Whether portrayed by a swashbuckling Errol Flynn or a conflicted Kevin Costner, Robin Hood has always been interpreted more as myth than man. Theater RED, a relatively new Milwaukee theater company, reverses the equation. In its latest world premiere, A Lady in Waiting, the troupe adopts a female point of view that presents the legendary male outlaw on a human scale.
Penned by Wisconsin playwright Liz Shipe (who also plays Maid Marian in the production), the story is told from the perspective of Marian’s handmaid Aria (Kelly Doherty). Shipe says Aria’s quick tongue and sharp insights shed new light on familiar characters like Robin Hood (Zachary Thomas Woods) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew J. Patten), as well as the play’s other Merry Men and royals, thus muddling the usually stark distinctions between heroes and villains.
The play begins with Robin Hood already established as the outlaw prince of Sherwood Forest, so both Aria and the audience are inserted in medias res. “Everything I read positioned Robin Hood as the main character, and that seemed the logical way to go,” Shipe says. “But I wanted to look at Robin Hood through the lens of someone who might not see him as a hero, learning about him as the audience does.”
Shipe says telling the story from a female perspective also gives the play some contemporary flavoring, although she hesitates to label its viewpoint as explicitly feminist.
“The original idea was to create a medieval buddy-on-the-road story for two women and a bunch of fellas,” Shipe says. “(But) over the course of writing it, the play did become much more about what it is to be a woman in any society — which is a great thing to put in the spotlight.”
The unconscious shift in perspective fits well with Theater RED’s creative ethos. Married co-founders Christopher Elst and Marcee Doherty-Elst established the company last year as a way to present premiere works from local authors and plays that offer substantial roles for women and new artists. Their first full production A Thousand Times Goodnight was a particularly good example: an original, Shakespeare-esque adaptation of The Arabian Nights by local writer Jared McDaris that centered on Scheherazade as the lead character.
Neither Elst nor Doherty-Elst had extensive experience or education in theater arts until reaching adulthood. Elst majored in literature and has a background in fencing, with advanced actor combatant certification from the Society of American Fight Directors. Doherty-Elst, a trained skater, majored in sociology and statistics. But the two became independently involved in local productions, learning about theater from fellow cast members as they went along.
“We credit the theater training we have received from being involved in productions with amazing actors, musicians and directors,” Doherty-Elst says. “We learned from working alongside the best and are often cast in the same shows, which is great fun and nice to have our schedules align.”
Starting Theater RED has allowed the couple to share what they’ve learned with others, including Shipe. She’s excited about sharing her unique vision of the Robin Hood myth.
“Robin Hood’s story has been told from his point of view a lot, and I thought that shifting the focus a bit would breathe some life into the story,” Shipe says. “I hope other people feel that way, too.”
Theater RED’s production of Liz Shipe’s A Lady in Waiting runs Aug. 7-23 at the Soulstice Theatre, 3770 Pennsylvania Ave., Ste. 2, in St. Francis. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Tickets are $15. Visit www.theaterred.com.