2/9/2020        THE HOBBIT                                  Synchronicity Theatre Co

 

THE GREATEST ADVENTURE

In a hole in the ground here lived a hobbit.  Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat:  it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

 

Thus begins J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1937 The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, originally a novel for the young that eventually became the jumping off point for the cultural phenomenon that is The Lord of the Rings. As Tolkien-mania took root in the 1960’s, numerous (and varied) adaptations and “shout outs” began appearing – an opera, comic books galore (including a 1979 X-Men story “The Shadow of Sauron” ) and more than a few versions for the stage.  I myself had one of my earliest on-stage experiences as Fili in a 1969 High School production of Patricia Gray’s 1968 adaptation specifically designed as a Children’s Theatre piece (final battle and deaths excised mercilessly), an adaptation still in print and production.  This was my first exposure to the story, and, even before our final performance, I had devoured not only the novel but the entirety of The Lord of the Rings.

 

And, of course, all this peaked with Peter Jackson’s tremendously popular movies, first the Lord of the Rings trilogy, then a greatly rewritten and expanded (many purists – myself included – would say “bloated”) trilogy of movies based on The Hobbit.

So with Tolkien such a touchstone of pop culture zeitgeist, do I even need to summarize the plot?  Perhaps you don’t need a reminder, but I find myself in need of writing one.

 

That’s what Bilbo Baggins hates!

So carefully! Carefully with the plates! *

 

On a gloriously pleasant day in the Shire, Bilbo Baggins’ home is set upon by a Wizard and 13 Dwarfs, looking for a “burglar” to help them regain their kingdom and their gold.  But Bilbo is a Hobbit, a gentle folk who disdain adventure as “nasty, uncomfortable things.  Adventures make you late for dinner!”  But something in Bilbo awakens, and he agrees to join the journey.

 

Far over the misty mountains cold

To dungeons deep and caverns old

We must away ere break of day

To seek the pale enchanted gold.*

 

It is a long and arduous journey, and there is a “ticking clock”:  a secret message on a map that says the keyhole to a magic entrance will only be revealed at sunset on Durin’s Day, which is a scant few months away. After a scary encounter  with a trio of trolls, a respite in the sylvan haven of the Rivendell elves, and a frightening under-the-mountain battle with a goblin army, Bilbo finds himself alone in the dark, where he finds a mysterious ring.  He also encounters a (hungry) creature, gangly and wretched, Gollum, and engages in a battle of riddles, which he handily wins (or dishonestly wins, depending on how you interpret the “Rules of the Riddle Game.”)  He learns his new-found ring is Gollum’s “Precioussssss”, learns it can make him invisible, and uses it to escape and wend his way back to the dwarfs.

 

Giant spiders in Mirkwood, hostile elves of the wood, a river escape in apple barrels, and more await, until, at last, they are at the lair of Smaug the dragon.  Bilbo awakens the dragon and steals a cup, which sets Smaug off on a town-destroying rampage to nearby Laketown, a dwelling of humans.  Bard of Laketown slays the dragon, but Thorin, King of the Dwarfs, obsessed with keeping ALL the gold, barricades our heroes in the mountain and it isn’t long before five armies are at his doorstep.  A final battle, a sad memorial, an honorable resolution, and a trip home bring Bilbo back to his beloved Shire.

 

If the Jackson movies seem bloated to those of us with chronic (and incurable) Tolkien fever, Greg Banks’ stage version, now on stage at Synchronicity Theatre takes a distinctly opposite approach.  Scaled down to a single set and five versatile actors, this version takes an innovative (and effective) approach, keeping the story small-child friendly while appealing to us who know it well and love every iteration. 

 

Bilbo, played to perfection by a gentle and luminous (but perhaps too tall) Brooke Owens, welcomes us all to his home.  A near-perfect (but diminutive) Ash Anderson plays a distinctively young and unbearded Gandalf, using stunt stilts to make themselves (almost) as tall as Ms. Owens.  That leaves the final three actors (Benedetto Robinson, Ryan Vo, and Tennison Barry III) to play all thirteen dwarfs.  Well, they play Thorin, Kili, and Balin respectively (with Ash occasionally switching roles to become Bombur) with ALL the remaining dwarves played by, or at least represented by, selected young folk in the audience.  It’s a conceit that works wonderfully and succeeds in making the dense plot accessible by making the young audience part of Tolkien's world.

