Robin Hood comes to life at the Black Hills Playhouse

By Carrie Moore

The Black Hills Playhouse (BHP) began its 74th season this past Friday, June 14, ushering in another fantastic collection of productions. And in true BHP form, the season kicked off with a laugh-inducing, heartwarming tale, filled with adventure, mischief and romance. 

The first production of the year is Ken Ludwig’s “Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood.” Having reviewed these productions for seven years now, I’ve become a fan of the BHP’s takes on Ludwig’s plays. They’re always fun, filled with laughs, mayhem, physical comedy and schtick — last season’s “The Game’s Afoot” really took the cake when it came to all of that. 

But this year, “Sherwood” showcased a different side, and put out a different message. 

“Sherwood” tells the story of Robin Hood, “the hero of the people who takes on the ruthless powers that be.” If this were a blockbuster action movie, it would start out like an origin story. The young, privileged hero spends his days in the castle or exploring the woods, hanging out with friends and boasting about his talents as an archer. But after his friend is sent away and father goes to fight a war, Robin Hood’s eyes are opened to the injustice that plagues Sherwood and the country. 

Cue the montage! Robin, along with help from his band of merry men (and women!), begin to take on those that rob, steal and lie. Just like the stories, Robin Hood steals from the rich to give back to the poor, making more friends along the way. However, there are a few people less than pleased. 

The climax of the movie pits our hero against the villains, who have captured and held him in the dungeon, awaiting death. Will he make it out of the castle alive? Or will he lose his life? 

“Sherwood” has all the drama and thrills of the hotly talked about summer blockbuster movie. But let’s be honest, seeing the production at the BHP is much cheaper than a trip to the movies — and way more interactive too! 

The BHP’s “Sherwood” is directed by Ian Borden, who keeps the focus of the production very upbeat. I really felt Borden stayed true to Ludwig’s perfect formula: silly situations that quickly escalate, witty repartee hilariously delivered and high-energy, physical scenes. I also really liked how the audience was able to become part of Robin Hood’s merry band, with a number of opportunities for audience participation. Whether we were cheering in favor and booing in opposition or standing in the presence of royalty, it was something that made the show a little more special. 

Alex Rudd brings the iconic and charming Robin Hood to life. Rudd is mischievous and frat-boy like in the earlier part of the production, when Robin was carefree. But once Robin Hood takes up the role as “superhero,” Rudd’s performances shifts into something greater. It’s full of heart and soul, and a whole lot of fun. Rudd makes for a great Robin Hood, and a great leading man. 

If Robin Hood was Batman, then Friar Tuck (Dan Workman) would most definitely be Alfred. Narrating the play, Workman quickly set the tone for the show with a natural great energy that he just exudes. Workman was serious in moments, but kept the show moving in a comfortable pace. I really liked how he would talk to the audience and take it upon himself to walk into the crowd.

“Sherwood” gives a really good twist when it comes to the bad guys. You think there’s just two of them: the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matt Nesmith) and Sir Guy (Caleb Olson). The Sheriff is there to make sure peasants are following the laws — you know, that their taxes are going to the crown — while Sir Guy is there to oversee Prince John, who is reigning while his brother is off fighting in the Crusades. 

But in reality, there’s an unexpected third bad guy: Prince John (Jeff Kingsbury). While it may not seem like Prince John knows about the tax hike and the lows the peasants have succumbed to, he really does; proving he may be more evil than we originally thought. He’s like that double crossing agent/villain in every single superhero movies. (Yeah, that’s right. I went there. Find a new arc, Hollywood!)

Nesmith probably has to be my favorite bad guy, even though he’s not really evil in “Sherwood.” But unfortunately, it’s who you associate with. Nesmith gets the brunt of the slapstick, but he’s amazing when it happens. Whether he’s saying a funny one liner, cackling like a hyena or a faint-hearted fighter, Nesmith is getting laughs — rightfully so!

BHP newcomer Olson plays a really evil Sir Guy. When he’s not giving commands or coming up with a plan, he’s stern and commanding, sometimes even brooding in the corner. Olson has the evil laugh and voice down pat, that’s for sure. Sir Guy was a bold character to portray in his first time on a new stage, but it works. I look forward to seeing Olson in future productions! 

Kingsbury is a delight as Prince John and let’s be honest, he was born to play nobility — it’s literally in his name! Kingsbury’s first entrance as Prince John comes through a walk down the aisle of the theatre, greeting people in the audience and throwing around confetti. It’s outrageous and so much fun! Throughout the show Prince John playful and full of himself, often rattling off now famous quotes, which he commands the Sheriff to “write that down!” The quotes are used a few hundred years later by one Mr. Shakespeare. Ever heard of him? 

Every time Kingsbury was on stage, he had my attention. His line delivery is impeccable in timing and affect. Even when he’s not speaking, his reactions to other actors and moments are just hilarious. I especially like the scene of the archery tournament, where Prince John is trying to impress Doerwynn with elegance and new fangled gadgets, like the fork. 

