Chicago Theatre Review
The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest
Robin Hood and Maid Marian – Strawdog Theatre
High above the noise of North Broadway and the dirty, slushy snow piling up below, it’s Summertime. Inside Strawdog Theatre, birds are singing, bees are buzzing, deer are frolicking and flowers are blooming and ready for picking; because away from the hustle and bustle outside, family audiences can escape to sunny Sherwood Forest. Adapted by the Forks and Hope Ensemble from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s seldom performed 1892 poetic play “The Foresters, or Robin Hood and Maid Marian,” this enthusiastic, hard-working company brings the swashbuckling mythic adventures of Robin and his Merry Men to the life.
The key to the success of this exciting production is its almost improvised quality. Performed literally all over the modest confines of Strawdog Theatre’s Hugen Hall, often only inches from the audience, this exuberant, joyful production is guaranteed to evoke broad smiles and raucous laughter. Marking Matt Pierce’s Chicago directorial debut, he’s given this production the look and feel of a ragtag band of traveling players who perform from town to town. His production overflows with challenging physicality, broad humor and, of course, Tennyson’s poetic dialogue. In this Monty Python-esque, often gender-bending production, several ensemble members play multiple roles; actresses perform as men, actors impersonate women and animals are played by—well, almost everyone.
There are cheerful tunes, sung and accompanied by the actors themselves. Festive dances seem to erupt spontaneously and, thanks to the talent of fight choreographer Sam Hubbard, a great deal of very impressive swordplay breaks out at the drop of a glove. Mike Mroch’s set is simple, consisting only of a couple small benches, some tree stumps, a makeshift curtain and a bunch of vines and flowers lining the walls. Raquel Adorno has costumed her cast in an assortment of fabrics and accessories, like one might find hidden away in an attic trunk. Everything has that irresistible off-the-cuff look.
Everything, that is, with the exception of the performances. These actors are well-rehearsed and fully in control. While every cast member does an excellent job, especially working together as an ensemble, a few actors stand out. As Maid Marian, Kelsey Shipley is a captivating auburn-haired beauty, with the verbal and physical dexterity of a trouper. Ms. Shipley commands every scene, not only when she speaks, but even within silence. Caleb Probst is every inch her match as archer Robin Hood, a ruggedly handsome young man with a booming voice, a fine sense of humor and the grace and athletic prowess of Errol Flynn. Both actors make the adapted dialogue sound as if Romantic poetry is their native language.
Amber Robinson is sensational, cross-dressing as a very convincing Sir Richard Lea, Maid Marian’s sometimes befuddled, often humorous aging father. Resisting stereotypical physicality and schtick, Ms. Robinson not only delights with her earnest characterization, but especially in her relationships with Marian and Robin. She also demonstrates a beautiful, accomplished singing voice. In another gender-breaking role, Suzanna Ziko makes a well-intentioned, earnest Little John. Her scenes, both with Robin and his band of Merry Men, as well as with his character’s love interest, Kate (played with spunk and grit by Kaitlyn Majoy), are honest and comic. Christian Stokes and Andrew Bailes make a smarmy team of villains as the Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John, and Stuart Ritter shines in the latter half of the play as the much-loved, missing-in-action King of England, Richard the Lionhearted.
Here is another delightful alternative to the onslaught of holiday fare that erupts around Chicago at this time of year. Instead of a Mouse King and a Nutcracker Prince doing battle, we have swordplay between the banished former Earl of Huntington, labeled an outlaw for robbing the rich to give to the poor, and the cruel and unjust Prince John and Sheriff of Nottingham. Two energetic hours of thrills, physicality and colorful, poetic dialogue add up to an enchanting evening of family fun.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 30-December 29 by Strawdog Theatre in their Hugen Hall space, 3829 N. Broadway, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-528-9696 or by going to www.strawdog.org.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.