 

I respect how opposites seem to rule the casting choices – the very pocket-sized Ash Anderson extraordinarily convincing as the tall Gandalf and the rotund Bombur, the average-sized Ms. Owens utterly charming our socks off as the distinctively wee (and male) Bilbo Baggins. The young and agile Mr. Barry as the old and creaky Balin – these choices seem to deliberately upend the expectations of those of us with cast-in-stone images of these characters;  the success of the conceit actually reveals that those expectations tend to be the tyrannical blinders of purists, not the governing paradigms of true Tolkien-philes.

 

For the spirit, the mood, the themes, the wonder, the archetypes of the book all remain intact, remain worthy of a wallow.  For this is, if nothing else, a story of the hero’s journey, the finding of the iron core that resides behind the gentlest of facades.  Today’s obsession with super heroes is all well and good, but the appeal of The Hobbit remains the celebration of the everyman hero, the one who needs no exotic “superpower” to beat the bad guys, but only an innate goodness, a courage and intelligence that can see through to the goal.   Yes, Smaug falls by a human’s hand, and magic figures in some of Bilbo’s triumphs, but it is his wit and courage that drives the magic, that keeps him focused on his goal, on his friends, on his home.  This is the lesson that Thorin forgets as his all-consuming passion for his precioussssss golden hoard leads to tragically bad choices.

 

This production is a dazzling reminder that fantasy appeals first and foremost to the imagination, and it us through the imaginations of writer Greg Banks, director Jake Guinn, designers Joel Coady and Barrett Doyle (set), Maranda DeBusk (lights), Emmie Thompson (costumes of a distinctly steampunk vibe), and Jess Wells (composer), and through the chameleon efforts of the cast who all, (Ms. Owens excepted) engage us with numerous characters.

 

A co-production with the Havoc Movement Company, the whole thing is an acrobatic marvel, physically demanding on the actors, yet elegantly appealing to the imagination.  To be honest, I loved every minute of it.

 

I suspect the really young may need some help with engaging here – a small voice cried out “That doesn’t look like a dragon” during the Smaug scene – but those who know the story, who know the characters, who grew up with Middle Earth, will have no trouble “filling in the blanks”.  Even though Smaug was “played” by one actor holding an enormous eye, another holding a megaphone, another brandishing a bullwhip, and a fourth brandishing a claw, I had no trouble “seeing the dragon” and sharing Bilbo’s dread at the sight.

 

It is said that The Lord of the Rings parallels the plot and archetypes of The Hobbit a little too closely, and some have said that The Lord of the Rings was written for adults who had enjoyed The Hobbit as youngsters.  I believe it.  And, maybe, because of the liberties Peter Jackson took with the story and characters, we can now enjoy adaptations that refuse to too strictly follow the guidelines set down by Tolkien.  If I’ve learned anything from Tolkien, it’s that tying yourself too closely to one precioussssss version of a story can only lead to the flames of Mordor.

 

The greatest adventure is what lies ahead
Today and tomorrow are yet to be said
The chances the changes are all yours to make
The mold of your life is in your hands to break.

 

The greatest adventure is there if you are bold
Let go of the moment that life makes you hold
To measure the meaning can make you delay
It's time you stop thinking and wasting the day.

 

A man who’s a dreamer and never takes leave
Who thinks of a world that is just make believe
Will never know passion
Will never know pain
Who sits by the window
Will one day see rain.

 

The greatest adventure is what lies ahead
Today and tomorrow are yet to be said
The chances the changes are all yours to make
The mold of your life is in your hands to break.

 

  (Lyrics by Glenn Yarbrough, written for the 1977 Rankin/Bass animated TV version of The Hobbit  LISTEN HERE

 

     -- Brad Rudy (BK Rudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy     #SynchroHobbit)

 

* All poems by J.R.R. Tolkien

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