By Charles Brousse
It’s summer. The kids are home from school. Fourth of July, with its fairs, fireworks and marching bands, lies behind us. The thought of packing everybody into the car, bucking traffic to cross the Golden Gate, find parking before navigating the crowds at the Hall of Science, or the Exploratorium, then parting with what seems like half of your net worth for admission to those wonderful family destinations, sends shivers down your spine, as does the thought of sitting through yet another action feature in one of the local cinema emporiums.
So, what do you do? Lean close and I’ll whisper the answer in your ear. “Robin Hood.” Yes, the very same English fictional champion of the poor—interestingly enough, introduced as a children’s novel (The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood) by American author Howard Pyle back in 1883—whose exploits were on the “must read” list before Tolkien and J.K. Rowling drowned youthful bibliophiles in a flood of magical this and that. But now we have a stage version by Greg Banks, who actually is English and lives in a tiny village southwest of London, where he spends his days composing highly successful adaptations of literary classics designed for young audiences, but with just enough left of the original to entice the adults whose open wallets and purses get everybody past the box office. It’s currently on the boards at the Marin Art & Garden Center’s Barn Theatre as the final production of the Ross Valley Players’ 2015-2016 season.
It’s the late 13th century, before the advent of firearms. While Plantagenet King Richard I, nicknamed the “Lionheart,” nominally occupies the throne, he’s away most of the time on crusades to the Holy Land or wars in France. In his absence, Crown Prince John (Pablo Hamlin) rules an impoverished country with an iron hand. Banks’ play opens with four of his downtrodden subjects lamenting their fate, especially the royal edict that prohibits hunting in nearby Sherwood Forest when they are literally starving. They recall hearing how a nobleman, Robert Fitzwilliam, the First Earl of Huntingdon (Nicholas Schwager), fled to the deep forest after being dispossessed of his title and fortune for supporting Richard against John, and now leads a group of what might be called “philanthropic bandits,” or robbing the rich and redistributing their spoils to the poor.
Relying on the theatrical admonition to audiences that they suspend their disbelief, Banks has this original group of beggars morph into Robin’s band of Merry Men and the other characters who narrate the familiar story that follows. There are the encounters, one fatal, with Prince John’s agent, the arrogant Sheriff of Nottingham (Izaak Heath), the quarterstaff dual between Robin and Little John (Cory Anderson) for the right to cross a single-lane bridge, Robin’s infatuation with the comely Maid Marian (Arianna Mahallati) that nearly leads to his entrapment and death and the famous archery contest in which Marian hits the bullseye, only to have Robin split her arrow in two with his own.
It’s all there from the novel—which I recall with much affection—although the stage version naturally imposes an abbreviated format that is only partially compensated for by its overlay of physical comedy. As noted, there’s something for everyone. Fidgety boys can revel in the fight scenes and general rough-and-tumble atmosphere. Little girls can ooh and aah at Robin and Marian’s first kiss, then take pride in the latter’s competence with a long bow and unwavering loyalty when the circumstances become fraught with danger. Parents will appreciate the creative ways in which director Cris Cassell emphasizes the comic elements and invites the audience to join in the fun.
Finally, Robin Hood is much more than simple entertainment. It’s a parable that contains a number of moral lessons: The value of loyalty to a just cause, empathy for the less fortunate and the need to sacrifice for the common good—among others. During intermission, I asked a little girl of 7 or 8 who was taking in the cool air with her parents what the play was about. Without hesitation she answered, “Helping poor people.” That’s a good start in life, if I ever heard one.
NOW PLAYING Robin Hood runs through August 14 at Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theatre, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross; 415/456-9555; rossvalleyplayers.com.