“I like the set!” I gushed to my date. “It has trees and a castle!”
“And lots of places to hide,” my date commented. “That’s important in ‘Robin Hood.’”
We were sitting in the Cultural Arts Building theater at UNCW, filled with anticipation for “Marian, or The True Tale of Robin Hood” by Adam Szymkowicz. Directed by Robin Post, Randall A. Enlow’s set is exactly what I would have wanted as a 7-year-old: towers, trees, a throne! It is magical. (The throne even has a lion on it for Richard the Lionheart!)
The show opens with the famous archery contest set as a trap to lure Robin Hood from Sherwood Forrest. Three archers are competing: The Sheriff of Nottingham (Austin Garrett), an old man and Alanna Dale (Naswana Moon)—who hopes to be the first woman to win the archery contest. She also informs us she is the only one who can break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience.
In rather short order, we discover Prince John (Tony Choufani) is looking for Maid Marian (Katherine Carr), who is apparently disguised as Robin Hood—and therefore the old man who will win the archery tournament. Already, we have two set-ups: a woman trying to break into a man’s realm (archery) and disguise of self and gender, thanks to the Robin/Marian dynamic. The show’s message is designed to address as many aspects of gender identity and sexual orientation as it can.
Choufani’s Prince John is a whiney, pouting weakling, who bullies people to prove his power. Actually, Choufani’s King John is far and away the least likable character on stage, but the most fully formed. Perhaps his royal certainty is what sets him apart. Everyone else is on some sort of continuum with trying to find themselves, whereas John has always known where he is, second to his brother, King Richard. Alanna helps Robin/Marian escape and joins the band of Merry Men in Sherwood Forest, which appears to comprise less than 10 people to torment and overthrow the English government.
It is a comment on quality versus quantity? Probably. Everything in this show is a comment on some aspect of power and identity. As Marian explains to Alanna, they have to be guys; that’s just the way it is.
Thus we meet Will Scarlett (Amber Wrench) who has an immediate attraction to Alanna. And the story begins its Szymkowicz nod to a plot arc: the relationship between Scarlett and Alanna. With Alanna as Narrator, she and Will begin to explore their attraction and unfolding complication of their mutually disguised identities. Moon and Wrench turn in remarkable performances, which literally had me holding my breath and nodding in recognition with them.
Szymkowicz hasn’t really written a full-finished script, so much as put together several character studies and hung them loosely on the Robin Hood legend. And, so, the cast must be given credit for good character work. But the script really isn’t developed or finished; the closest it gets to a story is the aforementioned relationship between Will and Alanna.
The “storylines” are a series of blunt thrusts: Here is the 5 minutes we are now devoting to the idea of someone exploring non-binary gender. Here is the 5 minutes we devote to sexual stereotypes. Here is the 5 minutes we devote to gender stereotypes. Here is the 5 minutes we devote gay identity. (Also I couldn’t help but question how if this is set during the Third Crusade, why would the guard, who wants to be a Miller dream of milling corn? Corn is New World Crop and would not come to England for at least another 300 years.)
What’s missing is a cohesive plot arc that encompasses the elements of Szymkowicz’s message. He sets up numerous possibilities: Marian’s relationship with Prince John and Little John (Elisha McNeill); Much, the Miller’s Son (Willow Piper), who doesn’t connect with anyone in the story; Shirley (Haley Gawarecki) and her exploitative relationships with men in power. The cast does a marvelous job turning in character and scene work, but the writer has left them without a substantial growth arc. Even the end, which has such potential with the literal passing of “the hat” to the next Robin Hood, lacks a fully fleshed-out conclusion or resolution. There isn’t a story to conclude or resolve!
If Robin Hood is a hereditary title, like for example the Dread Pirate Roberts in “The Princess Bride,” there is a lot of potential to explore how Marian came to be Robin Hood and why she selects the successor she does. Instead it is rushed through and accepted as a fait accompli. The story, the how and the why of both Marian as Robin and the necessity of Robin Hood, are sacrificed completely by the author. It is a shame because those pieces would actually contribute to the message he is trying to convey.
All that aside, the cast do a great job with the content they do have, especially Wrench and Moon. Katherine Carr’s Maid Marian is far more likable and interesting when dressed up as Robin Hood (which is the point). The odd camaraderie between her character and Haley Gawarecki’s Shirley, the Mata Hari of Sherwood Forrest, is endearing and, again, offers a lot of potential to deepen the discussion of power. Gawarecki plays Shirley almost like Holly Golightly: a certain blissful naiveté while calculatingly manipulating the men around her to her own ends.
I love Post’s work and her curiosity as an artist. Clearly, she devoted a lot of time to the character work with her students, and it is so powerful the audience feels it physically. But she really shines when she has a script (like “The Children’s Hour”) worthy of her vision.
Post has a gift for blending the production concept and message to create something that expands and extends the work. Her students and her audience are so fortunate to have her work in our lives. Go see “Marian, or The True Tale of Robin Hood”– it is fun. Sometimes we need a little fun in order to remember that even the big questions are still part of this thing called life—and we are all in it together.