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Authenticity a top concern for director and actors

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FARMINGTON — Authenticity is a term that is getting used a lot by those associated with the Theater Ensemble Arts production of "Robin Hood" opening Aug. 15 at the Lions Wilderness Park Amphitheater. Everyone involved talks about how almost every aspect of the play — the accents, the costumes, the characters' mannerisms and the swordsmanship — has been thoroughly researched and is designed to be as much like the real thing as possible.

But the true measure of the company's commitment to authenticity is the fact that the cast will be using actual steel swords, and functional bows and arrows instead of real-looking but harmless facsimiles. Tom Jennings, who portrays the Sheriff of Nottingham in the play, has led a four-member team that he said has spent more than 1,000 man-hours crafting the weapons for the show.

"Everything is pretty accurate," Jennings said. "It's all pretty period correct as to what we're using."

Jennings is an army veteran who has studied kenjutsu, or Japanese swordsmanship, and blacksmithing. That unique set of skills, along with his imposing frame and commanding personality, made him the perfect fit to portray the villain in this version of "Robin Hood," written by Larry Blamire. Jennings was determined to not let the fact that he had never acted before get in his way.

Instead, he seems to be relishing the new experience — especially the fact that he gets to play such a well-known bad guy.

"Oh, it's the best — it's the absolute best," he said, his bearded face breaking into a broad smile. "I have the juiciest role. I have a theory … that the villain always defines the play or the film. If he's a comedic villain, the whole thing is a comedy. If he's a frightening villain, the whole thing is horror. And if he's an imposing villain, the whole thing is drama. The hero can be any archetype, and it doesn't change the (character) of the show."

Director Joey Herring said Blamire's take on the well-known tale from medieval English folklore is a classic one, with all the well-known characters from the legend represented, including Marian, Little John, Friar Tuck and Will Scarlet. The production largely revolves around the war of wills between the title character and the sheriff, but Herring said the play is far from being one dimensional.

"It's got combat scenes, adventure, romance and laughs," she said.

Herring expressed an affinity for stories of this nature. She directed TEA's production of "The Three Musketeers" in 2017, and is a fan of the screen adaptation of the historical novel "Ivanhoe" and the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Her vision from the beginning was to maintain the historical accuracy of this production, and in Jennings, she found a kindred spirit. After having him read for the part five times, she offered him the role, and watched with delight as he not only sank his teeth into the challenge of acting, but in coaching his fellow actors in the fine points of authentic swordsmanship, along with combat choreographer Jeremy Orr.

Herring said that enthusiasm has been mirrored by everyone involved in the production.

"It's been an incredible experience," she said. "The dedication and commitment has been 110 percent."

Jennings is in the habit of using the term "visceral" to describe the realism he hopes the production conveys, especially in its numerous combat scenes.

"I want the audience to feel the fear any character would feel in that situation," he said.

Jennings acknowledged that it has been challenging for him to balance the demands of acting with overseeing the making of weapons and the combat coaching.

"I'm pretty foolhardy or, I guess, headstrong is a better word," he said.

As is the case for most productions at the amphitheater, "Robin Hood" features a large cast — 29 actors, in this case — and most of those roles involve some form of physicality. TEA veteran Kevin Tschetter, who is portraying the title character, noted that he alone has five fights in the play and described this as his most physical role ever.

"I did some fencing about two years ago (in 'The Three Musketeers'), but that wasn't anything compared to the swordsmanship you have to do for this show," he said.

He smiled when he recounted how the authenticity everyone is striving for has even carried over to his relationship with Jennings. Given their adversarial role in the production, the two actors have chosen to respect that tension even when they aren't on stage.

"We definitely take some stabs at each other backstage," Tschetter said. "We never have a talk where we're necessarily friendly to each other. But it's all in good fun."

Jennings said his character's dark side is something he has embraced fully for this production.

"Out of courtesy, I banter with (Tschetter)," he said, smiling. "But when I put on my costume, my demeanor absolutely changes. I tend to make children cry. That's not even a joke."

"Robin Hood" will be presented at 7 p.m. Aug. 15-17 and 22-23 at the amphitheater, 5800 College Blvd. in Farmington. Tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for students or seniors. Call 505-326-2839 or email teartsnm@gmail.com.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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