BRATTLEBORO — After a year of planning and writing, The Vermont Suitcase Company will bring Robin Hood to outdoor venues around Vermont from July 16 to 30.
But this is not your mama's “Robin Hood.”
The Suitcase Company's version, tongue firmly tucked-in-cheek and with a few suspensions of disbelief, includes Dry Anthony and Wet William as the Sheriff of Nottingham's two charming pig deputies; woodland creatures, including a chipmunk named Chippie, the union man; Fisher, a fisher cat, always sharpening his knife; two orphaned rabbits who hang out with Friar Tuck; and a host of colorful puppets to help bring the story to life.
Rosa Palmeri and Jonny Flood have written the script and also act in the play.
“We thought it was funny to incorporate these puppets and not mention it; that's just our ethos,” says Dory Hamm, artistic director/producer, of the way the puppets just show up via the actors playing their characters onstage.
“It's great for kids, but more for adults,” Hamm says. “We make ourselves laugh and so we're pretty sure other people find it funny, too.
“It's not for kids, but it's perfectly appropriate for kids,” says Artistic Director/Actor Flood, noting the script is still PG.
“Kids love it because it's highly physical comedy,” adds Sandy Klein, puppet maker, costumer, and producer. “It's so broad that children are riveted.”
This is the company's third summer tour bringing live and lively theater to Vermont towns.
The troupe started in 2018 with A Midsummer Night's Dream, followed in 2019 by “a Molière mash-up.”
Last summer was to have seen the company's portrayal of The Emperor's New Clothes, but the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted things, so the group of actors quarantined and wrote an outline for Robin Hood.
This summer, all shows will be outdoors because the venues were booked in March, when COVID-19 regulations for gatherings were still somewhat up in the air.
The mission and vision
The Vermont Suitcase Company's mission is to “bring community people together to laugh with us and with each other.”
Troupe members also hold dear the notion that theater in Vermont (and pretty much everywhere else) “is too expensive and the majority of people never go see it. We want to bring cheap, funny theater to all our communities in order to rescue it from being 'culture.'”
The company was founded after Klein, Palmeri, Hamm, Flood, Artistic Director Marcel Freda, and Producer/Actor Shannon Ward were working together in 2017, directing a show starring children.
Finding themselves without actors to play the love scenes, they played them with sock puppets, a first for Klein, who also serves as creative director/costumer for New England Youth Theatre.
Troupe members have been involved with theater for most of their young lives, either with NEYT, founded by Stephen Stearns, or Get Thee to the Funnery, a Shakespeare camp run by Peter Gould.
“We're all performers, directors, writers, and educators and have been involved in theater all our lives ... and we just think theater's a lot of fun and we want to be able to do it wherever we are,” says Flood.
“A few years ago we decided, 'Let's do it.' We chose 'Midsummer's Night,' and we knew it and we decided to tour around the state and said, 'Let's make theater that's cheap, short, and actually enjoyable.' Those are kind of our missions.”
To that end - and a child's comfortable attention span - each performance is just 70 minutes.
“We know a really good show is like an episode from a miniseries, and we don't want to do more,” says Hamm. “We love the idea that everyone sits and laughs and then it's over and they say, 'I want more.' And everyone can sit on a lawn with a picnic.”
“'Culture' has come to signify a certain code is required, tickets get higher, and a certain sector of our society feels it's not for them,” he adds.
“Our goal is to make it so everyone can afford it, or not pay and still see it, so this year we fundraised so every child is coming free throughout the state,” adds Klein of this summer's show.
The company's GoFundMe page is still live and accepting donations. To date, $3,375 has been raised.
“Our dream is that every show is free, with half being donations,” says Hamm. “Art is for everyone. Everyone should be able to make it and see it. It shouldn't be tied to monetary value.”
“Our dream is to have some theater outreach to teach this ethos of fast comedy, community, accessibility - those are not aspects of the modern theater world that are taught,” he adds.
The company also partners with other artistic groups and has received some corporate donations so is able to pay actors modest sums.
Another joy for the troupe is to be together.
“Pretty much everyone has been raised in Vermont and many don't live in Vermont anymore because they are actors having to do acting in other places, so this was another way to get them back to their home state [to] see their families, see their friends,” says Klein.
The way it works
It's not called The Vermont Suitcase Company for nothing.
“Our whole show fits in our suitcases, including the stage curtains,” says Ward.
Not just any suitcases - these are the real deal. Most are antique from the '40s and '50s and visible onstage as an art exhibit unto themselves.
“They are just so beautiful,” says Klein. “They look like stages on their own.”
Another hallmark of the company is time.
Spending just a week together rehearsing before taking the show on the road helps keep the actors and the material they're presenting fresh and enlivening.
“We have an extremely short rehearsal process,” Ward says. “This summer we started rehearsing July 9 and we open July 16. We put a lot of hard work into it, but it also has this thrown-together energy and it also brings the audience into it.”
While there is a written script, the troupe enjoys developing new parts in rehearsal.
“Pretty much we just laugh for a week and what makes us laugh the hardest, we bring to the stage,” says Hamm.
“I like what you said, Shannon, it's like shot out of a cannon,” adds Flood.
Robin Hood fits the troupe's vision in a big way.
“It's colorful, very physical, high energy,” says Flood. “There's a good ensemble cast right away, a lot of great characters, and it fits into thinking about commedia dell'arte archetypes.”
“Right away, it just is a neat fit,” he continues. “Also we are drawn to and appreciate the politics of Robin Hood and think it's fairly contemporary to think about massive wealth gaps and -”
“- and stealing from the rich,” finishes Klein.
“We probably shouldn't say that,” she adds, with a smile. “It's also a story that lends itself to puppets.”