Monday, May 29, 2017

Review - The Boy and Robin Hood - Trademark Theater - Frat Boys of the Forest - 3.5 stars

Off the top of my head, the things about Robin Hood that have been placed in my brain by popular culture are: he robbed from the rich and gave to the poor; his trusty sidekicks were a Band of Merry Men, the only two of whom I recall were Friar Tuck and Little John (who was always a big guy); his love interest was Maid Marian; his nemesis was the Sheriff of Notthingham; he hung out in Sherwood Forest.  That’s about it.  There were movies, of course, with Robins of every hue from Errol Flynn to Kevin Costner to Sean Connery to Cary Elwes to an animated fox, but nothing to dislodge the basics.

“Now I see you are a child who brings death to everyone he touches.”

Of course none of that’s the original Robin Hood from the English ballads of old (really old, like 12th century old), and that more violent creature is the figure that Trademark Theater is on the hunt for in their new adaptation of the Robin Hood legend, entitled The Boy and Robin Hood.  This is Trademark’s inaugural production and it’s a doozy.  It’s exciting to see this much talent helping to launch an enterprise like this. 

“Think of someone you love, someone you love more than you can stand.”

The whole thing just wouldn’t work at all without Annie Enneking’s fight choreography - there is a LOT of fighting (and - spoiler alert - dying), and it never gets repetitive or boring.  The whole look of the production is fantastic - costume (Sarah Bahr) and lighting design (Mary Shabatura) in particular stand out, although sets (Sarah Brandner), props (Abbee Warmboe) and sound (Nicholas Tranby) aren’t far behind.  It might be easy to forget the musicians, since they’re tucked out of sight backstage but they add a significant punch to the overall atmosphere (like the show has its own movie soundtrack going) - Kris Anderson (guitar), Matt Barber (percussion), Jack Barrett (bass), and Nic Delcambre (music director, piano).  And something with this many moving parts doesn’t run this smoothly or look this professional without a good stage management team (Lisa M. Smith, and assistant Haley Walsh) and technical director (Bethany Reinfeld).  The cast is stuffed with talented performers, who I’ll get to in a moment.

“When I appear again, I will have Robin in my teeth.”

The whole operation is the brainchild of Tyler Michaels and Tyler Mills (TM, Trademark, I am apparently slow, I just got that).  Michaels conceived and directed the show as well as guiding the non-fight choreography and movement (yes, even in a show as dark as this one there’s still dancing and general merriment for a while).  Mills wrote the script.  They also have David Darrow on board with music and lyrics. 

“And the boy, like a ghost, disappeared…”

The Boy and Robin Hood isn’t a traditional piece of American musical theater.  There’s no song list in the program because there really aren’t that many songs.  Although, if someone gave me a dollar for every time I thought someone was gonna burst into song throughout the play, I’d make a fair amount of money.  That was a weird bit of psychological tension watching the play that may be a holdover from when it was potentially more musically driven in earlier drafts, or it may just be my spectator’s mind playing tricks on me.  Now the music is largely narrative around the edges, sung by the ensemble (Anna Beth Baker, Tim Beeckman Davis, Benjamin Dutcher, Elizabeth Hawkinson, Lars Lee as… tree sprites, actual trees, spirits of the dead humans that linger in the forest? - hard to tell) - more in the spirit of the original ballads of Robin Hood, no doubt.  The one standout exception to that would be the song Alan-a-Dale (Nathan Barlow) sings about the origin of Robin Hood, and it’s lovely.

“Someone stares at you, from some dark window pane…”

Here’s the thing, I watched the whole play, and they executed the heck out of this story - but I’m still not sure precisely what story they were trying to tell, or why they were trying to tell it.  There’s a lot going on here but two of the central threads of story seem to be after the idea of rehabilitating the reputation of the Sheriff of Nottingham (Jason A. Rojas) while at the same time taking the shine off of the reputation of Robin Hood (Riley McNutt). I’ve got no objection to either storytelling strategy but I’m not entirely sure why the story is unfolding this way.

“Someone must care for the weak.”

The Sheriff doesn’t seem to want anyone to get hurt. Now, bodies are dropping all around him in his quest to find Robin, but a lot of them end up being accidental or unintentional, and he himself never kills anyone (until the very end, and then we have a pretty clear idea why, and as an audience, we’re behind the move). Thanks to Rojas’ performance, the Sheriff still always seems dangerous, mostly because he’s desperate.  But he genuinely seems to want to find Robin and bring him in peacefully, partly because Robin’s mother was also a second mother to him. The Sheriff keeps getting pushed to extremes because the King (Tim Beeckman Davis) is neither sentimental nor patient (though the Sheriff seems to get multiple “one last chances”). Backed into a corner, the Sheriff hires mercenary assassin Guy of Gisborne (Dan Hopman), who REALLY enjoys killing people, and finds the prospect of ending the life of a legend like Robin Hood very appealing. Finding a tracker who was less homicidal would have been the Sheriff’s preference, but…

“I come to you to stop more blood from being spilled.”

