All Aboard for Middle Earth

Before the Film "Lord of the Rings' Sends You to Tolkien Country, Second Youth's Stage Version of "The Hobbit' Can Take You There and Back Again

Inside Lonely Mountain, the lair of Smaug: Set design by J. Richard Smith for the Second Youth production of <i>The Hobbit</i>. Note side panels, which feature Tolkien's original illustrations for <i>The Hobbit</i> book jacket.
Inside Lonely Mountain, the lair of Smaug: Set design by J. Richard Smith for the Second Youth production of The Hobbit. Note side panels, which feature Tolkien's original illustrations for The Hobbit book jacket.

If you know who lives in a cozy little hole called Bag End, if you experience an involuntary shudder at the mention of "my preciousssss," if you associate Sting more with magic blades than Scottish pop stars, chances are you're already planning an end-of-year getaway to Middle Earth, that wonderland home to dragons and hobbits and orcs (oh my!).

Almost anyone who has more than a passing familiarity with The Lord of the Rings -- as the above indicates you do -- is planning to holiday there this season, transported to its magical milieu by The Fellowship of the Ring, the first film in director Peter Jackson's highly anticipated screen adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's epic trilogy. Of course, for many of the Tolkien faithful, the long wait for that trip -- Fellowship has been more than three years in the making -- has been about as excruciating as Frodo's odyssey to Mount Doom, and the December 19 release is still several agonizing weeks away.

Fortunately, fans in Austin need wait no longer for a ride to the home of the furry-footed Bagginses. Second Youth Family Theatre, a local stage company with a reputation for intelligent, strikingly theatrical productions for audiences of all ages, will ferry you there this weekend via its dramatic presentation of The Hobbit, the Middle Earth adventure that precedes The Lord of the Rings.

Yes, Second Youth will bring you into the snug hobbit hole at Bag End, from which the decidedly un-adventurous Bilbo Baggins is plucked to join a company of dwarves on a mission to recover lost treasure. It will carry you along their way to the forest of Mirkwood, where giant spiders dwell, into the heart of Lonely Mountain, where the fearsome dragon Smaug makes his bed on massive piles of gold and jewels, and into the dark and slimy den of Smeagol, aka Gollum, the withered, demented possessor of the One Ring, which Bilbo absconds with and around which, 60 years later, the events of The Lord of the Rings center.

Now, the way in which this humble theatre company will take you on a journey to the center of Middle Earth will differ substantially from the way the forthcoming films will. After all, Second Youth doesn't have a $260 million-dollar budget, state-of-the-art computer-generated imagery, and the whole freaking country of New Zealand for its set. But size does not always tell the tale, as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings remind us. After all, in these tales, the diminutive and modest creatures called hobbits accomplish great deeds, sometimes succeeding where larger, more powerful figures fail. And sometimes they do so by drawing on potent resources unseen by the naked eye.

For instance, something that audiences for The Hobbit will never see but which is responsible for much of the show's Tolkienesque authenticity is the director, who knows the material cold. J. Richard Smith, who is also Second Youth's artistic director, is more than your casual reader of Tolkien; he is a self-described Tolkien freak, dating back to the fourth grade, when he first read The Hobbit. "I didn't read The Lord of the Rings until probably junior high," he confesses, "but then I was really hooked and pretty much read The Lord of the Rings every summer until I was a freshman in college."

He was fascinated not only by the story's epic qualities but by the richness of the world Tolkien created, the diverse cultures and astonishingly complex mythologies woven into the books. As part of his annual re-reading ritual, Smith would find and collect books about Tolkien and Middle Earth, and he eventually amassed a small reference library full of tomes such as The Tolkien Companion, a glossary of absolutely everything in Middle Earth, and The Languages of Middle Earth, which describes and decodes the various tongues that Tolkien developed for his hobbits, elves, dwarves, and other creatures. Smith's knowledge of Middle Earth came to border on the scholarly. At one time, he was proficient enough in rune-writing that he and a friend used to send each other messages in Elvish and Dwarvish.

