CAMBRIDGE — It’s a romance, a comedy and a drama. It has swashbuckling, cross-dressing and acrobatics, a clarinet-playing mute and baddies straight out of “The Road Warrior.” There’s even an American roots band that looks like it wandered over from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” or maybe just Davis Square.
“The Heart of Robin Hood,” playing at the American Repertory Theatre through Jan. 19, sounds like an anachronistic mess. But by the time of its final glorious romantic tableau, it will be a rare theatergoer who’s not won over.
This “Robin Hood” is certainly not what you’d expect after Icelandic director Gisli Örn Gardarsson and British playwright David Farr’s last show in Boston, in February, with their dark, shocking, acrobatic, obsessively focused adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” starring Gardarsson as Gregor Samsa. The only components that carry over are former gymnast Gardarsson’s fondness for vertiginous aerial work and members of his production team.
THE HEART OF ROBIN HOOD
Notably, Börkur Jónsson’s set turns the Loeb Drama Center into Sherwood Forest, with a giant tree limb spreading out over the audience. The sloping back wall serves as a giant slide, climbing surface, castle balconies and a “Laugh-In”-style gag wall. Gardarsson (of Iceland’s Vesturport troupe) and Farr (of the Royal Shakespeare Company) have shaped this “Robin Hood” as a battle between nature and uptight civilization, between freewheeling bandits and brutal rulers.
When we first meet Robin (Jordan Dean), he’s mastered robbing from the rich but has yet to get around to giving to the poor. “There’s nothing merry about us,” he says. He holds a sword to the throat of fair Maid Marion (Christina Bennett Lind) when she comes to the forest to escape the attentions of the creepy, ambitious Prince John (Damian Young). This being an old-school tale, all their bluster at each other can’t conceal the immediate attraction.
Marion is not so easily dissuaded, and returns (very lightly) disguised as “Martin,” a bandit first rivaling and then joining forces with Robin to save the day.
Given a couple of brutal deaths early on — and one tongue cut out — there’s suspense when Robin and his men land in the dungeon and Marion and John reach the altar. Before the end, Marion/Martin must help Robin find his better nature — and accept her real identity and their true feelings.
Dean is a fine, manly Robin, and he and Lind muster some chemistry, though they could turn up the heat still more. For the first 20 minutes or so, Lind shouted all her lines at a breakneck pace. Call it opening night nerves, because eventually she settled into the role, right around the time Marion became Martin. And by the end, the romance is as effective as the comedy and the swashbuckling.
Christopher Sieber gets the most laughs as Marion’s fey valet Pierre. When she becomes Martin, he becomes Big Peter — one of the risqué little jokes the show aims over the heads of children in the audience. In another era, this would have been the Dom DeLuise role, squeamish and sarcastic. But you know that when the going gets tough, he will rise to the occasion.
The most nuanced performance here may actually be Young as Prince John, by turns imperious, sadistic, lustful, and abject.
Farr and Gardarsson presented an earlier version at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011. For Wednesday’s premiere, director Gardarsson was a last-minute sub for the actor set to play Robin’s sidekick Much Miller, and seemed right at home climbing in the trees and jumping through holes in the stage.
The five-man Connecticut band Poor Old Shine deserves a shout out for their tireless performance, which includes marching through the audience with banjo and mandolin before the show, performing everything from their original songs (Farr wrote some lyrics) to quick rim shots throughout and serving as straight men onstage. They even get to slide down that back wall.
“The Heart of Robin Hood” breathes life into the well-worn story, even if it does so with gags as old as vaudeville and Dust Bowl melodies. Call it a family show — its heart is in the right place, even if that tongue isn’t. But if you go, don’t blink or you’ll miss the shark.
Joel Brown can be reached at email@example.com