Every year around this time, Know Theatre gets a head start on the local theater season with light-hearted summer entertainment. In 2015 and 2016, the Over-the-Rhine company that produces the annual Fringe Festival staged contemporary musicals. This month, it’s offering a show that’s rooted in a traditional tale, but has very contemporary values. While what it has to say isn’t terribly profound, it’s a lot of fun to watch.
Know is presenting Adam Szymkowicz’s Marian, Or the True Tale of Robin Hood, giving the work only its second staging. Its world premiere happened in New York City earlier this year with an Off-Off Broadway production by the Flux Theatre Ensemble. Szymkowicz wrote Hearts Like Fists, a tongue-in-cheek script about super-heroine crime fighters that Know staged in 2015.
Powerful women are also the central characters in this new work. In fact, in Szymkowicz’s retelling, Maid Marian is Robin Hood and the majority of the “Merry Men” are feisty women. Maggie Lou Rader, who has turned in performances as spunky women for Know and Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, takes on the scrappy title role — robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, as the legend has it — with the added twist of girl power. The spirit of necessity in carrying out the mission of Robin Hood keeps Marian focused and she ensures that the legend will be perpetuated.
That continuity falls to Alanna Dale. (Several characters have female names derived from the legend’s outlaws, such as Alan-a-Dale.) Leah Strasser plays an ambitious and accomplished archer who yearns to become part of Robin’s band, not immediately realizing that most of her partners-in-knavery are, like her, women posing as men. (She doubles as the show’s witty narrator, delivering frequent asides to the audience.) Alanna is the source of numerous amusing and gender-bending moments, especially when her combative relationship with Will Scarlet (Candice Handy) turns the corner to something decidedly different, with each one thinking the other is a man, but not really minding when the truth is revealed.
Marian is as much comedy as adventure. From its opening moments, this tale’s tongue-in-cheek storytelling is evident. Cal Harris plays the regent Prince John, the story’s villain, as a foppish, self-indulgent twit; his guards, Sir Lenny the Observant (Brandon Burton) and Sir Theo the Punctual (Greg Mallios), are silly fools.
Geoffrey Barnes is the treacherous Sheriff of Nottingham and the randy Friar Tuck. The show’s multiple roles can get a tad confusing as several actors switch from one part to another, although that’s not too far removed from the fluidity of characters whose emotions and behavior bely their gender.
Chris Wesselman plays the dimwitted giant Little John. He worries, “Am I being too merry?” but there’s no mistaking his gender. It takes him a while to sort out Robin/Marian, both of whom he loves and admires as separate individuals. Wesselman, who has brought zany energy to other roles for Know, actually turns in a sweet, affecting performance as a gentle man trying to sort out a world that doesn’t always make sense to him.
In the play’s final 20 minutes or so, Szymkowicz superimposes some themes about love and constancy that are decidedly modern and feel rather superficially applied. There’s amusement in this overlay but, despite the humor and occasional bewilderment, it takes the action around an unexpected and rather far-fetched bend with the sentiment that “everyone should be allowed to be in love.”
Director Alice Flanders has staged Marian with inventive energy and given her cast a lot of room for comic moments, so the production is always engaging. Jonn Baca’s fight choreography provides several chaotic scenes of humorous combat. Andrew Hungerford’s clever scenic design provides a lot of horizontal space for raucous combat.
But the play’s message is intended to be about love, “the true tale” as the title would have it. It’s a modern interpretation of the classic — a pleasant lightweight story for a midsummer show, the zany brand of theater that’s Know’s stock-in-trade.
MARIAN, OR THE TRUE TALE OF ROBIN HOOD, presented by Know Theatre, continues through Aug. 19. Tickets/more info: knowtheatre.com.