Two thieves—one legendary and one all too real-dominate the beginning of the 2014 theater year. Robin Hood evolves from unlikeable outlaw to redeemed hero in the American Repertory Theatre’s rollicking edition of “The Heart of Robin Hood,” a late December opener which this critic is now adding to my best of 2013 list. Bernard Madoff, who systematically stole $65 billion from individuals, foundations and institutions-including my childhood alma mater, Brookline’s Maimonides School—engages in a verbal faceoff with a fictional investor in New Repertory Theatre’s strong New England premiere of “Imagining Madoff.”
The title character of “The Heart of Robin Hood” is very different from the stylish swashbuckler popularized in Hollywood films, and that is all to the good. Author David Farr—whose play was premiered by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011—has turned him into a rough outlaw robbing the rich to give to himself rather than the poor and prepared, along with his Merry Men, to victimize a monk and even vulnerable children as much as affluent nobility. If this Robin has a heart-and he ultimately does—it is Maid Marion who finds it and transforms him into a real mentsch as well as a romantic lover. The highly informative A.R.T. playbill includes Farr’s own note that speaks to both the history of the legend of Robin Hood and the interest of his two daughters in seeing a woman do more than kiss the hero, cook and sew. As resourceful as Rosalind in the forest of “As You Like It” and as undaunted as Viola in service to the Duke in “Twelfth Night” Marion proves herself not only Robin’s equal as a leader but also the true heart of Farr’s feminist but never didactic play.
The design team smartly complement the transformation of the legend. Borkur Jonsson’s ingenious castle and forest set design includes two high slides by which actors exuberantly enter and a number of careful positioned stage holes that assist various scenes in director Gisli Orn Gardarsson’s appealingly acrobatics-rich production. Bjorn Helgason’s expressive lighting captures the stark early conflicts as well as the beauty of the full flowering of Robin and Marian’s romance-—the latter with a multitude of bulbs adorning the large tree that dominates Jonsson’s evocation of Sherwood Forest. Emma Ryott’s costumes catch the contrasting grittiness of Robin and his men and the pomp of Prince John.
The talented ensemble—many playing a variety of roles—proves as impressive as their costume changes. Jordan Dean makes a very convincing transformation from misogynistic thief to altruistic lover. Christina Bennett Lind has Marian’s vulnerability at the castle and her courage and cockiness in disguise working with Robin in the forest. Out actor Christopher Sieber—who should be familiar to many from his IRNE Award-winning performance as Albin in a recent Broadway in Boston tour of “La Cage Aux Folles”—is a standout in a tour de force comic turn as Marian’s alternately flamboyant and feisty man servant Pierre. Damian Young makes a properly nasty John, and Zachary Eisenstat has the right tenacity as Robin’s trusty henchman Will.
“The Heart of Robin Hood” —recommended for middle school students and up- turns the Loeb Drama Center into a rich theatrical adventure for all ages.
The Heart of Robin Hood, American Repertory Theatre, Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, through January 19. 617-547-8300 or amrep.org.
The enormity of the crimes of Bernard Madoff remains as explosive and controversial as ever. Witness this week’s out of court agreement by Chase Bank to pay nearly $2 billion to many of his victims. It should come as no surprise that the rawness of the subject presents formidable challenges to a playwright. Witness “Imagining Madoff” by Deborah Margolin as a case in point. Margolin initially pitted Elie Wiesel against Madoff in her play, seeing the Jewish Holocaust survivor and renown Nobel Peace Prize-winning novelist as a character that would immediately connote moral authority. After Wiesel expressed strong reservations to the text that she had voluntarily sent him to read, Margolin replaced him with a fictional 80 year old Jewish Holocaust survivor and poet-philosopher named Solomon Galkin but retained much of the original dialogue including a disturbing concentration camp memory as well as provocative stretches about Abraham binding though not sacrificing Isaac and overriding issues of morality and forgiveness.
Although “Imagining Madoff”—now in its New England premiere by New Repertory Theatre-lives up to its title as a speculation about a night of conversation between its protagonist and one of his victims, the relative freshness of Madoff’s crimes—with his arrest five years ago just this past December- and the on-going damage they have wrought make such a play both the proverbial slippery slope and welcome food for thought. While Margolin clearly means no disrespect to Holocaust survivors, debate exchanges in which an affinity is suggested between Abraham’s faith with regard to Isaac and the actions of Nazis during the Holocaust may prove hard for them to consider. At the same time, Galkin-who quotes proverbs from the Talmud and bible —based interpretive stories called midrashim—never really speak of biblical passages emphasizing charity and kindness when the play’s relatively secular Madoff points to images of cruelty in the Jewish text. Also, the play may make Madoff seem too ‘human’ at time especially in conversation about baseball. Admittedly, theatergoers—must never forget that Madoff is a person free to make choices and not a robot. Still, theatrical balance and the elimination of a somewhat easy closing possibility of forgiveness would make this thoughtful if disturbing play all the more powerful.
The New Rep production, under the sharp direction of Elaine Vaan Hogue, makes the most of the considerable virtues of Margolin’s well-intentioned play. Jeremiah Kissel captures the greediness and sadistic delight of the stage Madoff’s deceptions—especially in a vivid passage comparing preying on victims to hunting for salmon. Joel Colodner is equally forceful as Galkin, whether showing Kissel how to put on Tefillin-leather strapped Jewish phylacteries, debating moral points or recalling haunting moments during the Holocaust. Adrianne Krstansky does her considerable best with the underwritten role of Madoff’s conflicted if naïve secretary—who is supposed to be testifying before an unseen Congressional committee.
Jon Savage’s brilliant set surrounds the stage—both at the sides and above with a multitude of books-some open and many of them law books at odds with Madoff’s beliefs and actions.
As of now Madoff appears to show no remorse for his crimes nor the suicides of one of his sons and one subordinate. “Imagining Madoff” could be a fully visceral faceoff about moral issues. Right now, New Rep’s imaginative staging is compensating considerably for this thoughtful drama’s occasional lack of theatrical nerve.
Imagining Madoff, New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, through January 26. 617-923-8487 or newrep.org
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