Close-up magic, where the cards and tricks fly right under a viewer's nose, is always quite effective. So why not close-up theater?

That's what's going on in the Petworth bar DC Reynolds, where the living room-sized front barroom has been cleared of tables for LiveArtDC's original production of The Merry Death of Robin Hood.

One can still grab a stool on the periphery and all are encouraged to grab a beer and engage in the many toasts. But when the staged fights break out, you might have to move out of the way quickly.

LiveArtDC has staged theater in barrooms before, but this production, written by Paul Reitman and directed by Jason Schalafstein, is the first the company conceived on its own for a specific space. So the green roped lights overhead alight every time the scene is Sherwood Forest; boxes are lifted in when it's time to approximate a river crossing for the Little John scene, and there's no shortage of handy ales to animate the central action - a wake for the fallen leader.

As the no longer Merry Men reminisce about Robin (Matthew Aldwin McGee), his spirit mingles among them as he corrects the record, stops the action and reminisces on the story himself. That makes for a lot of time shifting and times when Robin is seen by others, or not seen by them. But nothing gets too out of hand because it is all so close at hand.

Actors will give you a heads up first, but yes, the fighting sticks whiz inches away from a viewer's head, one's beer may be moved so Little John (Christian Sullivan) can stand atop the bar. A love scene between Robin and Maid Marian (Kaitlin Kemp) took place right at my feet. There's little in theater so immediate or proximate. One more move and you'd be part of the action, and indeed, several people are selected to be.

Theoretically, we're all "new recruits" to the forest, so a brief intermission is interrupted so some can learn fight moves, others learn a song. Everyone is taught a line dance to perform at one point. Three people compete in the archery competition that a disguised Robin wins. And somebody has to be the horse drawing the carriage.

Too much participation? Well, viewers can hang back and avoid a lot of it as well. But you still may be asked to vacate your seat to make room for the brawling.

Seth Rosenke adds a valuable music interlude on a ukulele with Jon Jon Johnson adding some violin as well as playing a couple of roles. And the music isn't Old English balladry but generally UK punk and post punk rock vintage, with key selections from the Undertones and Buzzcocks to move the action along. A grand "Wonderwall" introduces play, which ends hours later with Chumbawumba. The whole place has to sing the Struts' "Could Have Been Me" for the full emotional undertow.

The music melds well with Kat Fleshman's costume designs of tattered jean jackets and punk era pins, and little green plaid hoodies to indicate Hood and his gang. Likewise, big Union Jacks indicate the officialdom they rally against - John Stange, who is very good as the Sheriff of Nottingham, and Josh Adams as his henchman.

Will Scarlet (Emma Lou Hebert) is portrayed as a spirited rebel who is denying her own attraction to Robin. An affable Steve N Bradford rounds out the cast as Friar Tuck.

As the leader, McGee has the requisite charisma and skills, as well as a talent for disguises.

And as fun as it mostly is, the tale could use some trimming since some heavy stuff after the intermission makes one realize how long this tale really has become. Still, few plays have so much alcohol at the ready to ease things along.

And while Jonathan Ezra Rubin's fight choreography is convincing enough to make you quickly move out of the way; it's not nearly as convincing as Sullivan's ability to down a pint in one gulp, a feat he completes more than once, and it's never quite certain it's actually part of the play.

Whatever kind of night at the theater it is, The Merry Death of Robin Hood is undoubtedly a good night at the bar.

Running time: Two hours with one fifteen minute intermission.

Photo credit: Kaitlin Kemp and Matthew Aldwin McGee as Maid Marian and Robin Hood. Photo by James Ryan Photography.

The Merry Death of Robin Hood continues through June 12 at DC Reynolds Bar, 3628 Georgia Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 21 and over. Tickets at the door or online.

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From This Author Roger Catlin

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