Love in its many forms – long-simmering and sudden, hidden and acknowledged, requited and un – is the thrust, or let’s say the overarching theme, of the Flux Theatre Ensemble‘s new recasting of the Robin Hood legend. Marian, or the True Tale of Robin Hood by Adam Szymkowicz, now at the New Ohio Theatre in New York City, is a sheer comic delight. This gender-bending, myth-rending gallivant through Sherwood Forest and Prince John’s keep boasts the funniest and most appealing band of Merry Men you’re likely to meet in Manhattan.
That some members of Robin’s band aren’t in fact men matters much to the story, addressing as it does our modern awareness of the importance and complexities of gender identity. But it doesn’t interfere with the heart of the mythos, or skew the play’s focus on love as a key driver of human action. The conceit that Robin Hood is actually Maid Marian disguised as a man is only the start of the rapid burn of twists and surprises fueling Szymkowicz’s tale.
Director Kelly O’Donnell stages this touching romp with ballet-like precision and grace even as the characters mug and brawl. Along the way they repeatedly transform the simple, elegantly rough set from forest to prison to castle walls, using little more than a few planks of wood and Jessica Greenberg’s artful lighting. Swordplay, prison breaks, comical sex, love at first sight, and more references to Shakespeare that I could count are all delivered by a crackling cast led by a number of Flux regulars.
Some of the characters are familiar from history and myth. But the play transforms them, and not for the sake of novelty but to establish interesting characterizations and reflect fundamental human conditions and dilemmas. What if I don’t feel like the kind of person expressed by my outward form? What if I feel a forbidden kind of love? Can I flout stereotypes and still feel secure with the sex I am? (And if gender identity can be fluid, what about species identity?) While 21st-century theater as a whole is unduly obsessed with these issues, Marian‘s treatment feels fresh, heart-tugging, and somehow universal. After all, love is love, right?
Every now and then a sequence goes over the top. But overall the balance between low and high comedy holds beautifully, centered by the stalwart, diminutive dynamo Becky Byers as Marian/Robin. Newly conceived characters supplement the familiar figures of Little John (a lovable-doofus version played with conviction by Jack Horton Gilbert), Prince John (a voluptuously scene-chewing Kevin R. Free), Friar Tuck and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Mike Mihm plays both roles for laughs).
Sharp staging and focused performances make other, more rapidly sketched personages believable and appealing too, among them young Tommy of No Consequence (Alexandra Curran), who yearns for notoriety but can’t even get taken seriously as a Benedict Arnold; the smarmy Sir Theo the Punctual and the dense Sir Lenny the Observant (Matthew Trumbull and Aaron Parker Fouhey respectively, both hilarious); the loyal, frustrated Much the Miller’s Son (a touching and graceful performance by C. Bain); and the manipulative Lady Shirley (a sharply droll Nandita Shenoy).
A more multifaceted kind of invention is the show’s narrator of many faces, Alanna Dale (get it?). This lady-in-waiting helps Robin escape Prince John’s prison, then dresses as a man, Shakespearean-comedy-style, to join the Merry Men (or “Personages”). Played with sharp focus by Jessica Angleskhan, she and Will Scarlet (a winning T. Thompson) make an instant connection and go on to lubricate the story with rich emotion. But almost no aspect of this many-faceted story escapes without a twist, and a sizable chunk of the fun lies in the revelations.
As the song says, “Love is all around.” But not everyone can find his or her share (or, as Much would prefer, their share), not even in a comedy, not even in a comedy this energetic – and not even if they are heroines or heroes. Commiserating with a dissatisfied Shirley, a dissatisfied Robin produces this dark pearl: “Some of us have to have less so all of us can have more.” In a sense, amid all the comedy, Marian/Robin is a tragic figure, her chance of romantic fulfillment undercut by her double life.
On the other hand, in a show that careens from laugh to laugh, her final action reminds us what really makes a legend, and how Robin Hood, who may never have really existed, is always with us, even in our own grim kleptocracy.