The big question about Ken Ludwig’s Robin Hood!, now premiering at the Old Globe Theatre, is: “Why?”
This is a relaxed, ingratiating redo of the familiar tale, performed with lively invention by just eight rigidly type-cast actors in the intimate confines of the Globe’s White Theatre arena. There are some laughs, some careful sword-fights, a refreshing spritz of girl-power, considerable atmosphere and a lot of fancy antique rhetoric.
What there isn’t, is a reason.
Ludwig has a reputation as a comic playwright, based mainly on his hit Lend Me a Tenor, but this new show ignores as many chances for comedy as it exploits. The set-ups whiz past like train stations on an express line; Ludwig pulls the stop signal for the more sober, ennobling scenes suitable for sermons.
The well-worn tale of the stalwart hero who robs the rich and gives to the poor carries its own built-in morality. It doesn’t really need the pious emphasis it gets here, just a happy ending when Daddy gets home and restores order. Whatever the actual history (Richard the Lion-Hearted declared Prince John his official heir), the Robin Hood legend has Richard as the supreme authority who appears in the nick of time to heal all wounds and wound all heels. And such is the case here. So why all the uplift?
In the Globe’s generous program notes, Ludwig says he wanted to build a coming-of-age survey of the young Robin, with a warm and glowing social conscience as the ultimate prize. Well, the play starts with Robin as a plastic baby in a slapstick scene and progresses to a noose on the scaffold of principled sacrifice, but the most memorable steps along the journey involve parties, tricks, lust and fights. That’s the stuff that has made the story such a hardy survivor.
Fortunately for this project, if not for the further life of the script itself, director Jessica Stone has chosen to concentrate on form over content. She and her colleagues – both designers and actors – are at endless pains to maintain the texture of a jolly fable, rollicking away in a storybook setting sketched from the rough basics of fantasy story-telling. The result is as endearing as a romp in the pack with a favorite old dog.
Eight actors play all the dozens of roles? Sure, if the team is committed and the plan clever enough. Stone is like a battle commander with a juggler’s eye as she weaves scenes together with room for scoring necessary plot points while also getting all the furniture moved. The muttering gripes become part of the piece as actors haul and heave in the gloom. And a particularly deft bit of illusion brings chuckles and exclamations by the very guys who – come on! – helped work it out in rehearsal.
What Scott doesn’t have to spend much time on is motivation and interpretation. That was handled already by the casting department, paging through a high-class catalogue of stereotypes.
What springs to mind when one says “Robin Hood”? A lean, handsome, nimble hero like our Daniel Reece, matched with the lithe and hearty Meredith Garretson as a Maid Marian of uncommon spunk.
The evil boss oppressor? Our Manoel Felciano, who might have been born sneering. His sissy and bumbling accomplice? Kevin Cahoon, master fop. Little John is big and sweet and loyal, which Paul Whitty could do half asleep, and Friar Tuck? Well, say no more. We all know he’s exactly like this Andy Grotelueschen (who, by the way, played the lead in The Imaginary Invalid earlier this season): fat, hairy, profane and adorable.
All of these artists undoubtedly have more range than is demanded here, as in the assignments of tall and beefy Michael Boatman, who must range from peasant to royalty, and Suzelle Palacios, whose array of wenches lacks the padding of tradition. But the worn acting grooves allow them to better concentrate on hauling bits of Tim Mackabee’s scenery into the latest configuration.
Mackabee has plated the interior of the White Theatre with handsome natural wood and festooned the room with so many lengths of heavy cordage that the bracing smell of fresh, working hemp seeps into the lobby. There are boxes of various shapes and a few working hinges. From all this, plus a few banners and drapes, he makes possible both stern castle interiors and, thanks to lighting designer James Lyons’ delicately filigreed gobos, deep and enchanted forests.
The Greg Barnes costumes carry the heft and drape of the period nicely and, as Ms. Stone’s actors gallop up the aisle and occasionally pause, allowing close-up examination, are detailed with true love for effect, the buttons and studs and leather bits even touched lightly with paint for more depth.
Arrows fly convincingly, thanks to the prop department, but the fights, alas, are subject to all the conflicting demands of nature and art. Given a year or so of endless rehearsal, there’s little doubt that fight director Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum couldn’t really polish these routines to a near-awesome level. As it is, the clangs are satisfactory and the general effect is at least as impressive as the bow and arrow gags.
There’s even a song, by Fitz Patton, and some vigorous clog dancing to round out the earthy delights of the physical production. Where the work needs to be done is on the play itself.
The Robin Hood story has been a favorite for centuries. It can work by itself as an adventure saga, as was built around Errol Flynn for the famous 1938 film, or it can be used to make a deeper point, as Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn did in the 1976 Richard Lester film Robin and Marian. It has served for operas and ballets, comic books and classic literature. And there is comedy to be found, as Mel Brooks did in 1993 with Robin Hood: Men in Tights, predictably outrageous.
Whatever respect he felt about the old Robin Hood story, Brooks saw no need to handle with care. But his humor tends to be as deadly as Robin’s arrow. For example, Ludwig at the Globe has a running gag (borrowed from Shaw, among others) that Prince John keeps coming up with these well-turned phrases that will turn up a few centuries later in Shakespeare’s plays. King Richard sentences him and his descendent to live in Stratford-upon-Avon. Ha, ha.
In Brooks, Prince John is punished by banishment to the Tower of London. As part of the tour there.
Different type of comedy, sure. But which is more funny?
A hint about the source of the problem may be contained in the title of the show here: Ken Ludwig’s Robin Hood! Embedding the author’s name implies either too much reverence or a presumption that the name will sell tickets. Either way, a suspicion arises that nobody helped Ludwig very much with editing.
If they had, perhaps the purpose of the show would tighten more into focus.
And maybe we might have been spared gags like, “Oh look, there’s Sir Marc of Chagall.”
(Continues at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Sept. 3, 2017.)