Meanwhile, an orphaned boy (Peder Lindell), sent on the run when the Sheriff was beating down doors looking for Robin in the opening scene, is rescued from pursuit by the king’s guards through the intervention of Alan-A-Dale (Barlow), Robin Hood’s minstrel sidekick who’s also pretty good in a fight.  In a move that makes the rest of the play possible, but seems like an inexplicably bad call, Alan takes the kid back to meet Robin (McNutt), and the others in the Band of Merry Men - John (Paul Rutledge), Friar Tuck (Theo Langason) and Will Scarlet (Ryan London Levin). (“Well, since you have no family, sure, come join our band of outlaws, what have you got to lose, and who would miss you if we accidentally get you killed?” - that’s not a spoiler alert, the boy is apparently super lucky.)  Inevitably, the kid also meets up with Marian (Kendall Anne Thompson), who left Robin and the Merry Men to return to the local village for reasons to be revealed later on.  They all adopt the kid, and mean well, but they’re really the worst possible people to be foster parents.

“You must dance with him a little.  Find his rhythm.”

The idea, I get it, is to show Robin through the Boy’s eyes - at first a hero, then slowly revealing Robin’s less than heroic traits.  Ah yes, stealing and living on the run occasionally means killing people.  Also, Robin has a temper with a pretty short fuse, and a strategic brain that’s slow to catch up.  He swings a sword or fires an arrow first, asks questions later.  All his good friends know this about him and put up with it, even though they all have leveler heads in a fight.  Why, exactly?  The script does such a good job at enumerating Robin’s many character flaws that the whole “why we love him and look to him as our leader” side of things seems pretty flimsy by comparison.  And Robin doesn’t demonstrate a lot of positive qualities that would engender good will (that’s not the actor’s fault, McNutt is as talented, charismatic and good-looking as the rest of the very talented, charismatic, good-looking ensemble - he’s just working with the script he’s been given).  The script also casts doubt on just where all that money he steals from the king goes.  The question is brought up but never really answered.  Does he help other people with that money, does he keep it all for himself?  That bit gets lost in the shuffle.

“We are very close in those moments.”

Also, the seemingly endless orgy of violence and death that starts in the first scene and only escalates, with very little respite, for the entirety of the show, is a little exhausting.  After a while, I start wondering, why am I still watching all these people suffer so much?  The climactic end of act one death is also problematic for other reasons.  Kudos to the production for being a place that showcases actors of color in major roles, but - when you’re hoisting one of your African American actors into the air, over a tree stump, and snapping his neck while a lot of white people stand around watching - not to mention your largely white audience - I get a really uncomfortable lynching vibe, whether there’s a rope involved or not.  I may be in the minority on that one, and the actors involved may be fine with it, but, yikes.  You want to deploy that kind of imagery extremely carefully.  And I’m honestly not sure this story warrants using an incident that loaded.

“Here was a man I would always want at my side.”

I can understand the impulse of wanting to return Robin Hood to his original story roots, and not the romanticized Robin of recent generations.  That’s why there’s a handy timeline in the program of the evolution of the Robin Hood story.  They’re not reimagining it so much as they’re removing all the layers of paint slathered on over the hardwood and getting back down to the foundation of things.  Also, questioning vigilante justice - I’m all for a nuanced exploration of that.  But a lot of the time, The Boy and Robin Hood feels like an unexamined display of guys who decided not to grow up.  It’s not much of stretch to substitute Wendy and the Lost Boys for Marian and the Merry Men.  Life not sitting well with you?  Take your white privilege, return to the woods, and feel free to just beat up anything that gets in your way.  Create a narrative of your own nobility of purpose and sell it to anyone who’s buying.  There’s enough death going around at the end to make sure most people pay for their selfishness.  But does anyone really learn anything?  No one who survives changes - at all.  So is the play saying no one learns anything, or that we can’t stop ourselves from making the same mistakes over and over again and change?

“I’d like to be remembered differently.”

Everyone involved at Trademark Theater clearly loves these characters and the story of The Boy and Robin Hood.  I’m just kind of at a loss as to why.  Doesn’t mean it’s not impressive.  Just a bit confusing.  Give it a look yourself and tell me what I missed. (playing now through June 11, 2017 at the Ritz Theater)

3.5 stars - Highly Recommended

(The Boy and Robin Hood [and the Band of Merry Men] - l to r: foreground - Nathan Barlow,
Peder Lindell, behind: Paul Rutledge, Theo Langason, Riley McNutt, Ryan London Levin - photography by Rick Spaulding)

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