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The Heart of Robin Hood

Written by David Farr, Directed by Gisli Örn Gardarsson, Music by Poor Old Shine, Lyrics by Poor Old Shine and David Farr; Set Design, Börkur Jónsson; Costume Design, Emma Ryott; Lighting Design, Björn Helgason; Sound Design, Jonathan Deans; Music Director, Kris Kukul; Fight Director, Joe Bostick; Associate Director/Aerial Consultant, Selma Björnsdóttir; Production Stage Manager, Mahlon Kruse

CAST (in alphabetical order): Moe Alafrangy, Daniel Berger-Jones, Claire Candela, Andrew Cekala, Jeremy Crawford, Jordan Dean, Zachary Eisenstat, Gisli Örn Gardarsson, David Michael Garry, Christina Bennett Lind, Laura Sheehy, Christopher Sieber, Louis Tucci, Katrina Yaukey, Damian Young

Performances through January 19 at American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 617-547-8300 or

The simple explanation for the integral role of Maid Marion in The Heart of Robin Hood is that playwright David Farr has two daughters who complained to him about the way that women are portrayed in films and plays. However, as it turned out, assigning Marion the task of civilizing a wild, thieving, thuggish Robin Hood gives both characters more facets and results in a fresh, vibrant alteration of the oft-told tale. In combination with the athletic, revolutionary staging conjured up by Icelandic director Gisli Örn Gardarsson and his creative team, the onstage musical accompaniment by roots band Poor Old Shine, and a sprightly ensemble capable of amazing feats, the American Repertory Theater's new production of The Heart of Robin Hood closes out 2013 on a high note.

At first glance, Börkur Jónsson's set draws the eye to a pair of massive trees leading to a network of leaf-covered boughs that form a canopy overhead. The curved, upstage wall and the floor are carpeted with synthetic moss and dirt, and there's a small pond strategically located just off center stage. When the show begins, the set comes alive as the actors enter by sliding down the wall, swinging in on ropes, or emerging from previously unseen ramps and holes in the structure. If you dare to look away for a moment, the gasps or laughs from the audience will be a signal that you've missed something visual, and the ever-changing lighting design by Björn Helgason will point you in the right direction. Thousands of little white bulbs are laced among the leaves, and the openings in the floor and the wall often stream colored lights and fog, while spotlights are aimed at the stage from three sides and overhead.

Farr's rendition twists the legend of Robin Hood as we know it. He is not the noble hero who steals from the rich to give to the poor. Robin (Jordan Dean) and his merry men pilfer and plunder, keeping the spoils for themselves. They take the clothing of their victims, if there's any value in it, and brutalize or sometimes behead those who dare to travel through their territory in Sherwood Forest. In spite of his pronouncement forbidding women in camp, Robin is smitten with Marion (Christina Bennett Lind), the daughter of a duke, when she and her servant Pierre (Christopher Sieber) stumble into their midst, but he sends her back to the castle she's trying to escape to avoid marrying the evil Prince John (Damian Young).

Unwilling to return to the boring aristocratic life, Marion displays her innate cleverness by disguising herself as a boy. As Martin of Sherwood, she challenges Robin at his own game, robbing wayfarers in the forest before he can get to them, and using the loot to help the peasants pay the burdensome taxes levied by John (while his brother, good King Richard, is off fighting in the Crusades). When Martin's pluck and charm win over Robin, he is transformed and they join forces to battle for justice and against oppression. In service to the plot, there are exciting sword play (choreographed by fight director Joe Bostick), high-flying stunts on ropes (aerial consultant Selma Björnsdóttir), original folk music, and a grand romance, culminating in an unforgettable climactic tableau.

Perhaps his background as a gymnast sets Gardarsson's theatrical world apart (his portrayal of Gregor Samsa in Kafka's Metamorphosis, at ArtsEmerson last winter, involved climbing the walls and ceiling of an upside-down house), but he routinely rejects the mundane or safe aesthetic in favor of turning a story on its head. The strong presence of nature in the production values of The Heart of Robin Hood is reflective of his Icelandic roots, and Farr makes it one of the driving forces in Marian's decision to take to the woods and emulate the band of merry men. As director, Gardarsson establishes a frenetic pace that often calls for strict timing of entrances via rope or slide and the ensemble performs the feats with precision and, in some instances, daring. On opening night, Gardarsson also capably stepped in to act as Much Miller in place of an injured Andy Grotelueschen (Boston actor Daniel Berger-Jones will be taking on the role).

Dean and Lind share a magnetic relationship that begins with an inkling of a spark, smolders through a period of assumed identity, and eventually ignites into a glorious blaze. Robin's arc starts from a place off the grid where Dean conveys him as gruff and untamed, but unquestionably the leader of the pack. He is not domesticated by Marion/Martin, but softens and becomes more introspective as his respect and feelings for her/him grow. Lind never misses a step running back and forth to change from Marion to Martin and back again. She captures both the feminist heart and the fierce perseverance of Marion, and more than holds her own in the sword fights and word play with Robin. In Emma Ryott's evocative costumes, Lind is believable as a scrappy boy and a royal bride.

As played by Young, Prince John is fearsome and loathsome, as are his leather-clad henchmen, the burly David Michael Garry and Moe Alafrangy (a whirling dervish). Zachary Eisenstat (Will Scathlock) and Jeremy Crawford (Little John) as Robin's loyal men give strong performances and show their strength on the ropes and in battle. After a stint on Broadway in Pippin, Andrew Cekala (Jethro Summers) is back to play one of the children (alongside Claire Candela as his little sister Sarah) rescued by Robin and Marion after John makes a brutal example of their father (one of several roles for the versatile Louis Tucci). Katrina Yaukey makes an impression as Marion's annoying sister Alice, among others, and Laura Sheehy is a shaggy-haired, clarinet-playing Plug the Dog. Last but not least is Sieber's delicious, show-stealing turn as the fey servant who must forego his creature comforts and frou-frou attire and man up to follow Marion into the woods. Like Sondheim's baker, Pierre changes, he's different in the woods, and Sieber thrives on it.

First seen at Stratford-upon-Avon's Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011, The Heart of Robin Hood is a new production at the A.R.T. which benefits greatly from the addition of the five-member Connecticut band Poor Old Shine. Antonio Alcorn, Chris Freeman, Harrison Goodale, Erik Hischmann, and Max Shakun sing and play a variety of instruments - among them, mandolin, banjo, guitar, drums, and saw - which adds a rich layer to underscore the play. Before the curtain, the musicians roam through the audience like wandering minstrels, helping to set a tone of fun and inclusion that permeates the show. They welcome us into the magical world of Sherwood Forest for an amazing journey. Filled with adventure, romance, and surprises, it is a delight from start to finish.

Photo credit: Evgenia Eliseeva (Jordan Dean, Christina Bennett Lind, Christopher Sieber, Zachary Eisenstat)

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