There are no men in tights in The Heart of Robin Hood. What there are, in the American Repertory Theater production helmed by former Icelandic gymnast Gisli Örn Gardarsson, are men (and a few women) in perpetual motion — plunging into Sherwood Forest via a 40-foot sloping greensward, shinnying up and down ropes, popping in and out of hidey-holes, and brandishing swords like swashbucklers. As the title character informs Maid Marion when first she stumbles into the woods, the men of British writer David Farr's Robin Hood are anything but merry; they are comradely brutes. But if Robin's gang lacks social grace, its members make up for it with the physical kind, pulling off aerial ballet as readily as they do the occasional beheading.
Farr's script, which Gardarsson first directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011, can be declamatory and even silly, only occasionally rising to Monty Python level in the latter regard. But it takes its hero back to a time in which he is no criminal philanthropist, fleecing the rich to give to the poor, but a plain bucolic burglar. That is, until Marion, taking a leaf from As You Like It, infiltrates Sherwood in the guise of a guy, proves her fighting mettle, and ferrets out the ruffian's heart, turning him into a hero battling bad Prince John.
Farr's fusion of English legend and Shakespearean comedy is a pretty neat trick. And the set, by Gardarsson's Reykjavik-based colleague Börkur Jónsson, is a splendid mix of outsized greenery, creaking castle architecture, Alice in Wonderland whimsy, and funhouse obstacle course complete with pond. This production adds to the Christmas-panto story and droll, athletic shenanigans an infectious score played live by Connecticut-based roots band Poor Old Shine, with lyrics by the talented musicians and Farr. What it all adds up to, if not Errol Flynn or Ivanhoe, is a magical, rough-hewn delight.
The last Farr/Gardarsson collaboration seen in these parts was the duo's stunning riff on Kafka's Metamorphosis, which literally turned the Samsa household upside down so that Gardarsson's Gregor could flit about its walls and ceiling. Compared to that, The Heart of Robin Hood is about as existential as a jumping jack. Moreover, with its silkily snide villain (John) and pair of threatened, distressed kids, the show boasts as many echoes of The Lion King (Disney's, not Julie Taymor's) or Hansel and Gretel as of As You Like It. But it's great two-dimensional fun that Poor Old Shine propels along with a stream of folk and rockabilly that underlines suspense and moves the story.
As the misogynistic robber softened by love, Jordan Dean is a handsome if somewhat dim bulb whose heart beats beneath a leather vest and six-pack abs. But Farr has made Marion the feminist heroine, and Christina Bennett Lind is a feisty aristocrat transformed into an amusingly blustery "Martin of Sherwood" who brings real yearning to a night-swathed Rosalind-Orlando exchange with her clueless inamorato. In the Touchstone role, that of court jester Pierre morphed into a rural fop called Big Peter, Christopher Sieber both embraces and transcends cliché, delivering a skillful, endearing mix of fey cower and savvy stewardship. Damian Young is all suave malevolence as Prince John.
Farr's take on this much-plowed plot is billed as dark. But believe me, no one is turning over Sherwood branches to find the worms beneath. To begin with, the branches aren't rotten; they're gorgeous, sheltering even the audience under their verdant, twinkling canopy. There are a few gruesome incidents, including the removal of a tongue, and one extended sequence in which a bad guy's corpse is manipulated as if it were a marionette. But such ghoulishness will bother adults shepherding children more than it will the tots themselves. And so what if this is a show suitable for kids? Its exhaustive imagination and physicality will make fans of those toting neither inner nor outer child. Much as Marion restores Robin to his better self, so The Heart of Robin Hood does for so-called family entertainment.