Robin Hood at Children's Theatre Company

Dan Norman

I know that Children's Theatre Company is in the midst of an austerity campaign, but does the cast of Robin Hood really need to panhandle in the minutes leading to showtime?

OK, it's probably an artistic effect rather than a way for the theater to do some quick fundraising, but it does set up a sense of uneasiness that never leaves the production. On its own, Robin Hood is a fine, fast-paced, 80-minute entertainment, but it's full of untapped potential. Greg Banks directs the latest take on the famed bandit of Sherwood Forest, who robbed from the rich, etc. And considering Banks helmed some of the best shows in recent CTC history, including innovative, promenade-based productions of Antigone and Romeo and Juliet that were among the best shows on any Twin Cities stage in their seasons, I had high hopes for the production.

Banks, who also adapted the story for this production, never lets the despair of the characters slip too far from view of the audience. The actors (even Julian McFaul, playing the evil sheriff) are dressed in ragged clothes, full of holes and tears. Even Robin's famed Lincoln-green hues are more of an accent to the dull tones he mostly wears here.

The despair also comes through in Banks's structure, where Robin Hood's adventures are being told by a group of poor, starving peasants looking for any hope in their lives. So they share the legendary tales of Robin Hood and his merry men and their struggle against the machinations of evil King John and his favorite henchman, the Sheriff of Nottingham. From there, we get a kind of Robin Hood's Greatest Hits—his first rescue of Maid Marian, meeting Little John on the bridge over the river, the competition for the silver arrow—that offers plenty of great fun but doesn't necessarily congeal into a fully realized story.

It's a case in which the increasingly popular technique of onstage narration works against the show. (Come to think of it, onstage narration usually works against the show—building theatrical illusion becomes tougher when the actors are constantly reminding you that you're watching a story.) Joseph Stanley's impressive forest set does need some context when it represents other locales like the castle, but those locales could also be more artfully realized—and in a way that doesn't pull you out of the experience.

The small cast (again, its size is probably for artistic rather than budgetary reasons) makes it work for the most part, creating a kind of four-way dance amid the main company. As our titular hero, Dean Holt gives his customary excellent performance. His deft physical skills are put to great effect throughout, whether he's leaping from log to log or squaring off against Little John or the Sheriff in close combat. And while Holt employs plenty of charm as Robin Hood, he isn't afraid to show us the pain of losing his home and previous life that haunts every one of his actions.

Anna Sundberg (last seen in Alan Burks's site-specific Fringe show #Ringtone) makes her CTC debut as the kindhearted but tough-skinned Maid Marian, who not only joins Robin and his men but offers a love interest for the hero (though this production keeps that aspect in the background). Sundberg, who also plays young merry man Hood, showcases the no-nonsense side of Marian, able to fight and shoot a bow with the rest of them. As the Sherriff, McFaul gets no redeeming traits, but he does make for a comic, if deadly, foil for our heroes.

The rest of the company is mainly played by the versatile Reed Sigmund, who makes Will Scarlet a drawling Southern gentleman; King John a mad, bling-obsessed baby who moves about the stage in a wheeled steel bathtub; and distinct creations out of various other soldiers and merry men. It's a tremendous showcase and a real highlight of the show.

When the action is clipping along, it's as much fun for the audience as the actors onstage, but I could never shake that uneasy feeling that I was watching only a fraction of what could have been. I didn't want a dark Batman revision of Robin Hood, but peering a bit more behind the curtain of each character's desperation might have added heft and made the whole evening as exciting as the fights.

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