in a dandy turn by C. Ryan Shipley. All three of these bad guys remain caricatures throughout, with anachronistic jokes punctuating their acts of villainy.
Differing from these funny-man roles, the two female characters, like Robin, show depth and growing conviction in the course of the play. Both have occasion to draw laughs, but just as often their lines convey an emotional tone or a pearl of wisdom. Maid Marian, the girl who grew up next door to Robin and emerges as a worldly voice of reason, is given a strong sense of purpose and sharp intelligence by Michelle de Joya. Deorwynn, a spunky young woman brought to the brink of starvation under the Prince, provides the impetus for Robin to see the world through different eyes. She is played with fiery independence by Sophina Saggau. In most versions of Robin Hood this character, whose father, Much the Miller, is brought to ruin by Prince John, is a boy known simply as Much the Miller's Son. Whatever the reason Ludwig envisioned this character as female, it works well.
With several characters behaving in a more earnest manner, and others focused on comedic action and one-liners, Sherwood runs the risk of seeming to be two different plays joined in an ill-suited marriage. A series of vignettes showing the French, Spanish and Austrians laughing at the English court does push it a bit over the edge. Overall, though, Ludwig makes the pairing work, spinning a jolly outer shell, with the serious heart planted within slowly growing and finally breaking through the frothy bubble around it. We are rewarded with a platter-full of hearty laughs and a satisfying resolution to the dramatic core.
Given the small stage at Yellow Tree, the fanciful setting serves this production remarkably well. Justin Hooper has placed grey and moss-green concentric circles on the floor, forming a target, with the rear of the thrust covered with a stony, vine-covered castle, with an upper balcony where the bad guys tend to congregate. The classic scene in which Robin first meets Little John on the river is cleverly laid out before our eyes.
Anna Hill has given the players beautiful costumes that capture the persona of each character, while Kathy Maxwell's lighting creates the needed variation in mood. Peter Morrow contributes wonderful sound design, creating crowd scenes that encompass the entire auditorium. Last but far from least, Mike Lubke's fight choreography is some of the fastest, most theatrical swashbuckling I have ever seen on any stage. All of this is wrapped up in Craig Johnson's pitch-perfect direction, keeping things moving at the briskest of paces while allowing time to draw out moments of insight and tenderness.
Sherwood is a delightful return to live theater. Ludwig's play makes us laugh, draws us to the edge of our seats as swords clash, and builds our hopes that true love and justice will prevail. With a bouquet of ace performances and a whip-smart staging, Yellow Tree has served up a winner.
Sherwood through October 17, 2021, at Yellow Tree Theatre, 320 5th Ave. SE, Osseo MN. Tickets: $31.00 - $35.00; $3.00 per ticket discount for seniors (65+) and students with valid ID. For information and tickets visit YellowTreeTheatre.com or call 763-493-8733.
Playwright: Ken Ludwig; Director: Craig Johnson; Assistant Director: Kevin Fanshaw; Scenic Designer: Justin Hooper; Costume Designer: Anna Hill; Lighting Designer: Kathy Maxwell; Sound Designer: Peter Morrow; Props Master: Charles Fraser; Fight Choreographer: Mike Lubke; Technical Director: Matthew A. Gilbertson; Stage Manager: Lyndsey R. Harter; Assistant Stage Manager: Ajah Williams.
Cast: Michelle de Joya (Maid Marian), Damian Leverett (Robin Hood), Ryan London Levin (Sherriff), Darrick Mosley (Little John), James Rodriguez (Sir Guy of Gisbourne), Sophina Saggau (Deorwynn), C. Ryan Shipley (Prince John), Karen Wiese-Thompson (Friar Tuck).