A two-hour hike in the noonday sun isn’t my usual cup of tea, so I was already grousing as I made my way to the goose statue at the Chicago Botanic Garden last Saturday for a rendezvous with Robyn Hood, or–as it turned out–with Frank Farrell. I had the walking shoes, the sunscreen, the shades, the visor, the mosquito repellent, the bottle of water, and the remains of a cup of coffee as I scurried across a bridge to join the crowd that had gathered around the statue. A few minutes past the appointed hour of 11, Farrell appeared (recognizable by his feathered cap and tunic) and announced himself as Will Scarlock, our leader and narrator. “It’s National Trails Day,” he said cheerfully, handing out raffle tickets for the occasion. Then he set off, like the Pied Piper, in the direction of the Naturalistic Garden. Our motley band followed–well over a hundred souls, schlepping chairs, pushing strollers, clutching our Crystal Geysers. We were off, for better or worse, on our very first Theatre Hike.
“I’m taking full credit for inventing this type of theater,” Farrell told me when I called him earlier that week. “I’ve been hiking vigorously since 1990,” the veteran actor continued, explaining how he combined his two passions to create an outdoor play that decamps with every change of scene. “I was doing As You Like It in Michigan and all of a sudden it came to me. As You Like It is a play about people who run away to the woods!” The fact that As You Like It has 23 scenes gave him pause, but only for a moment. “We did it, and then we did A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and then last fall we took the As You Like It hike to New York’s Central Park.” “We” is Equity Library Theatre Chicago (ELT), which Farrell heads as board president. It’s a 38-year-old nonprofit showcase producer for members of Actors’ Equity. “Showcase” means that these professionals perform without pay. For their third hiking production, ELT chose a condensed version of Robyn Hood of Barnsdale Wood, a three-and-a-half-hour Shakespearean-style opus by Chicagoan Scott Lynch-Giddings. The play, in iambic couplets, was pared down to an hour and 20 minutes (13 scenes). “With the hiking,” Farrell said, “it will take about two and a half hours.”
We followed Scarlock to a grassy spot. He confided that “no one will ever know if Robyn Hood truly lived,” and gave us a short lesson in English history during the reign of Richard the Lion-Hearted. Then, with a flourish, he announced, “We are now in Great Britain,” and the scene was set for the entrance of a merrie man, a nobleman, and the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham, well played by Herb Lichtenstein, Robert W. Behr, and R. John Roberts respectively. It was, like all the scenes to follow, mercifully short. Still, as we trooped off at the end of it, I heard a boy of five or six ask his mother with obvious relief, “Is the show over?”
Hey nonny nonny, no way. But no one over the age of six could complain. It was a glorious Monet morning, all shimmering green grass and blue sky and refreshing breezes. We trudged along to a lily pond, a secluded garden, and the glade where Robyn meets his Maid Marian for the first time–and where, gentle reader, I realized something I am duty bound to share with you. There are many fine players in this troupe. They include John Marshall, just right as Friar Tuck; Wendye Clarendon, delightful as Sabina (Marian’s companion); Helen Merrier as a randy old wench; the aforementioned Behr and Roberts; and none better than Farrell himself, who could entice an audience to do anything. But what to make of the young lovers? On a stage with pink daylilies, Robyn and Marian had trouble holding their own.
But who can quibble when the production had the world’s most gorgeous and varied sets, contributing to some unforgettable scenes? I won’t forget Friar Tuck bobbling down a grassy incline; the clash of swords around the phallic Puryear sculpture; or youngsters in the audience, each seated in the center of a decorative hedge, looking like they sprouted there. My favorite was the scene observed entirely through an eye-level stand of tall grass. As for the text–between the walking and the ambient noise (airplanes, mowers, crying babies, music from another event, and the ever-present wind in the trees), it was necessarily shortchanged. There were plenty of clever lines and laughs (“Whatever has become of true falsehood?” one of Robyn’s men moans at one point), but the broad stroke was the main thing. The story needed only to be bold as a flag whipping in the wind, and for the most part it was. If Farrell lost his way in the narrative once (and he did, leaving Robyn to mysteriously reappear fighting just after we’d seen him captured), it hardly mattered. The important thing was this: he knew how to get us out of there.
Robyn Hood of Barnsdale Wood will be performed at 11 AM June 10, 11, 17, and 18 on the trails around the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center in the heart of the Palos Forest Preserve, 9800 S. Willow Springs Road in Willow Springs. The suggested donation is $10. Call 773-743-0266 for reservations and information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Frank Farrell.