By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In the swashbuckler adventure extravaganza that premieres on, above, and around the Citadel’s Maclab stage Thursday, everything you thought you knew about a certain legendary 12th century outlaw hero (with a proclivity for the colour green) will get an adjustment.
Everything … except maybe the razzle-dazzle archery and the social justice agenda. Robin Hood, as you will recall, addressed the issue of income inequality head-on by robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.
So you maybe weren’t expecting a steam-punk aerial re-boot of the old stories from Sherwood Forest with a hero who’s female, differently abled, and swinging upside down from ropes. Welcome to The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story Of Robin Hood, a new “play with music” by the Edmonton theatre/film artist Mieko Ouchi (with songs by the star Canadian songwriter/musician/cabaret artiste Hawksley Workman).
WHAT WERE THEY THINKING? As the finale to his first season at the helm, Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran’s quest was a big immersive adventure family show that hits “the sweet spot” for kids and grown-ups together. He commissioned Ouchi, artistic director of Edmonton’s Concrete Theatre (which specializes in theatre for young audiences). As far as they know, it’s the first time the Citadel has commissioned a new play from a woman.
For Ouchi, who typically takes three or four years writing a new play, nine months was a breathless pace. “We brainstormed all the stories from our youth that we loved, A Wrinkle in Time, The BFG, The Fantastic Mr. Fox….And we kept coming back to Robin Hood.”
The Robin Hood reinvention was “a heady mix of hugely ambitious things!” laughs Ouchi, ticking off the must-haves. Archery, of course. And combat, says Ouchi, who already has a stage combat play to her credit; I Am For You (two feuding high school girls who get trained in the art of stage combat), premiered at Concrete.
Ah, and aerial arts. The use of “vertical space” was inspired in part by watching De La Guarda, an Argentine production that has played Off-Broadway, in which performers burst through the ceiling, swoop down and pick up members of the audience from time to time, and take them for a ride. “Now, that’s immersive!” says Ouchi.
And the stylistic flourish: playful steam punk visuals. Ouchi explains the fit for The Silver Arrow. “It’s about discoveries, and people who have abilities outside their time period.”
AND WHO’S THE HERO? “We wanted a fresh take, a Robin Hood with different origins,” says Ouchi. “Who are we not expecting?”
The answer: Kristi Hansen.
Currently the co-artistic director of both Azimuth Theatre and the award-winning indie company The Maggie Tree, Hansen has a history with Concrete. Not only has she been in Ouchi’s Concrete shows, Are We There Yet? and The Bully Project among them, she’s even written one, for Concrete’s annual Sprouts New Play Festival. In A Whole New Wheel, “a little toy train loses a wheel,” grins Hansen. And when it comes back to the toy box, with a button as replacement, the other toys, including a rabbit and a racing car, have trouble adjusting.
Hansen, tall and willowy, is an amputee. She knows what it’s like to lose a wheel and feel different. As you find out in her solo show Woody, with its set made entirely of her own prosthetic legs, of every size teeny to tall, she came though a lot of complex surgeries as a kid — en route to a theatre career that’s included an astonishing amount of dancing, including tap. Which speaks to a heroic measure of sheer determination and fearlessness, in addition to triple-threat theatrical talent.
Ouchi was eager to have a star “with different abilities.” And Hansen was eager to join the fracas in Sherwood Forest.
“Your relationship with your leg had really evolved, along with your comfort level,” Ouchi says to Hansen over dinner last week. “The industry has changed,” says Hansen. “More and more I’m ‘allowed’ to become more physical…. It’s more a part of it. Instead of ‘oooo, I don’t know, this is gonna be a problem; people aren’t gonna believe the Princess of France has one leg’.”
“It’s important to cast diversely so kids can see themselves in the show,” she says. “Kids in wheelchairs, other amputees….”
HOW DID THEY GET THE STORY OFF THE GROUND? Two words: Annie Dugan.
The dynamo artistic director and resident muse of Firefly, the Edmonton company devoted to marrying the circus arts and theatre, Dugan was in charge of the aerial choreography — and of getting the 16-actor cast of The Silver Arrow, 12 of them part of this year’s Citadel/Banff Professional Program, up up up and away.
