BWW Review: Adam Szymkowicz's MARIAN, OR THE TRUE TALE OF ROBIN HOOD is Truly Legendary
Robin Hood's role in English literature is commonly known, even as details may vary depending upon whom is telling the tale. Some stories and legends cast him as a man of noble birth who, consistently loyal to King Richard, rails against Prince John usurping his brother's position while he is off on The Crusades, while others maintain he was borne of simpler circumstances. What remains the same - since the 13th century, according to research - is the notion that Robin was a champion of the poor, stealing from the rich to help provide for the less fortunate.
Thus, it seems apparent that the legend of Robin Hood is subject to personal interpretation and, given the times in which we now live, it only makes sense that playwright Adam Szymkowicz would devise his own treatment of the legend in ways both provocative and traditional. In Marian, Or The True Tale of Robin Hood, Szymkowicz posits that both Robin, the personification of the anti-hero, and his supposed love, Maid Marian are indeed the same person, devoted not only to taking from the aristocracy to provide for the peasantry, but also to foment ideas of class and gender equality at a time when such thought was considered heretical.
But this is the 21st century and giving a more modern, decidedly contemporary, bent to the Robin Hood legend is not only a sign of creativity, but a damn clever way to ensure audiences will respond vociferously and enthusiastically to a high entertaining stage event. Directed by Britt Byrd, who last year helmed a bare-bones production of the play during Nashville's Sideshow Fringe Festival, Marian, Or The True Tale of Robin Hood is brought back to life in a beautifully designed and engagingly acted production from Actors Bridge Ensemble and Wild Card Productions at Belmont's Black Box Theater, running through this weekend (the final performance is Saturday, July 7, so time is a-wasting if you plan to get tickets for one of the summer's funniest shows).
To her credit, Byrd keeps the action moving along at a terrific pace, with every scene a vignette that offers a look into a different version of the Robin Hood legend, one in which familiar characters - like the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham, unctuous Prince John and the strapping figure of Little John - loom large in decidedly different, if still legendary, ways.
Performed on Paul Gatrell's gorgeous set (which becomes Prince John's castle, the environs of Sherwood Forest where Robin and his men make merry, along with various other sites), the action in Szymkowicz's play hurtles along at breakneck speed, ensuring that the play's 90 minutes is over almost before you realize it. Richard Davis' exquisite lighting design illuminates the play's various scenes and vignettes, while Laramie Hearn's costume design offers a cavalcade of opulent fashion choices for all of the assembled players.
Thanks to Byrd's superb cast, the familiar characters are played winningly, allowing audiences to suspend their disbelief and to buy into the conceit of this particular script. In Szymkowicz's retelling of the legend, Robin Hood is the nom de plume of Maid Marian, the high-born lady of the realm long assumed to be his lover. Far-fetched though it might be, it could happen: While historians debate the viability of the Robin Hood story, it seems obvious he may never have actually lived, but rather that the name "Robin Hood" could have been taken by any number of thieves, bandits and cut-throats who shied away from using their actual names in order to escape capture. It is perfectly plausible that a woman should claim the name as well.
Throughout the play, while the playwright pays homage to the legend as we know it, Szymkowicz peppers the dialogue liberally with discussions of gender roles, same sex relationships and behavior both heteronormative and frankly gay at a time such things could send one straight for the gallows. It might seem incongruous and anachronistic, of course, but thanks to the playwright's ease of storytelling and deft use of language, it all seems authentic.
Thankfully, we are more than ready to buy into that interpretation, due to the ideal casting of Melinda Paul as Marian/Robin Hood. She casts a noble figure, to be sure, and she plays the rip-roaring action figure hero to perfection, brandishing a sword with great style and leaping about the stage with all the abandon of a latter-day Errol Flynn even while evoking comparisons to Olivia de Havilland in the process. Paul commands the stage with her estimable presence, but never overshadows the other talented members of Byrd's ensemble of actors.
Chief among those actors is Ashley Wolfe, as Alanna Dale (who becomes Alan a-Dale), a young woman with great ambition, who aspires to become a part of Robin Hood's posse what with her impressive skills on the tournament stage. Wolfe, as charming and disarming as anyone you may have seen onstage before her (but more likely even more so), plays Alanna with a palpably earnest grace and serves as the audience's conduit to the newfangled facts delivered in Szymkowicz's engaging play.
While Paul and Wolfe are the de facto stars in the ABE/Wild Card co-production, Byrd has sensibly surrounded them with a coterie of performers of similar skill and deportment. Fred Brown virtually steals the show with his laugh-out-loud funny portrayal of feckless Prince John, while Mackenzie Smith's broad Scottish brogue is exemplary as he brings Little John to life. Lakota Jernigan is well-cast as Will Scarlet; Diego Gomez (whose work as fight choreographer makes certain the action is indeed packed, as it were) is the randy Friar Tuck; Alexandra Chopson confidently plays Much, the Miller's Son; and JR Knowles and Gavin Jernigan are great as a pair of guards whose relationship may be far closer than they would admit. And Kate Adams plays the seductive, voluptuous and flirtatious Lady Shirley with great charm and sex appeal.
Marian, Or The True Tale of Robin Hood. By Adam Szymkowicz. Directed by Britt Byrd. Presented by Actors Bridge Ensemble and Wild Card Productions. At Belmont's Black Box Theatre, Nashville. Through Saturday, July 7. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes (with no intermission). For details, go to www.actorsbridge.org.