SPRINGVILLE — It’s a simple story: a mild-mannered hobbit by the name of Bilbo Baggins, who spends his days lying in the sun by his hobbit hole, dreaming of his next meal, is commissioned one day by a certain wizard called Gandalf the Grey to go on an adventure with some temperamental dwarves in search for some long-since stolen treasure. Over and under mountains they go, through forests and rivers, finally reaching their destination: the Lonely Mountain, wherein resides the dread dragon Smaug, who hoards the treasure that rightfully belongs to the dwarves. Along the way, Bilbo runs into a strange creature called Gollum, and becomes the owner of a most extraordinary ring.
It was a story J.R.R. Tolkien meant for children, and this play, directed by Brian Randall and adapted by Markland Taylor, honors that intention. This bread-and-butter fantasy tale is broken down to its simplest form, eliminating many characters and unnecessary prose to tell the story in a way that children can understand and enjoy.
The play was staged simply in a small space, with a two-dimensional mountain range the only backdrop for most of the action. The real set decoration came in the form of the puppets themselves, which were carefully crafted by Caitlin Shirts. I’ve never been much of a puppet person, but I enjoyed the Japanese Bunraku style in which the puppets were handled, where the arms were manipulated by sticks, and the puppeteers wore shoes that attached to the puppet’s feet, allowing them to walk their puppets along the stage as they moved. Two puppets that stood out for me were the dragon Smaug and the creepy Gollum, which was realistic enough to frighten the little girl sitting next to me as he slithered and sniffed his way into the audience.
The “big people,” i.e. Gandalf, King Bard, Elrond, etc., were played by actors in costume, which made the diminutive puppets look very much like the creatures they were portraying. I thought this a very clever way to perform such a story, wherein is characters of all shapes and sizes.
I especially enjoyed the performance of Jakob Lau Smith Tice, who portrayed Gollum, Smaug, King Bard, and William the Troll. Each of his characters was distinct and highly animated, and his impression of Andy Serkis’s Gollum was pretty well done. Since the character of Gollum has become iconic in recent years, I didn’t feel that his imitation of Mr. Serkis’s portrayal was out of order.
One highlight for me was the lighting and sound design, done by Sara Harvey and Brian Randall, respectively. Though the space was minimal, the use of color, music, and sound effects were well thought out and executed. I especially enjoyed the use of a live band, “Head For The Hills,” which provided not only pre-show mood music, but music throughout the entire play during set changes and narration. The music was traditional English folk music, played on fiddles and Renaissance-style guitars, which put one in the mind set for such a tale, which is, in its own right, a folk tale. This was perhaps my favorite part of the entire production.
I would recommend this show for parents who would like to introduce their children to one of the greatest storytellers of all time, or for parents who are just looking for a fun activity to do with their kids. The play is short, about 40-50 minutes long, which is perfect for children. Tolkien enthusiasts might also enjoy the show, no matter what their age.