CAMBRIDGE — For someone who claims he never really liked theater, Gisli Örn Gardarsson certainly knows how to turn a rehearsal room into a fabulous playground. Actors hang upside down from high ropes, performing feats not meant for the acrophobic. The Icelandic director is here re-creating his production of “The Heart of Robin Hood” at the American Repertory Theater, and he has a mischievous glint in his eye as he talks about elves and circus tricks and his unlikely affection for a certain crashing chandelier.
But first things first. The director, who is known for his robust physical productions, says he was somewhat incredulous when British playwright David Farr asked him to direct his play about Robin Hood. “I was like, no, no, really?” he says. “Most Robin Hood stories are not very exciting. There are not a lot of surprises.”
But this is not the classic tale of the philanthropic nice guy in tights. Farr’s Robin Hood is a chauvinistic thug who pommels unarmed victims, takes the clothes off their backs, and pockets their loot. He bans women from his tribe, and he isn’t above the occasional beheading. “The play was the opposite of what I expected,’’ Gardarsson, 39, says. In 2011, he and his creative team mounted a sprawling production of the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company. A new version at ART — with original music by the Connecticut roots band Poor Old Shine — begins previews Wednesday and runs through Jan. 19.
Farr’s script suggests a stark setting: “This piece is imagined broadly for a bare stage. A tree may be worth exploring.” But that’s not what you get with Gardarsson and his frequent collaborators, designer Börkur Jónsson and associate director Selma Björnsdóttir. “We usually avoid particular descriptions in plays or take them very loosely,’’ says Jónsson during a Skype interview from Iceland. “You have to make it your own.”
The set features two slides that stand 40 feet high. There is a pond onstage, along with hidey-holes that enable actors to pop up as if out of nowhere. Early in the process, the creative team decided that Robin Hood and his merry men would enter the playing area from on high, swinging in on ropes or sliding down those gargantuan ramps.
And the tree? At ART, it towers above the stage and over the audience, and it is lighted by thousands of bulbs. “They have definitely explored a tree,’’ Farr says during a Skype interview from London. “When you go into a forest, anything can happen. There is magic and danger, and they turned that into a physical reality. You never know what is going to happen next.”
This team has worked together before, most recently on Farr’s adaptation of “Metamorphosis,” which was presented by ArtsEmerson in February and won 2013 Elliot Norton Awards for Outstanding Visiting Production and Outstanding Design, Large Theater. They all speak the same theatrical language and relish an element of surprise. Their production of “Robin Hood” has a nontraditional feminist theme. Marion isn’t just a fair maiden or a vague love interest. The daughter of a duke, she hates the aristocratic trappings of her life in the castle, so she dresses as a man and goes into the forest.
Farr was inspired by such Shakespeare plays as “Twelfth Night” and “As You Like It” — and by his young daughters. They were 12 and 10 when he was writing the play, and they had both been complaining about the lack of good female heroines. “They said, ‘The boy gets to do all the exciting stuff, and the girl just gets to kiss the boy at the end,’ ’’ he recalls. The Marion he created drives Robin Hood’s transformation and helps save two children from a gruesome death.
The action unfolds in both the castle and the forest, but the natural world looms large. Jónsson, for one, is rather fond of forests, partly because there are none in Iceland. He lived in Northern California for three years as a boy and was astonished by the enormous redwoods he found in the forests there. “That was a mind-blowing experience,’’ says Jónsson, 40. “The scale of those trees is so vast. The human scale, in comparison, is skewed. It changes you.”
There is a running joke in Iceland that the best way to find your way out of a forest is to stand up. But while Iceland may lack tall trees, the rugged land is imbued with rich legends. The overriding theme in the play is man versus nature, which is also a source of conflict in contemporary Iceland. “We have so much untouched nature back home, and companies want to build dams and destroy what we have for the sake of a buck,’’ Gardarsson says. “And there is another thing: We are still strong believers in elves.”
Does he believe in them? His answer is instant: “I wouldn’t deny it.” Associate director Björnsdóttir quickly echoes the thought. But has she ever seen one? No, she says, “but my grandmother constantly sees them.”
According to Icelandic mythology, the elves live in rocks, and they are protective of the country’s natural landscape. Gardarsson and company have taken this folklore and incorporated it into the production. “We go into nature to transform,’’ Farr says. “That is the biggest theme of the production, that metaphor of transformation. The thing they nail most convincingly is the shamanistic quality of the forest.’’
Humans portray animals in this world, and, yes, there is even a shark, although Gardarsson won’t explain where and how it appears. “We started at a serious point, exploring nature and elves and paganism,’’ he says. “Then we got carried away and started adding sharks.”
The action is dizzying and nonstop. These merry men are not fey fellows in tights. They are brutes, dressed in sturdy leather. “They are real savages, and they live in the trees,” Björnsdóttir, 39, says. “They wear clothes that are useful when they climb up and down the ropes. You wouldn’t survive in the forest in a pair of tights.” Besides, Gardarsson adds, “You would look ridiculous.”
These aren’t tricks for the untrained. Gardarsson is a former gymnast who competed on Iceland’s national team. “That is the big reason I trained as an actor,’’ says Gardarsson, who graduated from the Icelandic Academy of the Arts. “I wanted to use the skills from gymnastics and do stuff that a lot of people can’t do.” Shortly after graduation, he cofounded Vesturport Theatre in Reykjavík and directed and starred in an acrobatic, circus-style production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
“I had been in drama school for four years, and I had been drinking beer and falling out of shape,’’ he says. “I wanted to do something to get back in shape, so I thought, Let’s do a love story, and I’ll play the love guy myself.’’
Since then, he and his colleagues at Vesturport, including Björnsdóttir and Jónsson, have fashioned a signature style of theater that aims to transform the performance space into a three-dimensional world. All three of them, though, readily admit that they didn’t like theater while growing up. Jónsson once walked out of a production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” And Gardarsson recalls sitting through a four-hour production of “Peer Gynt.” “I was bored after three minutes,’’ he says. “I was thinking, Oh no, another three hours and 57 minutes to go.”
He did see “The Phantom of the Opera” when he was in his 20s. “You’re not going to believe this, but I thought it was amazing. When that chandelier came down . . .” He pauses and whisks his hand through the air. “I remember thinking, How did they do that?’’ In the rehearsal hall, he is surrounded by airborne actors, human projectiles that hurtle through space like that famous chandelier. Apparently, Gardarsson figured it out.
Patti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.