Some might dismiss that kind of activity as Trekkie obsessiveness, a stunt on the order of translating Hamlet into Klingon, but to Smith, it's evidence of the care with which Middle Earth was created, a care that holds up when used for communication outside the books for which they were created, a meticulousness and sense of scope that infused its fantastic races and creatures with a verisimilitude that brings them closer to us and gives their stories a depth and resonance beyond that of most fantasies, that yields new treasures no matter how many times the books are read.

"What I think is so miraculous about them," Smith says, "is that every time you read them there's another little nuance, another connection you can make between things." It might be the link between events in different books, how they've been subtly set up to echo each other, or it might be the link with Norse and Celtic myths that Tolkien has mined and adapted for his own purposes. Middle Earth is a place of never-ending discoveries, which may be one reason that its stories endure after more than 60 years or perhaps why British readers voted The Lord of the Rings the Book of the Century in a literary poll a few years ago.

Once Smith decided to stage The Hobbit -- a decision born the day he first learned about Peter Jackson's films, almost four years ago -- his feeling for the material necessitated finding the right adaptation, for both the audience and Second Youth. "In the history of our company, we've done many fairy tales and folk tales," he says, "and I have a real problem with people who take things that people are very familiar with and twist them and tinker with them so that they lose the truth of what they were originally.

Designer Kari Perkins of Star Costumes with costume and mask for Gollum
Designer Kari Perkins of Star Costumes with costume and mask for Gollum

"I think if the story is strong enough, you shouldn't have to tinker with it to make it work. So when I was looking for an adaptation, I wanted the truth of the story to resonate for me, and I wanted an adaptation that was going to tell me the story, whether it dealt with every character in the book or not; I wanted to know what the story was. I wanted the progression of the journey of Bilbo, because that's what the book is about. It's about his evolution on this journey; he goes from this mild-mannered homebody -- a "comfortable hobbit" as it says in the book -- to somebody who's out there on the battlefields, risking his life, taking matters into his own hands. And if all that wasn't there, why do it?"

It took reading several adaptations -- some long, some not so long, some boasting the novel's grand scope, some taking a more intimate approach -- to find the best fit: a compact adaptation by Edward Mast, a renowned playwright in the field of theatre for youth, that manages to get Bilbo there and back again in about an hour and 15 minutes. "I looked at other adaptations, but they were bigger than what we thought we could pull off," Smith admits. "What I liked about this one is that it isn't so epic in its dealing with the story. You don't feel like you're having to deal with every character and every nuance of the story.

"This adaptation uses 29 of the primary characters in the book. It doesn't have the trolls, you don't see the spiders in Mirkwood. But you get goblins, you get the Gollum scene, the dragon, the major thematic moments of the book. I mean, it would have been great to do all of it, but we're not able to pull that off well, and if you can't do it the service it needs to be done, look for something else. I came across this one, and it was right up our alley."

Of course, finding the right script was just the beginning. Taking it from page to stage, visualizing and realizing a story so large in scale with characters and images that are so vivid in people's heads -- that's where the serious challenges began. And they were about as daunting as those overgrown arachnids in Mirkwood.

"The whole thing has such an epic sweep to it," says Smith, "and everybody has such strong preconceived notions about what these things are -- the Lord of the Rings movies face the same problem -- so when I started thinking, 'Okay, if we do this as a play, what will we do with it,' I started looking at [Tolkien's] original paintings. I thought, 'I don't want to over-design this thing,' because we're performing at Austin High, and there are limitations on what you can do. And you have all these locations that the characters go to, so you have to design something that's simple to make all that happen and make it believable.

"When I started looking at his watercolors, at his visual representations, I thought maybe this is the way to go, because you're honoring his imagery and you're not going to get bogged down trying to come up with your own visual interpretations of these things." Eagle-eyed fans will notice set-pieces with images lifted from Tolkien's cover art for the original Hobbit jacket, a Tolkien drawing of Rivendell, and Dwarvish runes straight from his illustrations. The set is "a collage/homage of Tolkien," Smith says.

