The romantic defiance and vigilante social justice of Robin Hood stealing from the rich and giving to the poor has been recounted innumerable times — for centuries in British literature and often in American film. Errol Flynn starred in the 1938 classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, and the story was a hit for Disney animators in 1973, in a lively and sweet version narrated and sung by Roger Miller. But another version, not likely to endure as a classic, captured the imaginations of local actor/playwright Andrew Vaught and NOLA Project Artistic Director A.J. Allegra when they were young.
"As a child of the '90s, I did enjoy the Kevin Costner version," Allegra says, while waiting for a rehearsal to begin. "But in my own defense, I now hear that that version is unwatchable."
Vaught, who makes the same disclaimer about liking Costner's 1991 film, wrote Robin Hood: Thief, Brigand, the account The NOLA Project is presenting in partnership with the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) at the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. When Allegra approached him about writing the piece, Vaught was wrapped up in an actual classic, and the inspiration seemed perfect.
"I had just started reading The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, so my head was in a swashbuckling vein anyway," Vaught says. "It seemed like a pretty spot-on thing for me to attempt, and I really like sword fights, so this was an opportunity to add sword fights."
Allegra carried a sword in some scenes of Adventures in Wonderland, the adaptation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that The NOLA Project presented in the sculpture garden last spring. That show was particularly friendly to young audiences, and this piece is as well (ages 7 and up). Though the company roves around the trees and field in the clearing at the garden's entrance, audiences do not travel through the garden and can set up chairs or blankets.
Robin Hood is an adventure with swords, archery, mischief and chase scenes. It also features several songs and plenty of physical comedy. At one point, Prince John (Alex Martinez Wallace) has one of his goons relieve a man of his coins by hoisting him upside down and shaking him till his pockets empty. A bunch of lords, once relieved of their wealth, become a troupe of hilariously self-entitled but ineffectual buffoons.
Robin Hood: Thief, Brigand features many familiar characters: Robin (James Bartelle), his sidekick Little John (Jared Gore), Merry Men Alan A Dale (Becca Chapman) and Scarlet (Natalie Boyd), their nemesis Prince John, Friar Tuck (Cavan Hallman), the Sheriff of Nottingham (Jake Bartush) and Maid Marian (Kaitlyn McQuin). But Vaught also added Eleanor of Aquitaine (Trina Beck), mother of King Richard and Prince John, and he gave Marian a more meaningful role.
"In a lot of the movies, she is either smiling gently or screaming crazily," Vaught says. "I wanted to make sure she had more to do."
Vaught also starts the story with a very dramatic proposition. Rather than have Robin's scheme neatly trim the wealth of royal classes in relatively small, harmless, staggered pieces, Robin unwittingly absconds with a huge sum — one whose absence cannot go unnoticed in the kingdom. Choosing what to do with it is a complicated responsibility.
"It's a story about Robin Hood overstepping his abilities," Vaught says. "We're exposing the notion of it's all fine and good (to steal from the rich and give to the poor), but why are you doing it and whose interests are involved with you doing it? That's something Robin has to figure out. Does he love the poor and want them to feel better? ... [O]r does it put those people he's claiming to help in a larger conflict they aren't ready for or don't want to be in?"
Director Beau Bratcher, who directed Peter and the Starcatcher (David Barry's adaptation of the Peter Pan story) at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre in fall 2014, also sees the story as being about Robin Hood's personal challenge.
"We see a Robin who ... is impetuous and passionate and full of flaws," Bratcher says. "He's a little hot-headed. We get to see him become someone who puts other people first."
The play is the second non-Shakespeare work The NOLA Project will present in the sculpture garden. Allegra notes that its past Shakespeare productions in the garden, such as A Midsummer Night's Dream, have been friendly to young audiences, but the company didn't want to institutionalize only doing Shakespeare there. In choosing productions, the company has looked for classic works that offer broad appeal and are in the public domain, relieving it of having to acquire rights and making it easy to adapt their own versions. The company recently released its 2015-2016 schedule, and it includes Don Quixote in the garden next spring. Also on the schedule are Marie Antoinette, to be directed by Mark Routhier, Adam Szymkowikcz's immersive comedy Clown Bar, Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale at NOMA, and Irish playwright John B. Keane's Sive.