Oak Park Festival Theatre has taken a break from its annual summer “Shakespeare-in-the-park” to present “Robin Hood: A Fanciful Historie of That Most Notable & Fameous Outlaw Robyn Hood” by Chicago playwright and actor Scott Lynch-Giddings. The intrepid Festival folks haven’t veered too far off track, however, since this drama is written in the style of the Bard, almost as if it were a lost work that’s just been discovered. Lynch-Giddings penned it in the 1990s but the dialogue sounds amazingly like that of the Elizabethan 1590s.

“Robin Hood” is a fast-paced, energetic production inspired by the many versions of the medieval legend, yet it’s never predictable or tiresome. Director Kevin Theis mounts a dashing two-hour adventure featuring his strong, talented ensemble.

Of course, don’t go to Austin Gardens expecting an outdoor remake of the old Warner Bros. swashbuckler starring Errol Flynn leaping from tree to tree in his bright green ballet tights. Yes, there are some familiar elements and scenes, yet this version is decidedly “Shakespearean.” The first third, in fact, seems like one of the history plays with lots of political intrigue and royals in a boil. Also, like in so many of the Bard’s comedies in which female characters end up dressed like boys yet no one ever seems to notice their true sexuality, Maid Marian (Meredith Siemsen) dons the apparel of a forest youth and risks her life to help save the king by pretending to be “a beardless underling.”

Personally, I was thrilled to experience this new “take” on the legend of Robin Hood that has captured hearts and imaginations for over 500 years. Shakespeare will be back on board next summer.

The story is set in the 12th Century, during the English Middle Ages. The plot concerns heroic Robin (Christopher Prentice) and his Sherwood Forest outlaw band, who strive to save England from treachery by scheming nobles during the absence of the captured-ransomed King Richard the Lion-Hearted (David Skvarla).

Robin, who is actually an aristocrat, is champion of the common people, leading his oppressed followers in a revolt against the corrupt overlords. He’s not anti-authoritarian, just anti-injustice. Robin makes a name for himself robbing the rich to support the poor. He’s headstrong and arrogant, as well as high-minded and noble.

Robin’s nemesis is the corrupt, blood-thirsty Sheriff of Nottingham (Steve Pickering) who seems to constantly abuse his position. He wears black leather and has a shaved head like some sort of scary skinhead.

Black-hearted Prince John (Alex Reimers) has usurped the throne from his brother, good King Richard, making him a fugitive in his own land.

His manipulative mother, Queen Elinor, is portrayed by Claudia C. Vasilovik.

Melanie Esplin is an excitable servant. Charlie Cascino is fun playing several roles, including a saucy, buxom kitchen wench who seems ever in danger of having a wardrobe malfunction.

The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest include Ted Jonas as the loyal Little John, David Elliott as the rotund, ever-tippling Friar Tuck, and Steve Lenz as Will Scurlock, a warmhearted roughneck.

Sir Richard de la Lee, a “good old knight” in the Falstaff tradition who is often thrown by his mule, is played by Robert W. Behr.

When Robin and his roving robbers ambush a caravan coming through Sherwood Forest he meets the high-born Marian. She’s initially snooty and scornful of him, coming off as almost spinsterish and incomplete. Yet after she becomes his reluctant guest and learns the truth of Robin’s mission, her attitude toward him softens. Marian even warms when she sees how Robin fights against tyranny and injustice.

This particular Robin Hood also aspires to be a songbird when struck by Cupid’s arrow, smitten by Maid Marian.

Prentice and Siemsen make a well-matched pair. Their scenes together are tender yet feel modern and credible.

Scott-Giddings includes many aspects of the legend yet it’s all so artfully staged even those bits that might work best on film have not been omitted. When incognito Robin enters an archery contest disguised as a cobbler called “John Shoehorn,” we don’t actually witness his arrow splitting his opponent’s in the bull’s eye. But we thrill to the follow-up with its sudden action and swordplay.

The exciting stage combat, by the way, is superbly choreographed by Geoff Coates. The frequent dueling is perhaps the most amazing aspect of the production.

There is also plenty of comic byplay, especially the kind of ribald puns and double entendre jokes that Shakespeare so frequently employed to distract us during transitions.

Those cast members playing multiple roles deserve kudos for their range and versatility, including Kent L. Joseph, Jeff McLane, Paul Perroni, Michael Rosenblum, Evan Sierminski, and Nick Vidal. Often with few lines of dialogue but brilliant body language and posture they become entirely new characters.

Oak Park Festival Theatre will present “Robin Hood” outdoors in Austin Gardens on Forest Avenue just north of Lake Street through Aug. 25.

Festival Theatre’s artistic director Jack Hickey spoke briefly before the curtain opening night, welcoming the audience and announcing the 2008 season: Noel Coward’s beloved comedy “Blithe Spirit” will be performed at Pleasant Home in the winter, and both “Dancing at Lughnasa,” an Irish family play set in the ’30s, and Shakespeare’s comedy “Much Ado About Nothing,” will be mounted in Austin Gardens next summer. I, for one, can’t wait.

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Doug Deuchler

Doug Deuchler has been reviewing local theater and delving into our history for Wednesday Journal for decades. He is alsoa retired teacher and school librarian who is also a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent...