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In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

Dominique Worsley battles Allie Babich in the First Stage hilarious production of Robin Hood. (PHOTO: Paul Ruffalo)

First Stage's brand new version of "Robin Hood" inspires a cascade of laughs

Give us a message and spark discussions about social ills, moral questions or governance, and you are talking about American theater today.

It seems like every theater in Milwaukee is staging play after play with strong timely messages, and most of them are just fine, full of the kind of thing that makes you think.

But sometimes all you really need to do is laugh.

Let me recommend the world premiere of "Robin Hood" currently underway at First Stage. Oh, there are messages about doing good in the world, helping the poor, the value of kindness and the equality of women.

But its most abundant quality is good action and great laughs.

The tale was written by John Maclay, associate artistic director at First Stage, and Chicago's Joe Foust, a brilliant actor who has frequently appeared on Milwaukee stages.

Artistic director Jeff Frank directed the production, aided by an all-star team both on the stage and behind the scenes. The combination is one of the most delightful plays I've seen in several years. It is the kind of production that First Stage does better than any company in town: appeal to adults as well as children on an equal basis.

First Stage veterans Maclay, Foust and James Fletcher all take roles as the Sheriff of Nottingham, the Archbishop of York and Little John, respectively. Dominique Worsley, who was memorable in "Welcome to Bronzeville," played Robin Hood with the kind of exuberance you might expect of the hero who took from the rich to give to the poor.

Foust, who has his fingerprints everywhere in this production, is glaringly funny as the Archbishop, a mixture of phony piety with mincing admonitions excusing his grotesque behavior. From the first moment he opens his mouth, the audience knows they are listening to full-flavored comedy.

Allie Babich takes two turns, one as the pompous Sir Malcolm who guarded the riches that might enable him to capture the "criminal," and the other as Maid Marian, a feisty warrior who is the only person to best Robin in a sword duel.

But the actor who steals the show is Tommy Novak, a rotund Chicago actor who graduated from Carthage College. Novak plays Friar Tuck, who delivers two of the most hilarious moments of the show.

First is when the good friar arrives in Sherwood Forest, having dashed at speed from somewhere. He begins to gasp for breath. And gasp. And gasp. It's rare for any audience to spontaneously leap into fevered applause, but this did it as children and adults all joined in.

Then, later in the play, after Robin, Tuck and Little John have been freed from the belladonna poisoning that turned them into statues, Tuck can't speak English. He talks in gibberish with the kind of emotion that makes it clear what he'd be saying if he could speak the language. Each blast of unintelligible language was met, again, with riotous laughter.

But lest anyone think that it's just the adults who carry this show, the kids in the Sherwood cast were at least as memorable as any grown-up. Nine young actors performed with nary a misstep and get more than their share of laughs.

The kid who leads that pack is Jack Burns, a high school freshman, who plays Geoffrey, acting as narrator, complete with a lute to accompany his crystalline singing voice. He connects with the audience with a good humor and earnestness that makes you want to give him a hug.

And eighth-grader Anna Fitzsimmons just about stole the show as Elizabet, the young girl who wants to join the Merry Men and add the name Merry Women to the tribe, with her main qualification that she is "poor. I mean really poor."

Elizabet explains that her name used to be Elizabeth, but once she discovered that the city bosses taxed people based on the number of letters in their name, she decided to drop the "h." She also is obsessed with "nets" although nobody is quite sure what the means until the end of the play when the whole thing is cleared up. Fitzsimmons has a presence on the stage that is rare for someone so young.

Maclay and Foust have created a script with just about everything you could ever want. It's funny, honest, filled with good original music (from Jeff Schaetzke) and exciting realistic fights (Foust was the fight choreographer too).

I can't begin to count the number of plays I've reviewed at First Stage, but this one ranks as one of the very best. Maclay and Foust have created something to be very proud of and, with the help of a wide range of artists, have left an indelible mark on Milwaukee theater.

And it's proof that while a message or two may come along during the performance, cloaking a message in a mantle of brilliant and accessible comedy goes a long way toward understanding.

"Robin Hood" runs through March 12. Information on tickets and showtimes is available here.

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