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American Repertory Theater’s ‘The Heart of Robin Hood’ adds romance to classic tale

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

American Repertory Theater’s ‘The Heart of Robin Hood’ adds romance to classic tale
From (l): Jordan Dean, Christina Bennett Lind and Christopher Sieber in the American Repertory Theater production of “The Heart of Robin Hood.”

A state of wonder sets in even before the actors appear in the deliriously enjoyable American Repertory Theater production of “The Heart of Robin Hood” at the Loeb Drama Center in Harvard Square through January 19th.

Branches of a massive oak tree extend above the stage and over half the rows in the theater. A quintet of musicians, the alt-rural-folk band Poor Old Shine, roams the aisles, serenading the audience as they take their seats. With their scruffy beards and vintage outfits—bowler hats, vests and baggy pants—they resemble forest gnomes.

Conjuring Sherwood Forest, the tree and stage set—a backdrop of a grassy hillside that extends across the stage to create a wooded glade—harmonize with the rustic earthiness of the band who, in every scene, sing and play such quaint instruments as the mandolin, banjo, saw, glockenspiel and pump organ.

As they come on stage, the actors turn the forest into a haven of freedom, a scene of violence and, as in Shakespeare’s comedies, a place of transformation and disguise. In between hand-to-hand combat, testy confrontations and scenes of gore equal to any fairy tale by the Grimm Brothers or Hans Christian Andersen (what is it about these northern Europeans?), they hurl themselves down the grassy slide, pop in and out of bubbling holes, break-dance, and ascend on ropes to the great branches overhead.

Written by David Farr, a Royal Shakespeare Company associate director, the play is directed by Icelandic director Gisli Örn Gardarsson, who infuses his acrobatic flair as a former gymnast and his Icelandic appetite for keeping nature close at hand.

“The Heart of Robin Hood” premiered in November 2011 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, directed by Gardarsson, who reunites his staging team for the ART production, with set design by Borkur Jonsson, costumes by Emma Ryott and lighting by Bjorn Helgason.

In February, Gardarrson and Farr were in Boston to jointly adapt and direct the Arts Emerson production of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” Gardarrson performed the lead role of Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one day to find himself transformed into an insect.

The transformations in this play take their cues not from Kafka’s bleak satire but instead from Shakespeare’s comedy, “As You Like It.” Like Rosalind, the heroine who takes to the forest and disguises herself as a man to avoid her father’s would-be usurper, Farr’s Marion heads to Sherwood Forest to escape evil Prince John, who conspires to marry her and usurp the rule of her father who is away fighting the Crusades.

She wants to join Robin Hood and his band of men who, she believes, rob from the rich and give to the poor.

Rejecting her offer to join his band, Robin Hood tells her that they avoid any contact with women, who “cause storms in the heart of a man.”

She and her faithful manservant Pierre also learn that Robin Hood and his men steal from the rich but keep their booty for themselves. “There’s nothing merry about us,” they tell Marion. In fact, they are heartless knaves.

Turning herself into “Martin of Sherwood,” Marion claims her own place in the forest and robs the rich to help the poor.

As its name suggests, “The Heart of Robin Hood” is a love story as well as a comedy. And with a hunk like Jordan Dean in the role of Robin Hood, romance is afoot.

The muddled mix of an assertive heroine who pines for Robin Hood, an “emotionally unavailable man,” keeps this play from reaching the sublime power promised in its early scenes. But the director and his merry band of actors overcome the play’s deficiencies with a spellbinding production. The actors turn their characters into real people—even as they leap, tumble and tangle with each other in fights and balletic, aerial ascents.

Christina Bennett Lind’s Marion is a spirited and wholesome beauty. Dean’s Robin Hood has smoldering appeal and even, at times, comic flair. And as Prince John, Damian Young is a totally loathsome villain.

Two actors were commanding in their roles as sidekicks. Small and wiry, Jeremy Crawford was a feral and fierce Little John. As a servant freed from an abusive lord by Robin Hood’s gang to become one of its most aggressive members, his explosive and unpredictable portrayal adds gravity to the play’s early scenes.

Sherwood Forest is the scene of multiple transformations. None is more fun to watch than the evolution of Christopher Sieber’s Pierre, Marion’s loyal manservant, from a bewigged and foppish courtier into “Peter, man of nature.”

Five members of this nimble ensemble play a total of 23 parts, including the roles of a bishop, a hapless friar and a wild boar.

Injecting stylish break-dancing into their fight scenes were Moe Alafrangy in his trio of bad guy roles and Zachary Eisenstat as Robin’s henchman, Will Scathlock.

Like the comedies of Shakespeare, “The Heart of Robin Hood” ends with the world in better order and celebrates the new harmony with a wedding. The stage artistry concludes with a glorious tableau true to the earthy magic of this production.