Friday, November 21, 2003

In the beginning: The One Ring comes to the Players' Ring

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Reading The Hobbit is a great way to get set for re-watching the first two Lord of the Rings movies, in time for the third and final installment, due out next month. Better yet, see The Hobbit performed live on a stage. Without the digital imagery and special effects, pared down to its basic elements of storytelling, it illuminates clearly the foundations for J.R.R. Tolkien’s subsequent tales.

The Players’ Ring cast begins the Tolkien-authorized adaptation with a pretentious, presumptuous Gandalf (Tim Robinson) arriving at the home of Bilbo Baggins (Bernie Tato). Bilbo has no idea who the wizard is, but recognizes the name and remembers old stories he was once told.

Bilbo, a shrinking violet who has not yet become the fierce warrior or knowing sage of the later volumes, is just a taste of how Tolkien’s characters develop. Gandalf isn’t yet the friendly face he will become, and dwarves are more whining and hungry than noble and strong. Even the elves — who appear here as captors and dungeonmasters — are bitter and mean, protecting their turf from interlopers.

The extraordinary times and alliances brought by the reappearance of the One Ring have not yet come to pass. Instead, the inhabitants of Middle Earth are as they have been, slightly xenophobic, jealous, nervous and, well, hungry.

Bilbo himself is concerned that "adventures make you late for dinner," as any school-age child has learned when exploring a creekbed or forest path. With the jovial arrival of the dwarves, all played by children who know the value of a good exploratory adventure, appetites grow, both on stage and in the seats.

Bilbo learns, with the audience, that the dwarves are seeking a burglar to help them recover treasure lost when a dragon attacked a dwarf city and ate most of the inhabitants. Gandalf has appointed him to the post, and there’s little the hobbit can do but go along.

Tato plays the wide-eyed hobbit to a T, with the even temper of the halflings, and with the hint of reluctance and homesickness that seems innate to the race. He brightens the show with his delivery of such well written, wry lines as "Adventures are not all Sunday strolls in May sunshine," evoking Winnie-the-Pooh’s innocence and equanimity.

Robinson, as Gandalf, quickly tires of his beard, leaving us with a clean-shaven mage shorn of his symbolic wisdom. His presence on stage varies from the welcome to the interruptive, though that is possibly part of the plan: Even this early in the adventure, he disappears and reappears at unlikely times.

Thorpe Feidt plays Thorin, the leader of the dwarves, but really he seems uncomfortable in another’s skin. Rarely making eye contact with any characters, and blustering his way through his lines, Feidt detracts from the show in small ways that add up. (On the other hand, he created Smaug, the sinister dragon, about whom we will hear more shortly.)

The real joys are the children, who are having fun but keep their focus while on stage. They have asides and ensemble lines that draw big laughs — not just from parents — and generally make merry during what could be a drawn-out journey. The trolls and goblins, with excellent masks, also bring both levity and danger to the trip.

Everyone comes together in the escape from the elf-dungeons to create a true atmosphere of urgency and hurry, with only voices and body language, raising the heart rate of all on-lookers. In particular, Bombur (Dylan Schwartz) appears to have a great time, but reins himself in enough to avoid stepping on the performances of his fellow dwarves.

After the escape, Bilbo meets Gollum (Tana Sirois), a brilliantly costumed and acted writhing character, filled with barely contained eagerness and desire, though not yet fully consumed by sinister greed.

In the final scene, Bilbo and Thorin meet Smaug, the greedy dragon, created by Feidt and (without giving away too much) with a realistic presence and threatening voice that startles and alarms.

We see inklings of the Ring’s power — "it makes me feel funny," Bilbo says — but in all this is a wonderful story that whets the appetite for more.

The Hobbit
Written by J.R.R. Tolkien and Patricia Gray. Directed by Todd Hunter. With Bernie Tato, Tim Robinson, Dylan Schwartz, and Thorpe Feidt. At the Players’ Ring, through Nov. 30. Call (603) 436-8123.