Some of the oldest stories still extant of the adventures of legendary outlaw Robin Hood are songs about his untimely demise, a metaphor-rich ballad about honor and being laid back in English soil. The newest yarn about old Robin is about his death as well, though LiveArtDC’s production The Merry Death of Robin Hood eschews the traditional “bled by a priestess then shooting an arrow out the window” version. In its stead is a collision of a nonlinear retelling of Robin Hood’s well-known exploits in life and a dramatic, newly-invented take on the aftermath of Robin’s untimely demise. But Merry Death puts a pair of 21st century twists on the legend of the Hood: Robin Hood tells these stories himself, and he tells them in a bar.
Plays in bars are burgeoning here in DC, from the consistently fabulous Shakespeare in the Pub to part of Avant Bard’s Scripts in Play Festival, and Live Art DC’s own productions of plays like R+J: Star-Cross’d Death Match (developed by NYC’s Three Day Hangover) have played a big role in jumpstarting this new part of the DC scene. But Merry Death is a giant leap in a new direction for DC bar plays because this one is locally grown.
LiveArtDC has brought in Jason Schlafstein (co-Founder and Producing Artistic Director of rambunctious young company Flying V) to develop this new work from the ground up. The result is an intriguing starting point for original DC bar plays that reveals some of the challenges that this budding genre will have to surmount. But, more importantly, Merry Death of Robin Hood shows some of the exceptional and finished beauty that emerges like scultura non finito from its rough-hewn origins.
Some of the best work in this production comes from what feels natural in the bar setting. Merry Death is, after all, Robin Hood’s story, and the feisty Matthew Aldwin McGee serves as both the titular character and omniscient narrator for both storylines. That means that the audience gets the drama of seeing the Merry Men fractured through Robin’s helpless posthumous gaze, but also the fun of seeing his exploits with his own wry commentary and perspective. This technique lends the feeling of an amusing drunken ramble to the proceedings, with all the joyous exuberance and false starting. Even though this means that the plot pops back and forth frequently between different points in the past and the present, I never felt like I didn’t know what was going on, which is important in a new, yet still familiar, play and a great credit to McGee, this ensemble, and the creative team.
The fights fit perfectly into the bar: with powerhouse choreography by Jonathan Ezra Rubin and sharp execution by this cast. The DC Reynolds bar was stuffed full of patrons when I went, which lent a heart-stopping, intense closeness to the action. It also created some lovely meta moments where the fighters adjusted the crowd to create the spaces they needed to safely pretend to hurt each other.
The Merry Death of Robin Hood
closes June 12, 2016
Details and tickets
Also fun were the songs, a mainstay of the Three Day Hangover productions and incorporated here with some success. They’re at their best when the vast majority of the audience instinctively knows the song and wants to sing along, like when minstrel Alan-a-Dale (the charmingly broody Seth Rosenke) sings “Wonderwall” to mourn Robin Hood. The songs are less effective when they’re at the climax, but you’ve got to print the lyrics in the program and go through a couple of rounds to have the audience know them, like a traditional theater production.
The infiltration of traditional theater trappings into the bar play is the biggest challenge for plays like Merry Death to overcome. For example, patrons were packed so tightly that herd mentality took over, and they started acting more like a theater audience than a bar patronage. What’s so bad about that? It takes away the joy and purpose of having a play at a bar. You can be invited in the opening speech to grab a drink during the action of the play, but if the social pressure of tightly-packed bodies and staging that uses the only open spot at the bar prevents you from doing so, then who cares if you’re technically “allowed to grab a drink?”
Other bits of traditional theater, forcing the crowd into an unchanging and claustrophobic oval for the production made Merry Death feel less natural in its environs and more like it was a rowdy regular theater piece stuffed into a bar to be cheeky. The colored lighting, the rigidity of the scripted dialogue and insistence on dialect (that wound up strolling about all corners of the British Isles throughout the night) gave off a similar feel; though big props to Steve N. Bradford’s forsaking of the dialect that helped his dramatic moments make the greatest impact on the crowd. The quality of the live music, flying by the seat of the pants, call-and-resopose, rigorous fights and bawdy humor far outshadow the “theatery” aspects of the production that need to be shed for Merry Death to be truly great.
This mix of perfect-for-the-bar elements and traditional theater elements makes Merry Death of Robin Hood a mixed bag: brilliant and stunning in moments but hard to love in others. Think of this play like a workshop, the first feelers of a potentially groundbreaking local genre, and I think you’re going to have a blast here. What this production proves is that LiveArtDC is on to something special with this budding genre, and they will be a big success if they stay mindful of their surroundings and stay true to their lovely, drunken hearts.
The Merry Death of Robin Hood, created by Jason Schlafstein and Paul Reisman. Directed by Jason Schlafstein . Featuring Josh Adams, Steve N. Bradford, Emma Lou Hebert, Jon Jon Johnson, Kaitlin Kemp, Matthew Aldwin McGee, Seth Rosenke, John Stange, and Christian Sullivan. Designer: Kat Fleshman . Fight Choreographer: Jonathan Ezra Rubin . Writer: Paul Reisman . Dramaturg: Seth Alcorn . Stage Manager: Katherine Offutt . Produced by LiveArtDC . Reviewed by Alan Katz.