CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — There may never have been a more purely entertaining production at the American Repertory Theater than “The Heart of Robin Hood.” Not the most artistically satisfying, certainly, but let’s table that thought awhile in the spirit of the holiday cheer the show embodies
First of all, this is an eye and ear popper. It unfolds gorgeously and I’ve already started downloading the music. If you’re looking for a holiday family event (through Jan. 19), this may be the perfect blend between the usual treacle and the unusual anti-treacle (“Slutcracker,” “It’s a Horrible Life”). It’s fun and it’s smart.
It begins with the exciting Connecticut “Alt Americana” band, Poor Old Shine, exploding onto Börkur Jónsson’s sensational set of Sherwood Forest greenery. They wield their acoustic instruments like swords and crossbows, as if they’re ready to do battle with the bad guys, sporting their Irish pub derbies and Red Sox beards.
Here they are, minus the derbies:
Then the Not So Merry Men magically appear, swinging down ropes, alighting on trees and, — more fun than a barrel of stout — sliding down and climbing up the green ramp, the central framing device of the production. These are not your basic good guys. Stealing from the rich is the whole playbook, not giving to the poor and opposing the fascistic Prince John.
David Farr envisioned the play, originally for the Royal Shakespeare Company, as Robin Hood meets “As You Like It” meets “Civilization and its Discontents.” Robin is basically a lout; he’s not the Errol Flynn-Richard Greene rebel aristocrat most of us grew up with.
(In terms of the play’s family-friendliness, the violence tends to be cartoonish, though grotesque if you give it any thought: A head taken off to be put on a pike, a father hanged, a tongue ripped from a mouth. Still, the way it’s presented, I’m not sure most kids would give the violence any thought.)
The star of this story is really Marion, no shrinking maid she but a kissing cousin of Rosalind in “As You Like It.” She takes to the forest initially to escape the clutches of Prince John, but disguises herself as Martin in order to be taken seriously by Robin and company.
She is as heroic as he is, but Marion has a sense of communality with the oppressed. She begins to slowly convert the Scottish-sounding Robin, even though Robin thinks she’s a he, and eventually the band becomes a 12th century version of Occupy Sherwood.
And what a forest Jónsson has come up with. Those ramps and ropes show off the great physicality that director Gísli Örn Gardarsson is famous for with his Icelandic company, VesturPort. There are aerial ballets, excellent fight sequences, characters disappearing into holes or pools of water inhabited by sharks, complete with John Williams music.
Gardarsson also incorporates Poor Old Shine into the action seamlessly, not only for musical interludes, but as Sherwood denizens. And, on opening night, Gardarsson even stepped in as Robin’s second in command. David Michael Garry’s performance as one of the bad guys — after he’s been killed — is one of the laugh-out-loud highlights.
On the other hand, maybe it’s Gardarsson’s presence that made me want more. When last he collaborated with Farr in Boston it was at ArtsEmerson’s presentation of VesturPort’s great Kafka adaptation, “Metamorphosis.”
Not that we want Kafka mixed up with Robin and Marion. Mel Brooks was bad enough. But given the feminist and Shakespearean remaking of the mythology, “The Heart of Robin Hood” could be a little more sophisticated and a little less silly. Farr follows up on the forest-as-liberation theme of “As You Like It,” but he doesn’t particularly advance it and the politics of the production don’t match up well with 21st century realities.
Even with his transformation, complete with sappy ballads, and the liberal sentiment that we’re all in this together, Robin seems more survivalist than savior. And we know that Richard’s return to England was hardly a turn to Jeffersonian tolerance.
The cast is fine with Christopher Sieber as Marion’s foppish attendant, Pierre, the standout. Jordan Dean brings a Woody Harrelson menace (think “Seven Psycopaths,” not “Cheers”) to Robin. Christina Bennett Lind is a little shouty at first as Marion, but settles into the part nicely. But, Gisli, hasn’t nontraditional casting come to Iceland yet? With a cast this big, does it have to look all-white?
All right. Enough cavils. This “Robin Hood” has plenty of heart. And spirit. It’s a terrific addition to the holiday lineup hereabouts.
This program aired on December 20, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.