Saturday, June 10, 2023

"Sherwood" at Theatre in the Round

Closing out their fantastic six-show 71st season, Theatre in the Round is bringing us Ken Ludwig's swashbuckling comedy based on the familiar story of Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men. Sherwood is a refreshingly modern take on the legend, with female characters given more agency, and Robin Hood espousing kindness and justice. The design of the show extends to the walls, ceilings, and even into the lobby, as if we're stepping into Sherwood Forest itself, and the large and talented cast bring great energy and playfulness to the story, making the show feel like a fun summer popcorn movie. Theatre in the Round just announced their eight-show 72nd season, which also looks fantastic, including classics and newer works. But in the meantime, visit Sherwood Forest in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, weekends through July 2.

Everyone knows the legend of Robin Hood, the 12th century outlaw who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. But Ken Ludwig's madcap comedy (see also Lend Me a TenorBaskerville, and his adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express currently playing at the Guthrie) casts the familiar story in a new and modern light. Maid Marian is no damsel in distress but an educated woman and a skilled archer, and Robin's merry band of outlaws fights for justice, kindness, and unity. The tale begins at the end, with the possible hanging of Robin Hood for his crimes. We know that's not really going to happen, but that doesn't reduce the pleasure of watching the story play out from the beginning, as narrated by Friar Tuck. We meet Robin at the beginning of his life and follow him from a mischievous child, to a moody teenager, to the young man who defends the poor and defenseless against the powerful. Joining the good fight in addition to the aforementioned Friar Tuck are a young woman named Deorwynn whom Robin helps along the way, Little John, and (eventually) Maid Marian. Their chief concern is saving the country from the King's regent Prince John, who only cares about money, until the rightful sovereign Richard the Lionheart returns.*

Robin Hood and his merry band of outlaws (Madeline Achen,
Lance Krohn, Haley Dale, Aaron Ruder, and Lisa Shafer)
(photo courtesy of TRP)
Stephanie Long directs the 14-person mostly new-to-me cast with much playfulness and a loose, almost improvisational style. Unfortunately there is little diversity in the cast; one thing Theatre in the Round could improve on from this excellent season is to increase the diversity and inclusion in their casting, and perhaps thereby their audiences. That being said, this cast is a delight. Lisa Shafer is great fun as Friar Tuck, speaking directly to the audience (sometimes specific individuals) as she tells the story, and then eventually becomes a part of it. Lance Krohn is every bit the romantic hero as Robin (with some great hair acting), and Madeline Achen is a strong Maid Marian, with charming banter between the two. Michael Bak is delightfully over the top as the spoiled Prince John (think Hamilton's King George), Michael Bloom is a deliciously evil villain as Guy of Gisbourne, and Jeffrey Nolan is an absolute scene stealer as the cowardly Sheriff of Nottingham, with great physical comedy stuff, and winks and knowing looks to the audience, from the moment he introduces the play to curtain call.

Now, about that forest. From the sign in the lobby welcoming you to Sherwood Forest, and the large tree constructed on one of the poles and up to the ceiling, into the theater space itself, the set design is incredibly detailed. As you walk to your seat across the stage, stepping on green turf and a cobblestone path, you can look around and see greenery, leaves, and tree trunks everywhere: on the poles, on the ceiling, on the edges of the entrances. Birds, butterflies, and other creatures are hidden everywhere. Actors climb up on some of the poles, and walk into the aisles, using every bit of space. A long wooden table and a couple of crates are all that's needed for set pieces. The fight sequences are exciting and fun to watch, with things happening all over the stage. A couple of "effects" utilize puppets, another charming touch. (Violence direction by Mason Tyer, set design by Sadie Ward, prop design by Vicky Erickson.)

The cast is dressed in colorful costumes - full skirts, tunics, tights - that are more Renn Fest than authentically Middle Ages, but that fits the tone of the show, as does the soundtrack of pop hits played in a Renn Fest style. The play ran a little longer than expected when I saw the show, perhaps due to opening night excitement and the frequent holds for laughs (there's a lot of laughs), but hopefully it'll tighten up throughout the run and move at a quicker pace. (Costume design by Colleen O'Dell and Carolann Winther, sound design by Robert Hoffman.)

The highly entertaining Sherwood continues at Theatre in the Round through July 2 (click here for details and tickets).