Making your way through the winding and dead end-ridden corn maze at Harbes Farm & Orchard in Riverhead is tough enough on its own, but visitors have one final obstacle to overcome before exiting the puzzle.
At the cornstalk labyrinth’s final bridge, a swashbuckling Robin Hood awaits kids in the maze with a sword in hand — for a mock sword fight, of course. The Prince of Thieves — really actor Greg Lane — puts up a fight. But he always bows to the miniature swordsmen determined to triumph.
It’s a feat that makes kids like 3-year-old Sean Crawley of Seaford gloat as they walk away victorious.
“He wanted to defeat that guy from the first time we saw him on the bridge,” his father, John, said recently.
Lane and his colleagues are members of a subgroup of Middle-earth Studios, a Pennsylvania acting troupe dedicated to interactive children’s theater. Now performing for the 10th year at Harbes Farm & Orchard as well as Harbes Western Farm in Jamesport, the group’s members appear throughout the fall as characters from Robin Hood or the Wild West.
At any given time, between seven and 28 actors work with the troupe, which calls its brand of theater “costume storytelling” and also performs at The Land of Make Believe in New Jersey and Knoebels Amusement Resort in Pennsylvania. Their homemade costumes look like something one would see at a Renaissance fair and their stories evoke classic fairy tales.
“We are trying to create a unique, interactive experience,” said troupe director Shara Donohue, who was in costume as she directed tugs-of-war on a recent September afternoon at Harbes. “It sounds like a mission statement, but it is true.”
To get through the maze, patrons must navigate rows of corn, outsmart the riddle-spouting Little John (on this day played by Donohue’s brother, Adam Donohue) and get a lesson in archery from Will Scarlett (played her husband, Zane Winey).
Staying in character and throwing back witty but inoffensive banter to guests keeps the players on their toes. Actors need to be sharp, friendly and possess the stamina necessary to entertain children for an entire day, Donohue said.
“You have to be smart and clever and funny,” she said. “You have to spend nine hours being charming.”
While many have been with the troupe for years, some actors — like 19-year-old Rosemary Wetherill-Orifice, who hopes to pursue an art therapy degree — are working with Middle-earth Studios to save for college.
“It’s a great rush,” said Wetherill-Orifice, who played Maid Marian on a recent afternoon. “It’s a great way to meet new people and learn lots of new things.”
Since most members hail from the Keystone State, the troupe rents a home in Peconic during their stay on the North Fork.
“It becomes a vacation,” Donohue said. “You work hard all day and night and then we chill in a beach house at night.”
Middle-earth Studios first connected with the Harbes family at a trade fair in Florida more than a decade ago. The actors used to dress up as characters from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy but switched to Robin Hood several years ago.
“We know what it’s like to have a car full of children and travel someplace for over an hour,” said farm owner Ed Harbes III, who has eight grown children. “You want to make sure it’s someplace worth going to when you arrive.”
And it appears kids just adore becoming champions of the maze.
“The children get a chance to be the hero of the day and Mom and Dad have an opportunity to take pictures,” Harbes said.
The actors will perform at Harbes on weekends through the fall. Spooky night mazes on Friday and Saturday evenings from 7 to 9 p.m. begin Saturday, Oct. 11. The cost is $13.95 per person.