“I took my free-standing rigs to Banff for a month of training, three classes a week,” says Dugan. ”Everyone started with the basics; you need to learn to climb.”
“All different people, an amazing diversity in all ways,” says Dugan of the assortment of abilities — and ages, 25 to 50 — amongst the actors who found themselves defying the laws of gravity, on ropes. Hansen, whose prosthetic would be “on and off during the show,” got five private lessons first.
The classic aerial techniques were adapted a bit for her, says Dugan. “But Kristi is such a diligent hard worker. And tough as nails…. She got up at 7 every day and went for a work-out before a two-hour workout!”
Hanging by your arms and lifting your body while you’re upside down? Try it and weep. The torturous demands of aerial are a far cry from jogging while listening to your Rosetta Stone Spanish course. “It’s all the inversions,” says Dugan.
Supremely fit and toned, Hansen (who’s a subscriber to beachbody.com), describes her regimen, everything from yoga to really really heavy lifting … a lot of stretching, weights, pull-ups, leg lifts.” She and her actor/playwright husband Sheldon Elter have an entire home gym; fellow Edmonton actor David MacInnis sold it to them when he moved to Toronto.
“I had to figure out the foot knots for myself because my body’s a little different,” says Hansen, who “wanders around the Maclab with my leg off, or on.” It stands to reason that getting a rope around your knee to pull yourself up is trickier if you’re an amputee. “I have to really concentrate!”
The only aerial move for which a prosthetic is helpful? Climbing. The most diabolical? “The hip key,” Hansen judges. “You invert yourself and flip the rope between your legs and catch yourself…. I don’t even know how to describe it.”
The aerial arts have a new convert, one who can remove a leg. “It’s really fun! I’ve got the bug!” Hansen isn’t afraid of heights; she likes them. Ouchi laughs. “Kristi doesn’t have many fears. In life.”
IS THAT A DAGGER I SEE BEFORE ME?
The cast of The Silver Arrow fight with a veritable arsenal of weaponry (choreographed by Jonathan Hawley Purvis): broadsword, staff, dagger, war axe, scimitar, cutlass, Japanese curved bladed fighting fans (Hansen, amazingly, already knew how to use the latter). Ah, and bows and arrows. The cast had lessons. As Ouchi says, “if you call a show The Silver Arrow, well….”
There are two practising fight directors, Michael Dufays and Louise Zhu, in a cast that also includes experienced aerialists like Stephanie Wolfe (The Hilaerialists) and Kevin Ouellet.
WHO TELLS THE STORY?
Of Hawksley Workman’s eight songs in the show, most are delivered by an Allan-a-Dale minstrel narrator: Amal Abdal (Camila Diaz-Varela) is “a Muslim serving girl from Spain.” From the start Ouchi, a big Workman fan (she and her husband Kim Clegg danced to his You And The Candles at their wedding), imagined the Silver Arrow music to be, in a word, Workman-like. It was Cloran who cut to the chase: “well, we could just ask the actual Hawksley Workman.”
The creator of the cabaret The God That Comes (it played the Citadel Club a couple of seasons ago) was eager; he’d never before written for other people’s voices. Ouchi gets her first-ever co-lyricist credit for the show (“it was generous of him”). The four-member band are also cast members, who play instruments and fight and climb and hang upside down and act and … otherwise (do the math) explode the old triple-threat designation.
SO WHO IS THIS NEW ROBIN HOOD ANYHOW?
Ouchi, who drove around Nottingham and the Robin Hood hot spots in England last summer, is a bit mysterious. “For me, the story had to be somehow relevant, with something to say about now.. I think people will be surprised by what Robin Hood ends up meaning. This is my version of how the myth might have evolved.”
“I have the hero’s journey!” Hansen is beaming. “I’m the one who gets the call to action and answers it, learns about myself, and comes out the other end!”
“And yes, I have a merry band.”
The Silver Arrow: The Untold Story Of Robin Hood
Written by: Mieko Ouchi (with music by Hawksley Workman)
Directed by: Daryl Cloran
Starring: Kristi Hansen and 15 others
Running: through May 13
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com