Something's happening in the oh-so-macho world of swashbuckling. Young women are brandishing swords, swinging from ropes, shooting arrows, piloting pirate ships. Whether it's little blade-packing Arya Stark setting out on a vengeance quest in Game of Thrones, or teen archer Katniss Everdeen having her mettle tested in The Hunger Games, there are suddenly no end of doughty heroines for a girl to identify with. And the trend isn't limited to the page and the screen. This season Toronto will have two exciting theatrical productions – one big, one small – that boldly storm what was once a boys-only adventure club.
The big one is The Heart of Robin Hood, a family-friendly, feminist-inflected retelling of the English folk legend, in which a feisty Maid Marion is the driving force. The little one is My Treasure Island!!!, a witty adult comedy that transports Robert Louis Stevenson's pirate classic to the land of HBO's Girls.
The Heart of Robin Hood, playing the Royal Alexandra Theatre in December, comes from no finer a source than British writer David Farr, co-author of the action film Hanna, which helped kick-start the trend. Farr is also a former director at Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company, where he originally premiered his Robin Hood rewrite to acclaim in 2011.
Speaking by phone from London, Farr credits his kids with motivating him to rectify a gender injustice. "I have two daughters, who at that time were 8 and 10," he says, "and they were complaining that the girls in these kinds of stories were often doing very little but gazing at the man, while he got all the glory and had all the fun."
That's certainly not the case with his reconceived Maid Marion, an upper-class idealist who runs away to the forest with romantic notions of joining Robin and his Merry Men. When she discovers her anarchist hero is really just a thick-headed thief who robs from the rich to give to himself, she sets out to imbue him with her own burning passion for social justice. Along the way, she dons male garb and ends up engaging in her own acts of derring-do.
Farr says his inspirations included Shakespeare's cross-dressing comedies – especially the sylvan rom-com As You Like It – as well as the earliest Robin Hood folk tales. "In the beginning the character was just a kind of peasant thug, rather than a redistributor of wealth and justice," Farr points out. "I thought that it would be quite fun to imagine that a woman, Marion, had in fact invented the Robin that we now know and love."
To stage the show with appropriate panache, Farr called in maverick Icelandic director Gisli Orn Gardarsson, his collaborator on the eye-popping adaptation of Kafka's Metamorphosis, last season at the Royal Alex. "He does acrobatic stuff onstage that I've not seen anyone else do," Farr says. "There's a huge, chaotic, wonderful physicality to the production."
Since its British debut, Farr and Gardarsson have revisited the show and built a 2.0 version with added musical numbers by U.S. roots band Parsonsfield. It opened to rave reviews last year at the American Repertory Theater in Boston. Canada will be getting a fine-tuned and recast production that opens at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg in November before swinging into Toronto.
Although the play is tailored as family entertainment, Farr claims it also has "an intelligent politics" going on behind it. "The character of Robin Hood stands for the deep anger of the dispossessed against the ruling classes. And Marion has a wonderful romantic sympathy with that – until she discovers the tough reality of what it is to actually live with it," he says. "So it's also a lighthearted satire of a certain kind of privileged liberalism."
Frothy satire is also afoot in My Treasure Island!!!, which weighs anchor this month at the tiny Theatre Passe Muraille's Backspace. A play for two actresses and one puppet, it's a stage adaptation of Sara Levine's equally modest but riotously funny novel. The book, simply titled Treasure Island!!! and a Globe and Mail pick as one of the best novels of 2012, concerns a rudderless New Yorker in her 20s who decides to take as her role model Jim Hawkins, the plucky young hero of Stevenson's yarn. Disaster ensues.
"You think it's going to be about this young girl looking for her true self," Karen Woolridge says with an impish smile, "but instead she drives everyone mad." Woolridge, a fan of the book and an occasional fringe-theatre producer, got Levine's permission to adapt the work and her blessing to do it as a puppet show. "As soon as I told her that, it made her giggle."
Woolridge brought on board seasoned director Kate Lynch to stage it, and Lynch recruited young actress-cum-puppet designer Gemma James-Smith, a protégé of the great Ronnie Burkett. Caitlin Driscoll, fresh from the Toronto Fringe hit Punch Up, is cast as the misguided heroine. James-Smith co-stars and provides her with her sidekick, a marionette parrot named Richard who plays multiple roles.
My Treasure Island!!! is a spoof of female-empowerment tales, but an insightful one, with an outrageously egotistical central character who could be an extreme version of Girls' creator Lena Dunham's confused twentysomethings. "At that age you're so self-involved," Lynch says, "and Levine is able to see that with humour and compassion at the same time."
Still, Lynch and Woolridge, both self-described second-wave feminists, hail the new female action heroes – even the foolish ones. "Too often in the past female characters have been the catalyst for the adventure but they don't get to ride the roller coaster," Woolridge says, echoing the complaints of Farr's daughters. And why shouldn't they? Lynch adds. "After all, who doesn't want to swashbuckle?"