By Jean Lowerison | Theater Review
It’s likely that Sherwood Forest and its inhabitants were never as frantic, nor as goofy, as it seems in “Ken Ludwig’s Robin Hood!” — now in its world premiere at The Old Globe’s White Theatre.
But that’s okay, since the main character has never been conclusively traced to a real person anyway. And most importantly, Ludwig has preserved the devil-may-care swashbuckler’s change from hard-drinking youth to crusader for justice and compassion, giving the story some contemporary relevance.
Ludwig’s play starts in 1194, with Robin approaching the noose he’s been sentenced to by Sir Guy of Gisbourne, usurper of King Richard’s throne. But just as the noose is about to be placed around Robin’s neck, Friar Tuck stops the process in order to tell us the story of how Robin ended up here.
The play leaps in time from Robin’s comical birth — with father pacing and muttering that his wife had better hurry up and deliver — to scenes of Robin’s childhood, youth and early adulthood. We even see him facing off with childhood friend Maid Marian in friendly bow-and-arrow shooting matches (she always wins).
Only when he meets the poverty-stricken Doerwynn — whose father faces dire consequences for having shot a deer on the King’s property in order to feed his children — does Robin (of noble birth, though a Saxon) become a crusader. He picks up “John Little” aka Little John, Friar Tuck, Maid Marian and Doerwynn as part of his merry band of outlaws … but good ones.
Performed in the round, this “Robin Hood” is a romp with heart and seemingly directed in a whirlwind by Jessica Stone. The whole production seems to be in constant motion, with cast members moving set pieces and making entrances from all four “corners,” keeping the running time under two hours (including one intermission).
Watch for a lot of tricky physical stuff with ropes going on here, too, and the imaginative way Little John scales Nottingham Castle to reach the imprisoned Doerwynn.
Perhaps it’s the overall breakneck pace of the show that results in some occasional indistinct dialogue.
The script is amusing, goofy, and occasionally moving, and even has characters (notably Prince John, but others as well) who freely quote and misquote Shakespeare — who wrote some 400 years after Robin Hood allegedly swashbuckled around England.
Stone has a splendid cast. Daniel Reece and Meredith Garretson make a great pair as Robin and Maid Marian. Reece is as handsome, cheeky and charming as Garretson is lovely, stubborn and unapologetically feminist.
Manoel Felciano is wonderfully awful as the snarling usurper Sir Guy, intent on hanging Robin.
Andy Grotelueschen’s Friar Tuck and Paul Whitty’s Little John are amusing and good foils for each other.
Kevin Cahoon is funny and sniffy as the Sheriff of Nottingham, allied with Sir Guy in the pursuit of Robin.
Prince John, the character, is a bit too busy patting himself on the back for his literary cleverness, but Michael Boatman portrays him well as a basically good egg … as rulers go.
Suzelle Palacios (from the USD/Old Globe educational partnership) turns in a lovely performance as Doerwynn, the sole character invented by the playwright.
Kudos to Tim Mackabee for the versatile and clever set and to Gregg Barnes for the sometimes impressive, sometimes charming casual costumes.
Fitz Patton’s fine sound design includes a poignant song from the cast: “Orphan Girl” by Gillian Welch. Jason Lyons’ lighting design is excellent. Credit Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum for the extensive fight direction.
Robin Hood is one of the most frequently portrayed characters in theater and film; having been the subject of many plays and somewhere between 12 and 70 films.
“Ken Ludwig’s Robin Hood!” will take its place in the Ludwig canon of light, amusing plays.
—Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at email@example.com.