It’s a cool night in late April, dark skies threatening rain, but we’re braving the weather to go to Granville Island and check out the latest offering from Toofly Productions, Robin Hood: the Prince of Tease. It’s a punny name being produced by a punny company and promises to be a punny burlesque take on the classic tale of a thief that robs from the rich and gives to the poor.
There’s something about this story that makes it persist – the idea of the rich stealing from everyone and giving to themselves has plagued western society since before the dawn of scarcity economics, and the tale of a man stealing from those wealthy thieves to give back, of fighting a corrupt system that steals everything and leaves no voice to the most helpless, is just as relevant these days as it has ever been.
So, we’re excited. Toofly is a recent invention, the dream of Alan Pronger. He wanted to create a means of producing the weirdest ideas he could find, of taking concepts too strange for other companies and making them reality. They’re a non-profit for emerging artists that specializes in exploring the absurdity of modern life.
This makes the Performance Works Theater a perfect venue for them – a place located on the tail-end of Granville Island, it was a machine shop that opened almost a hundred years ago and changed into a rehearsal and performance venue a little under thirty years ago. You might say the building’s purpose was stolen, it’s meaning gone for practical to absurd, and you would be right.
Robin Hood: Prince of Tease lives up the expectations set by both
The story takes quite a lot from the old Keven Costner movie with gender-flipped characters: Prince Joan has taken control of unspecified European country after hearing the news that King Richard and Robin of Loxley are dead. She kills Robin’s father, blinds his man-servant Winkin, taxes people into near death and spends all the money on himself. The opening set-up borrows as much from Game of Thrones as from its source material and is self-aware enough to call themselves out in, self-awareness being one of the best parts of Burlesque performances.
We then follow Robin as she escapes from BDSM land with the help of a Benny Hill sequence, meets Oddman Out, and the two of them travel together to get back to unspecified European country. They discover what’s happened in Robin’s absence, Robin recruits her people, and they start robbing from the rich and giving to the poor – but the conceit here is that everyone fights through dance, a thing that Robin excels at and Oddman Out doesn’t quite get. It makes for some cute sequences and story progressions and leads us up to the climax, where Oddman Out gets the final show-stopping number.
There’s some strong performances: anyone familiar with the Vancouver scene has seen Andrew Lynch perform, and his Sheriff lives up to the high standards his presence demands. Emily Pangburn’s Robin is graceful and cocky and her facial expressions are as perfect as the choice to cast her as the lead. Isabella Halladay’s Will Scarlet demands attention and earns it, and she’s got presence enough to make her every moment on stage count.
Of note is Katherine Alpen’s Winkin – this is her first burlesque and she carries herself with a refined dignity in almost every scene, acting as the narrator and liberally ignoring the fourth wall. She’s great. Joseph Spitale’s Mann Marian is an utter delight from start to finish, a clueless dude-in-distress caught between political machinations he has little understanding of. Finally, the dry delivery of Jennifer Doan’s Oddman Out makes her the conscience of the show and the person who grows the most, a quiet presence that shadows the rest of the story until she’s ready to take center stage in the final number.
All of the male performers took some serious risks here: Jared Arthur, Joseph Spitale, Kenneth Tynan, Matthew Fedorowicz, Andrew Lynch, and Rafael Ruiz did some amazing things with the material they were given and the routines they worked out, and fans of boylesque are going to love the things they do.
The script has some very clever one-liners about its source material, the limitations of the set, and the limitations of the stage. It criticizes itself – how do you have a Robin Hood show without bows and arrows?!? – and a strong opening sequence that sets the stage for what’s to come.
A handful of minor technical choices can be excused – with the amount of glitter being used, one wonders why we don’t just replace blood with the stuff? It would have made for a much more dramatic (in every sense of the word) performance. There’s also a beautiful silks performance that, while gorgeous, comes out of nowhere and adds nothing to the story as a whole.
Which segues nicely into one of the problems with Robin Hood: Prince of Tease – the writer promotes comedy over character and loses out on the chance for more comedy because of it. The pacing is a bit weird, and without strong enough character motivation we’re left cheering for people because of the source material rather than the characters as they stand here. Traits come out of nowhere and pay-offs come without build up, making them feel hollow.
Even worse is the queer-coded villains; Mann Marian being forced to marry the fabulous Sheriff and being in horror of it and then being rescued by the female Robin is played for laughs, sure, and there’s an attempted rescue of the concept with a gay marriage between Little John and Marian’s manservant, but it feels like a last ditch effort to cover a mistake. Marian’s efforts with Robin are stymied by sexual fluidity, which comes off as a bit of bi-erasure.
Neither issue is large enough to mar the performances or the show as a whole. We’d recommend seeing it – it’s funny and a good time and the few flaws are evidence of inexperience more than maliciousness. Toofly Productions is still maturing as a studio and will continue to do so – and if this is what they’re early efforts look like, well, we can’t wait to see where they end up.
A word of warning: if you are going to see this (and if you like musicals, burlesque, or Robin Hood, then you should), reserve a table. The Performance Works Theater has limited seating and looking for a place to sit can be difficult. We’d recommend trying to get a seat in the center aisle – there’s a shower sequence that happens towards the back at the end of the second act that you’re going to want an unobstructed view of.
You can learn more about Toofly by clicking here, more about Robin Hood: the Prince of Tease by clicking here or buy tickets by clicking here, and learn more about the Performance Works Theater by clicking here. The show runs from now until May 13, 2017, with each show starting at 8pm.