NewsWire: "Return of the King" Blends Live Action, Puppetry into Winner - Chicago Tribune

"Return of the King" blends live action, puppetry into winner.


Lifeline Wraps Up Tolkien Trilogy in Jaunty style

By Chris Jones
Special to the Chicago Tribune

Because some 100 million readers have dipped into The Lord of the Rings since its initial publication in 1954, it's fair to say that the fantastical literature of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien has never needed any help from either Hollywood or a little Chicago theater.

But when New Line Cinema releases The Fellowship of the Ring, its first movie installment of the Middle Earth [sic] trilogy on Dec. 19, it's likely that dwarfs, wizards and hobbits will suddenly surge in popularity. The movie, after all, has a high-profile cast that includes Cate Blanchett, Liv Tyler and Ian McKellen. Tolkien aficionados, who can pass many a happy hour debating the nuances of the geography or genealogy of Middle Earth, are already salivating.

Such star names do not, of course, figure in Lifeline Theatre's current theatrical version of "The Return of the King." But whereas Hollywood is just getting around to re-creating this complex literary trilogy, the entirety of which goes under the name The Lord of the Rings, the plucky, low-budget Lifeline is already finishing up its trio of Tolkien tales.

Lifeline did the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring, back in 1997 (and it was a memorable show). Karen Tarjan's ambitious adaptation of the middle book, The Two Towers, was one of last season's best family theatrical attractions. And Return, the final installment, is now playing through Dec. 9.

Some of the creative personnel have come and gone as this Chicago-style version of the trilogy has gone forward, but the talented adapter Tarjan and the savvy Return director Ned Mochal have been with the Tolkien project since the start, albeit in various guises. Fans of last year's show also will be happy to know that the emotionally resonant Patrick Blashill is back in the pivotal role of Frodo, the ring-bearer.

Movies can throw money and trickery at the task of evoking the fantastical, but Lifeline has to rely on a prodigious imagination -- both its own and that of its audience. Since the viewer still has to do some work, all three of these emotionally powerful but funny shows always have felt like complements to rather than replacements for the literature that spawned them.

A mix of traditional live action and puppetry with lots of on-the-cheap spectacle and clever fighting, Return" has a few more uneven passages than was the case with its predecessors. But it's still a remarkable achievement in that it condenses a huge and complex story into two jaunty hours on a small stage.

If you have neither read the book nor seen any of the previous efforts, you'll likely spend most of the first act wondering what on earth (or Middle Earth) is going on. But if there's a young fan in the family, he'll be in a kind of Tolkien-inspired heaven.

Now that all three adaptations are in the can, Lifeline really should consider doing all three of these shows in repertory. Seeing them all at once would be a day to remember.

"The Return of the King"

When: Through Dec. 9

Where: Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave.

Phone: 773-761-4477

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