If you had to be reincarnated as a cardboard box, you’d certainly hope to be one of the boxes that festoon the stage in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater. Concocted by Scotland’s Visible Fictions Theatre Company, this impish spin on the beloved merry-outlaw legend features two actors, who juggle roles as diverse as the title character, Maid Marion and the Sheriff of Nottingham’s pet wolf. Assisting in the storytelling are those cardboard boxes, which constitute more or less the production’s only scenery, and which get to depict, by turns, a river bank, a 100-plus-room castle, towns, some weaponry, the stones of a dungeon and the trees in a glorious medieval English forest. Not a bad spectrum of activity, if you’re a heavy-duty paper product.
In the early moments of the show, which is part of the Kennedy Center’s World Stages festival, actors Martin McCormick (tall, in a gray hoodie and green trousers) and Billy Mack (shorter, in brown) amble into view amidst the clutter of boxes. Both performers spend a wordless minute or two grinning cheekily at the audience while McCormick consumes a bag of chips. It’s an early taste of the puckish self-awareness that adds to the production’s humor and flair, and that arguably also throws the tale’s timely themes — the problem of severe financial inequality, the trickle-down consequences of national leadership, the importance of generosity — into greater relief. (Written by Oliver Emanuel, and co-commissioned by the Kennedy Center, the play is recommended for ages 8 and older.)
Without jettisoning that self-aware quality, the performers plunge into an enjoyably lickety-split retelling of the Robin Hood saga, sometimes acting as narrators, sometimes embodying characters, and sometimes seeming to be actors who realize the trickiness of the task that director Douglas Irvine has set them. When Mack first takes on the role of the good-humored desperado Little John, a character who is supposed to be very tall, for instance, he thinks for a minute, clambers wryly up on a pile of boxes, and then launches into the part.
McCormick depicts Robin, archer extraordinaire, who takes up residence in Sherwood Forest after falling afoul of the law while King Richard is abroad waging wars. When Mack is not playing Little John (who eventually becomes Robin’s right-hand man), he sometimes portrays the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham, whose ultimately ineffective schemes for capturing Robin include hosting a highly publicized archery competition.
In archery scenes, flashlights beamed suddenly onto paper surfaces stand in for arrows winging from bows to targets. Here, as elsewhere, the show seems to revel in the ingenious, and even absurd, aspects of its looted-from-a-warehouse-carton prop choices. Enacting a brief duel between Robin and Little John, the actors use cardboard mailing tubes as swords. Later, when the Merry Men rob a rich traveler, the performers open a cardboard box and pull out little net bags of foil-wrapped chocolate coins. “I’ve got all the gold! I’ve got all the gold!” Mack’s Little John chants like a naughty kid, capering so that the net bags in his hands jiggle wildly.
The moment, and many others, allow audience members to share in the spirit of play that frolics through this production. It’s an approach that requires theatergoers to make vigorous use of their imaginations. Those cardboard boxes are just pining to transform into the trees of Sherwood Forest — but they need a little help from you.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Written by Oliver Emanuel; director and scenic co-designer, Douglas Irvine; scenic co-designer, Suzie Inglis; lighting, Sergey Jakovsky; composer and sound designer, Danny Krass; costume designer, Kylie Langford; technical and stage manager, Fiona Burness. One hour. Tickets, $20. Through April 6 in the Family Theater at the John. F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit www.kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.