Guest director Jessie Austrian enlisted the audience’s help several times during PlayMakers Rep’s production of Sherwood: The Adventures of Robin Hood, Ken Ludwig’s light, lively retelling of the fourteenth-century legend. While raucous miscreants played primitive beer pong in a tavern, extras fanned out through Paul Green Theatre, recruiting dancing revelers for the ribald tunes that modern-day balladmonger Jack Herrick wrote for the show. Later, Sir Guy (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) had to repeat the line “All rise,” adding hand gestures, to get the audience on its feet for the entrance of the villainous Prince John (played like a smarmy talk-show host by Ray Dooley) before goading the crowd into doing the wave.
But during the show’s final bit of audience participation, at the top of Act Two, the put-ons, silliness, and slapstick evaporated, and the room went still. We were at the Great Oak, where Robin Hood had convened a coalition of the willing to join him in resisting a fraudulent and greedy sovereign. It was time for them to swear their loyalty. Then the actors turned outward, toward us, and suddenly, we were being asked to take their oath: “Do you swear to help those in need and to protect the poor with compassion and grace? To feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the old and sick? To fight oppression and remain firm in our love of a free country for ourselves and our children?”
I saw looks of shock and uncertainty as well as expressions of resolution and delight throughout the theater, as Austrian’s actors basically asked us all, point blank, “Which side are you on?”
Though the play continued, the stakes and mood had permanently changed. In part, that’s because a strong ensemble—including narrator Friar Tuck (Dan Toot), Little John (a puckish Rishan Dhamija), and Maid Marian (a capable Christine Mirzayan)—truly conveyed the fellow feeling of a group of activists. Joshua David Robinson’s nimble, heartfelt Robin Hood modeled the nobility a current generation hungers for from its leaders: “They follow me. I follow them. We travel together … We’re here for each other. Otherwise, we’re nothing.”
Andrea Bullock’s prop artisans and effects creators made arrows appear from nowhere across the boards and bodies on McKay Coble’s rustic, minimal set, and Herrick’s original music supported the action throughout. At evening’s end, an unexpectedly revealing production showed us where we stood, not only in the world of an old childhood story but in the present day as well.
PlayMakers Escapes Paul Green with a fleet Macbeth
The production values are conspicuously modest for PlayMakers. Instead of a fabricated castle, three plastic cubes make up the set and a bank of fluorescent bulbs stand in for theatrical lighting. With no curtains or wings, the performers mostly change costumes, scenes, and characters in full view. One more unusual thing: Generally, PlayMakers uses more than five actors to stage Macbeth.
But these are the challenges a theater company faces when it takes its work somewhere that, until recently, it hadn’t been in decades: beyond the controlled confines of a professional theater and into the communities surrounding it.
PlayMakers Mobile, a touring theater initiative that artistic director Vivienne Benesch started in 2016, began its third and largest season to date Thursday with a seventy-minute Macbeth in Durham and Pittsboro. By the time its tour concludes on October 6, a quintet of gifted grad students in UNC’s Professional Actors Training Program will have performed for audiences at service organizations, private and public schools, a tech incubator, and a museum, in Chatham, Durham, Wake, and Orange Counties. (A full list of venues and dates is on PlayMakers’ website.)
For Benesch, the initiative isn’t only about what she calls “drawing our circle ever wider,” reaching out to underserved communities and other organizations in the area. The mobile production unit is an attempt to embrace the vision of professor Frederick Koch, who took the original Carolina Playmakers on the road a century ago.
“His idea of bringing our stories to the people and being a state theater in the fullest sense of the word is something we should be coming back to one hundred years later,” she says.
In a Pittsboro library meeting room, more than eighty locals, ranging from grade school to grandparents, lean forward as the ageless witches invoke Macbeth‘s opening lines. As they do, it’s clear that it doesn’t take a five-figure budget to produce compelling Shakespeare. It only takes five actors, an audience willing to believe, and a company willing to reach out to them.