That Tolkienesque look gives the set a simple beauty and an overt artificiality that might be a detraction on film but which serves the story well onstage: It's theatrical, that is, it manages to be visually satisfying and stimulating to the imagination, the mental muscle we audiences flex to make the patently phony event we're watching believable.

Other aspects of the production take similar advantage of the theatre's peculiar brand of illusion. In addition to simple set-pieces, lighting will be used to convey the sense of location. Only 12 actors -- six men and six women -- will portray the 29 characters we meet. ("At auditions, I had all these women," says Smith. "And there are no women characters in The Hobbit. I kept getting calls from women: 'I'm so excited, I really want to be in this play.' And I thought, 'This is so strange.'") The characters will be distinguished by the actors' posture and gestures, and by costumes and masks created by the design whizzes at Star Costume. The dragon Smaug will be a puppet, created by Brian Gaston, who created the breathtaking dragon puppet for Second Youth's Liu the Dragon King.

If all this sounds, well, tame in comparison to a New Zealand-pastoral Hobbiton and CG Balrog and digitally miniaturized Elijah Wood, it may well be. And Smith will tell you so himself. Although he timed his attempt at dramatized Tolkien deliberately to coincide with the arrival of the big-budget motion picture version, he has wondered to himself, "We're in a 500-seat proscenium theatre with a big 32-foot stage, and is it going to work?"

That's hard to say at this point, but Second Youth has met such challenges before handily. The company's production of The Snow Queen, directed by G'Ann Boyd, took audiences on an enchanting odyssey from town to country, down rivers and across ice fields, into a frozen palace, and back, with talking flowers, wolves, and ravens as characters, and it was all accomplished with a few ingenious set-pieces and props handled by talented actors in evocative costumes under imaginative lighting. Similarly, Liu the Dragon King, spun a compelling tale of ancient China, complete with flying, fire-breathing dragon, with nothing but elegantly constructed, elegantly manipulated puppets. Second Youth is capable of elaborate, lush production values, but it always leaves room for the audience to add to what it sees with the creations of its own minds.

In that sense, Smith has on his side something that Jackson really doesn't -- and it's the same thing Tolkien had: our imaginations. For good and ill, Jackson is bound by his medium to create visual representations of Tolkien's fantastic world and its inhabitants in ways that appear 'real' to our eyes; that's what we want from movies: realism. Smith, on the other hand, is free to sketch and suggest the characters and locales of Middle Earth -- with abstract images or metaphorical representations -- comfortable in the knowledge that our minds will enhance their forms, giving them size and weight, and possibly creating images more wondrous, awe-inspiring, or terrible than he could with all the money and resources at Jackson's disposal. That's not to slag the director who has committed five years of his life to bringing a live-action Lord of the Rings to the silver screen. Count this author -- and Smith, too, for that matter -- among the fans eager to experience his vision of Tolkien's epic. It's just to say that theatre is capable of its own equally valid wizardry.

"There's something magical about taking a story like that and trying to create it on a bare stage," says Smith. "It really allows the audience to fill in the holes, which I think is really important in children's theatre. I think spoon-feeding children is a crime against children, and it's something we've tried to maintain through most of everything that we've done. I think less is more when it comes to the imagination of a child. Like Dragon King: It was very limited in what [the audience] had to look at, yet it was done in such a way that you were right there!"

Smith has already received affirmation from a few fans of Tolkien who are grateful for the opportunity to experience The Hobbit through the magic of theatre. And he's hoping that's a sign there are more out there. He tells of a phone call the company received from a woman, who said, "'I just wanted to tell you that I am so glad you're doing this show. I bought tickets for my husband and my son, because they're like two little kids, they're so excited about seeing the play.' I hope that's the kind of audience that we're going to be able tap into." end story

The Hobbit runs November 9-18 at the Jacqueline McGee Performing Arts Center, Austin High School, 1715 W. Cesar Chavez St. Call 454-8497 for info.

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