Looney Tunes

by Michael Bowen

After nine hours of Peter Jackson's special-effects-laden, cast-of-thousands extravaganzas of Middle-earth, why bother with a mere stage version of the prequel? For The Hobbit, a children's theater production at Lake City Playhouse in Coeur d'Alene (running through June 4), director Jack Green's goal is "the re-routing of the imagination back to a more simple, more fundamental form of storytelling," in order to get back to "the essence of the story: the triumph over a common foe through the reconciliation and cooperation of two disparate nations."

The elves and the dwarves, you see, need to make nice before they can unite to triumph over the wicked dragon Smaug (who of course symbolizes -- not many people realize this -- the problem of poor air quality in Los Angeles).

Writing in 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien was actually more concerned with getting allied democracies to stop squabbling among themselves and start facing up to the Smaug of his era, a little Austrian fellow with a distinctive mustache. But grade-school kids don't care about historical parallels; they just want to giggle over how stupid the dwarves seem when Bilbo puts on his magic ring and they can't see him.

Playwright Patricia Gray adapted Tolkien's novel for children's theater, and she relies increasingly on communal chants, with all 13 dwarves taking long breaths after they hear their cue, glancing sideways to make sure they're not the only ones about to say something stupid, then coming out with something like "Hurrah for Bilbo! Let us make haste to the Forest of Mirkwood!" in more or less synchronized fashion. In real life, of course -- dwarvish or not -- the real magic would lie in getting 13 kids to do anything in unison.

If you can't name all seven dwarves in Snow White, then you're a hopeless case, but (for the record) the 13 dwarves in The Hobbit are Thorin, Dwalin and Balin; Kili and Fili; Dori, Nori and Ori; Oin and Gloin; and Bifur, Bofur and Bombur. Cute little kids play every one of 'em, with black smudges on their faces standing in for dwarfish beards.

As Thorin, commander of all the dwarves, Darren Foote conveys the pomposity of a little fellow in a waistcoat who's not about to put up with any nonsense from these ridiculous elves. As Gandalf the wizard, Darrell L. Louks has a gentle, avuncular style, injecting just enough sarcasm to get Bilbo past his fear of wandering off on some scary adventure. Trailing in the wake of all that CGI magic in the movies, Erin Anders does a good job as Gollum -- she's certainly limber enough, she lisps lusciously at every instance of "my precious." But Green clouds her entire scene with Bilbo in more-than-semi-darkness, robbing both actors of their facial expressions.

In the plum role of Bilbo Baggins, sixth-grader Blake Alfson does a nice job of conveying how plump and self-satisfied hobbits don't particularly want to get involved in burglarizing trolls or dragons.

When it's time to swipe the treasure from the dragon in the climactic trip to Smaug's cavern, Green has devised a cool effect involving scrim, an entire reptilian body and a giant marionette dragon's head complete with glowing eyes -- though my 8-year-old companion sniffed about being able to see the puppet strings.

But Lake City can't wow 'em with special effects; all it can hope to do is tell a simple story simply -- and capture a few kids' imaginations with the logistics of how theater gets produced. At two hours, a lot of the logistics in the Lake City Hobbit should be cut -- but at least the kids are learning something about wizardry and stagecraft.

Publication date: 05/26/05