With the possible exception of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (not on our tour schedule this weekend), The Heart of Robin Hood is probably the most purely entertaining production in the summer’s eleven-play repertory. Which is mostly a good thing – except that it’s a highly entertaining production of a severely schizophrenic script. Almost none of the flaws can really be laid at OSF’s door, but they’re enough to take the show from being an unalloyed winner to a watchable yet troubling success.
The Festival’s promotion makes clear one point that the title does not: properly, this is really more Marion’s show than it is Robin’s. In this light, David Farr’s script – billed as a US premiere – is an entirely apt fit for Ashland’s Elizabethan stage. Our heroine, faced with an unwanted marriage orchestrated by her guardian, flees to Sherwood Forest and adopts boy’s disguise, first in hopes of joining Robin Hood’s band and then – when Robin proves less heroic than anticipated – in the service of a career as his more charity-minded rival. Kate Hurster is entirely winning as both Marion and “Martin”, but John Tufts misses his mark slightly as Robin. Tufts’ over-gruff accent gives the characterization a shade too much seriousness, which cuts into the comedic chemistry between Robin and Marion.
Also problematic is the villainous Prince John, played with oily enthusiasm by Michael Elich. The performance itself is ably executed, but Elich is hampered by a script that sometimes calls for melodramatic mustache-twirling (as in John’s early courtship of Marion), sometimes for genteel theatrical evil (“why yes, I am staging a revolt against my older brother”), and sometimes for outright sociopathic nastiness (a threat to hang two hundred innocent children). John’s motivation’s and true character are never made clear, nor does the script quite make up its mind whether he’s a proper evil genius or merely – as his final scene suggests – a mere Malvolio with delusions of competence.
Fortunately for viewers, and despite a minor excess of subplots, the production mostly emphasizes both physical and verbal comedy over the darker elements. In particular, Tanya Thai McBride gives a wonderfully animated physical and vocal performance as a dog named Plug, who steals most of the scenes in which she appears. The staging can’t entirely get around the script problems, which make the show just creepy enough that I’d hesitate to recommend it for kids under eleven or twelve. But warts and all, it’s still a lively and often very funny evening, even if it’s nowhere near being a definitive treatment of the Robin Hood legend.