One thing I appreciate with “Sherwood” is Marian — Robin’s love interest — who is not the damsel in distress like she has been in other cinematic portrayals. In fact, she’s a very capable fighter and better archer than Robin Hood. She’s also Prince John’s niece and betrothed to Sir Guy, so clearly, a natural diplomat. Bethany Springs was a strong Marian, unwilling to back down to Sir Guy and ready to defend her people.

Rounding out the rest of the merry men (woman, too!) is Nick Ducote as Little John and Mia Hilt as Doerwynn. Hilt is another force to be reckoned with as the tough Doerwynn. Ducote plays a sweet and caring John, always there when needed. The two share a couple of sweet moments in the second act, which really warm the heart.

The ensemble cast features Cole Kennedy, Jacquelyn Kiefner, Jose Miller, Jimmy Nguyen, Chris Schilling and Jack Warring. Whether they taking arrows hits, running into each other or garnering laughs with some form of slapstick, these six are constantly at the epicenter of running gags. In the very first scene, Miller set the tone when giving birth to Robin, which featured a distressed scream, followed by a “game of toss” with the baby. I knew from that minute the ensemble would be bringing the laughs. “Sherwood” would be nowhere near as funny without this group of actors!

In addition to directing, Borden was also the fight choreographer, having done the choreography for a previous swashbuckling BHP production, “The Three Musketeers.” The fighting seemed really authentic, with swift and precise movements. But there was also a playfulness that made it entertaining. It was fun to see Robin Hood get bested by his own merry men; sometimes his sword or arrow being taken away from him. One of the fight scenes between Sir Guy and Robin Hood was really fun to watch, too, with a lot of back and forth, putting you on the edge of your seat.

I also really enjoyed how Borden portrayed other characters being hit with arrows or swords. Instead of launching real arrows across the stage — because oh my word, the insurance!! — the hit actors would quickly hold up arrows they had already been holding on their person. It was really clever and done in such a quick, magic-like flick of the hand that I never saw it happen. 

Unlike most of the plays at BHP, I have actually seen another production of “Sherwood.” I was interested in how the BHP’s version would compare with the previous I’d seen, more so, the set and costumes. 

For the set, I knew there was to be a tree featured — but how would it be done? Just a big old oak in the middle of the stage, like my previous viewing? Or something else? I was happily surprised to see a functional set, expertly crafted by Amber Marisa Cook. While the tree was an after thought in the other production, I could tell Cook made a huge effort in featuring it, as well as working it to serve a purpose for multiple scenes. 

Obviously, the tree is the focal point when in the woods, but when the scene takes us to the castle, it makes for great stairs, seamlessly blending into rock steps. I also like how the massive tree divided the set into multiple areas, with fun balconies built in, allowing for quick changes and the ability to play with height and perspective. 

The set wouldn’t have been highlighted so beautifully without the lighting, done by designer John Ryan. I loved how the lights gave you the illusion of the forest, but also helped set the scene, whether it be the brightness of the outdoors or dimly lit dungeon. No doubt, the lighting successfully highlighted the set, bringing the iconic Sherwood Forest to life, right before our very eyes.

Speaking of iconic, what’s more iconic than Robin Hood’s outfit? The kelly green tunic and matching hat goes hand-in-hand with the image of Robin Hood, whether he be a man or fox. Costume designer Christina Olson brought the iconic outfit to the BHP stage, as well as some other beautiful pieces. The first half of the production puts most of our characters in earth tone clothing — practical and set to the time period. But the outfits in the second half shine, both with their jewel tones and some extra flair added. I especially liked Prince John’s royal garb — a regal look for a befitting character — and an actor that can pull it off!

One area I was very impressed with was the sound, done by Christopher George Haug. I couldn’t tell you what sound was like for the other production I saw. (I vaguely remember the actors making the “whooshing” sound as they threw their arrows. So apparently, they were on a budget.) BHP is much different — the sounds of arrows flying come from a soundtrack, which sounds very accurate and authentic.

But what I really love is how music played into the show, more especially, current music, but with a Renaissance-type flair. There were a number of hit songs — think ABBA and Deep Purple — featured in the show, but also at intermission. In fact, I think this was the first intermission ever I stayed inside the theatre solely because I wanted to hear what classic hit was going to be covered on a lute and recorder. Kudos to Haug for tracking down the music and putting this soundtrack together. Are copies available at the snack bar?

“Sherwood” is packed with everything that makes a production fun — great characters, a thrill or two, romance and lots of laughs. But more importantly, it showcases the spirit of Robin Hood — kindness, justice and love, sending that message away with its audience. No doubt, an important and timely lesson that all of us need right now.

“Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood” runs through June 30 and is rated PG. Get your tickets now by visiting blackhillsplayhouse.com. 

What did you think of the show? Leave a comment and let us know!