The first play I ever watched was The Hobbit. And I hated it. I was maybe 10 and had already read J.R.R. Tolkien’s precursor to The Lord of the Rings and the trilogy itself, so I headed into the production at a local junior high school with great expectations. But even to my virgin theatrical eyes and ears, it seemed amateurish and ineffective.
More years than I care to relate later, maybe that experience is what led me to write about theater: Perhaps I’ve been waiting to see a production to cleanse that wholly unsatisfying experience from my memory banks.
The Maverick Theater’s current production of Patricia Gray’s 1968 adaptation of Tolkien’s 1937 novel isn’t that production—but I can’t imagine one coming any closer. It’s a very enjoyable, technically polished rendition that does a great job of telling Tolkien’s story. It doesn’t come off as cartoonish or too serious and manages to strike the same blend of childlike wonder and epic fantasy of Tolkien’s novel.
It does clock in a bit long—two hours, 40 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission—and director Nathan Makaryk does tend to prolong the combat scenes, but both fans and novices alike will have no problem following the epic tale of Bilbo Baggins and his exploits with dwarves, elves, goblins, trolls and one enormous reptile.
The charm of Gray’s adaptation is twofold: It’s clear from the start that these are actors in a play, and a short prologue courtesy of a character that serves as Tolkien’s stand-in, the Storyteller, urges the audience to turn off its rational mind, ignite its imagination and let the spectacle unfold.
If you’re able to do that, it’s a fun, if occasionally bumpy, ride. And one that is surprisingly literate, since the convention of the Storyteller allows a big chunk of Tolkien’s narrative to drive the play’s action. As lavishly spectacular as Jackson’s cinematic treatment of The Lord of the Rings played on the big screen, it still didn’t capture Tolkien’s distinct voice and the richness of his language. Gray’s adaptation does so splendidly. (No need to condense the novel: If you don’t know the story well by now, you definitely will when the first installment of Jackson’s two-part film hits the screens in 2012.)
The 14-person cast—most of whom do triple and quadruple duty either as goblins, elves, citizens of Laketown or puppeteers—is energetic and committed to all its roles, major or not.
But no version of a tale as suffused with such unforgettable characters could work without strong leads, and this one mostly delivers in that category. Nick McGee is perfectly suited for the central role of Bilbo Baggins, conveying the hobbit’s initial haplessness and eventual strengthening with equal parts humility and bravado. Kalinda Gray’s Storyteller lends an authoritative, fairy-like presence to her role, serving as less a narrator than a conjurer.
David Chorley does a wonderful job in the minor, if critical, role of Gollum, throwing his body into the writhing, serpentine character with gusto. And Michael J. Keeney’s Thorin Oakenshield, the lead dwarf who calls the expedition to reclaim the treasure stolen from his people by the dragon Smaug is a commanding presence.
If there is a flaw in the main characters, it’s Brian Page’s Gandalf, who seems more of a kindly, wise uncle than a sly, crafty magician possessed with enormous power and a not-so-hidden agenda. A bit more dramatic flourish to this indispensable role is needed.
But the real weight of this show is shouldered by director Makaryk, who also produced; designed the set, lights and puppets; choreographed the combat; and—what the hell?—designed the sound with Chorley. That’s an awful lot of hats to wear, but Makaryk pulls it off—for the most part. While the Smaug puppet, which needs 17 people to manipulate and voice, comes off a bit chunky, his three trolls and spider are all gruesomely effective. There is a little bit of disconnect with the dwarves, in that they are taller and beefier than all the other races of Middle Earth, and his elves, with their Spock-like ears and annoyingly haughty personalities, come off as fey as, well, every elf ever presented onstage or -screen.
But those missteps don’t bring this Hobbit to a halt. And the fact that this production not only tells Tolkien’s epic adventure well, but also captures his idiosyncratic omniscience and literary heft makes it deserving of the box-office success it has garnered. Nearly the entire run is already sold-out, so beg, borrow and steal if you don’t already have tickets.
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The Hobbit at the Maverick Theater, 110 E. Walnut Ave., Fullerton, (714) 526-7070; www.mavericktheater.com. Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m. Through Sept. 18. $10-$20.
This review appeared in print as "Hobbit-Forming: Maverick Theater’s production of the Tolkien classic rings true."