The buzz around the Maverick Theater's production of The Legend of Robin Hood is that it's "not your grandfather's Robin Hood." And sure enough, this retelling of the story of one of Western literature's greatest anti-heroes is a far cry from the 1938 film starring Errol Flynn as the swashbuckling, wise-cracking rapscallion who gleefully plundered from the rich and gave to the poor.
There's plenty of swordplay (in fact, a little too much) in this production, conceived and directed by Nathan Makaryk, as well as humor, thieving and a pinch of wealth redistribution. But that, along with several characters pulled from the plethora of Robin Hood adaptations over the years—Friar Tuck, Little John, Will Scarlet and Lady Marian—is about all this intriguing tale shares with most past efforts. This is a far darker, morally ambiguous and complicated version, which has been around, in one fashion or another, since at least the 14th Century. And while it's still set in Sherwood Forest during the 12th-century reign of England's Richard I (he of the lion heart), Makaryk seems just as concerned with using the folktale as a metaphor for contemporary America than in wheeling out a pedestrian play starring men in tights.
No, it's not Occupy Sherwood Forest. But the clash between the wealthy and their political cronies against the long-suffering working stiffs who, thanks to oppressive taxation, have lost their homes and spun into ragtag groups living off the grid, doesn't seem too far removed from America in 2012. And how can a poor man stand such times and live in the days before unemployment insurance and welfare? He turns to crime.
The story begins almost as a bromance. Robin of Locksley (Frank Tryon) and his best pal, William (Michael Keeney), are hardened soldiers on a mission from their liege, who is off fighting infidels in the Holy Land. Military transports to Richard have been cut off by bandits in Sherwood Forest, and Robin and William carry a letter from the king advising the Sheriff of Nottingham to do whatever it takes to ensure the supplies make it through.
After being waylaid by a couple of youthful bandits (who are no match for soldiers), the two split up: William sets off to deliver the letter, while Robin, who is nursing a wounded leg, stays in the forest to try to calm the bandits. In Nottingham, William gets caught up in political stratagems, while Robin slowly realizes that the bandits, who have never killed anyone, are actually just poor peasants driven from their homes due to excessive taxation.
Since that taxation stems from the king's orders, both William and Robin are in a tough spot. Neither likes the idea of the sheriff sending men into the forest to capture and kill the forest people, but each also realizes that these aren't criminals per se, just people scrambling to survive. Robin suggests that instead of robbing the military transports, the bandits target the wealthy since they can afford to lose some stuff. This starts the rumor mill, and soon Robin and his men are perceived as altruistic do-gooders, sticking it to the man for the people.
The reality is far different, and it's Robin's and William's struggles between obeying the law of the land and helping impoverished peasants that supply the main thrust of the story. There are no clear-cut heroes or villains. Even the sheriff (a delightfully tormented Glenn Freeze) feels for the peasants, but as an obedient servant to the king, he's forced to ratchet up the taxes. Only Guy of Gisbourne (a malevolent Scott Keister), the sheriff's enforcer, seems comfortable wearing the black hat, though even he is fueled by thoughts of political aspiration rather than sheer malice.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with standouts Jaycob Hunter as a so-intense-you-want-to-smack-him Will Scarlet; his paramour, Elena, a spit-fiery Sabrina Zellars; and Larry Creagan's Teddy-Bear-with-a-bad-ass-stick Little John. In the main roles, both Tryon and Keeney skillfully straddle their conflicting allegiances between king and country, as well as to the people and the land. As a writer, Makaryk deserves high praise. This is a very thoughtful, well-developed play that doesn't support one cause. There are no polemics here; every character is flawed, every argument has some merit. And, most insightfully, it's usually when the players do something they think is right that all hell breaks loose.
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Too many clunky swordfights that rarely propel the action and an over-reliance on musical underscoring (which tells, rather than shows, something actors are charged to do) tend to stall things and add to an already-longish show (it clocks in at about two hours and 30 minutes). But the play never fails to entertain, and even though the plot sometimes gets a touch too convoluted, it remains a significant achievement. It doesn't deconstruct Robin Hood or high-concept the story. Instead, it reveals these characters of folk legend as very real people, swept up and stirred by the political and economic circumstances of their time, trying to make sense of the turmoil they find themselves in.
And ain't that America, for you and me?
This review appeared in print as "Occupy Sherwood Forest? Maverick Theater's production of the Robin Hood saga is a parable for our times."