by Colin MacLean
“Cool,” whispered the 10-year-old beside me as the glittering giant spider scuttled across the stage.
Indeed, Fringe Theatre for Young People has mounted a visually stunning depiction of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Never has there been such a set in Edmonton for young people’s theatre, and director Darryl Lindenbach knows how to take full advantage of it.
As I remember the book, Tolkien was very specific in his descriptions (and drawings) of “Middle Earth,” his mythological medieval world placed somewhere between “the age of Faerie and the dominion of men.” It is a fully realized vision that is spelled out, not only in the book, but in the mind of everyone who has ever read it.
David Fraser’s mist-shrouded multi-level set is not only faithful to Tolkien’s vivid words but successfully turns them into moody and highly serviceable dramatic terrain. The set rises from the stage to become the Misty Mountains, the dark forest of Mirkwood, caves, swamps, castles and roaring rivers. Wizards stand on high craggy cliffs and summon thunder and lightning from the sky. It is a place where “you don’t know if you are going to have supper – or you are supper.” A place to stay on the path.
Fraser’s sets and lighting are matched by Randall Fraser’s character design. Randall’s creatures are indeed “cool.” Enormous, horrid and genuinely scary trolls lumber across the stage, terrible-tempered goblins have horny bumps on their heads and evil red eyes that shine in the darkness. There are dwarfs, elves and, over all, a fearsome dragon that towers over the stage and actually breathes fire.
I only wish the drama of Bilbo Baggins’ epic adventure was up to its setting. The problem begins with Kim Selody’s adaptation. It takes so much time explaining Tolkien’s kingdom, its history and the tale that is unfolding that I found myself getting as antsy as the kids who were sitting around me.
Some narrative knowledge is necessary, but there were times when I felt I was swimming through Gollum’s swamp.
And often voices and scenes were swallowed by the acoustics of the warehouse Arts Barns.
Bilbo Baggins (Sean Hoy) has long ago opted for a life of comfort and so when the wizard Gandalf (George Szilagyi) comes calling and offers adventure, the Hobbit declines. “No thanks,” he sniffs. “Adventures are nasty, uncomfortable things that make you late for dinner.”
Nevertheless, he sets off with a rag-tag group of dwarfs to battle the terrible dragon Smaug and return a treasure to its rightful owners. In the original, Bilbo is an unwilling adventurer, but in this production he is such a whiner you wish he’d just forget it and go home. When he finally faces Smaug we have seen nothing in his attitude that would lead us to believe he is capable of such bravery.
Chris Craddock supplies some needed energy as Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarfs and, if you like Enya you’ll love Vanessa LeBourdais’s one-woman orchestra and her Celtic-flavoured score. Szilagyi’s wizard is an imperious and commanding presence. At times, Lindenbach uses his eight performers so skilfully that you have no problem believing that Middle Earth is filled with many creatures.
The most gripping scene, dramatically, is a menace-filled confrontation between Bilbo and the Gollum (David Thompson). The swamp-thing’s saucer eyes glow malevolently in the semi-darkness. The two trade riddles while warily circling about the stage, and each other, waiting for one to let his guard drop for an instant. It is this scene that perhaps gives some idea of what the entire evening could be.
But a single scene and a brilliant set can’t do it alone. The Hobbit is a full helping of theatre extending to 2 1/2 hours. Younger members of the audience will be frightened by the menacing creatures of the story. Older ones might wish they’d just get on with it.
The Hobbit is a production of Fringe Theatre for Young Audiences and runs until Nov. 11.
RATING: 3 out of 5