In the Robin Hood stories we all know, Robin is a nobleman, Robin of Locksley, who has retreated to the forest to become a sort of proto-Marxist who relieves rich evil-doers of their purses and distributes the swag to the proletarian rustics.
Not the outlaw leader of playwright David Farr's "The Heart of Robin Hood," which opened Saturday night on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's outdoor stage, directed by Minneapolis-based Joel Sass. This Robin steals from the rich — that's where the money is — and splits the loot with his merry men and that's that.
A yeoman, or commoner, he hates those at the top of the feudal system, so it's not political to him but personal. A bit dim-witted, he doesn't understand that it is political to the Prince, since the land belongs to the lords.
Enter the beautiful Marion (Kate Hurster), a daughter of a duke, who will teach Robin (John Tufts) a thing or two about social banditry — and ultimately the ways of the heart. Sherwood Forest, like the green world of a certain kind of Shakespeare comedy, is a place where transformations can happen.
Farr's revisionist Robin tale, which debuted at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in November 2011, is stuffed as an English banger with Shakespearean memes. Marion, whose story this is even more than Robin's, is the spiritual descendant of plucky Shakespeare heroines such as Rosalind and Viola.
She's also more politically conscious than Robin. She rails at "forests stolen" for the rich, and "entertainment for the chattering classes." But like Rosalind, she hies her to the forest — Sherwood, not Arden — and away from the court. She enjoys the company of a faithful servant who is also a clown, with Pierre (Daniel T. Parker) playing Touchstone to Marion's Rosalind.
Like Cordelia, Marion is unlucky in the sister department, with the scheming roundheels Alice (Erica Sullivan) playing counterpoint to Marion's innate goodness. Farr's Prince John, deliciously played by Michael Elich, is a dastard worthy of a Shakespeare comedy.
Michael Ganio's rustic arboreal set, which the night before served as the British court and the Welsh wildlands, is mighty Sherwood Forest. There are trees. Bowers. A pond. And ropes, the better for merry brigands to buckle swashes.
The clown Pierre begins as a narrator, telling us upfront that Robin will find his heart. Parker is a very large man who camps it up in designer Paloma Young's outrageous clown costume and a red fright wig. Cut to Robin and his henchmen Much Miller (Eddie Ray Jackson) and Will Scarlet (Miles Fletcher) pulling a farcical stickup.
Meanwhile, Marion's well-meaning guardian, Makepeace (Michael J. Hume), with Marion's father, the Duke of York, away in the wars fighting "the Muslim terror," insists on the usual impossibly horrid marriage. She is to wed the evil and repulsive Prince John.
Elich steals almost every scene he's in, devising hideous tortures for Robin, for those who can't pay a new tax he's levied (he calls it the "holy contribution") and even for children, whose corpses he wants hung in public places for easy viewing. A notorious lecher, he leers at Marion and sniffs her like a dog.
There's a good deal of pantomime in all this, with song and lots of dancing, slapstick, cross-dressing, animals and puppets and brutality (a head-lopping, a tongue-plucking) and derring-do. There are ropes. There is a dog named Plug (Tanya Thai McBride).Their are great English longbows, the flight of whose arrows are limned for us by sound designer Paul James Prendergast's nifty effects.
But at bottom this is a traditional comedy with daunting obstacles to be overcome before guy gets girl. And since part of what Farr is about is an homage to Shakespeare, it's the girl who, like any good, comic Shakespearean heroine, will supply most of the impetus to the overcoming.
Disguising herself as Martin of Sherwood — an outlaw who does give to the poor — Marion plunges into silvan banditry with the faithful Pierre adopting the identity of Big Peter, an absurdly nonfearsome outlaw.
"Martin" and "Big Peter" win acceptance from Robin and his band, setting up a series of mistaken identity twists as Marion/Martin comes and goes and is captured by Prince John. It was love at first sight for Robin and Marion, and Farr ups the sexual tension between them — and the obstacles to their getting together — as we soldier on.
A substantial sub-plot involves the children Jethro (Christopher Vincent) and Sarah (Madeline Day), whose father has been killed by Prince John and who wind up in Robin's company. Their encounter with the Green Man, a vegetation deity of pre-Christian Britain symbolizing rebirth, comes when they're lost and cold and hungry and is wonderfully theatrical.
Sass propels things at the breakneck pace of melodrama, and it's all buoyed by stellar performances from Hurster, whose loveliness can't hide Marion's inner steal, and Tufts, whose facial expressions and body language trace the arc of the opening of his heart.
In affairs of the heart, as in a mysterious forest, where great vulnerability is involved, great bravery is required. For the heart of Robin Hood, it's an epic journey, but Maid Marion is up to the challenge.
If you want to bring the kids to an outdoor play this summer, this is the one.
Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.