Scott Cordes' performance at Theatre for Young America is Hobbit-forming.

Ring Master 

Scott Cordes' performance at Theatre for Young America is Hobbit-forming.

Actors sometimes give performances they don't even know they have in them. Scott Cordes gives such a performance in Theatre for Young America's The Hobbit. In his first children's theater job in more than a decade, Cordes seems plugged into some mysterious power source, electrically commanding the stage as if a movie star had stepped into TYA's home at the Mission Mall.

Cordes plays J.R.R. Tolkien's diminutive folk hero, Bilbo Baggins, a half-man, half-beast who is living alone and minding his own business when there's a portentous knock at the door. ("I haven't the faintest idea who that is," Bilbo says to the members of his young audience as if he and they were conversing in his living room, which they sort of are.) The visitor is Gandalf (Darin Parker), a magician with an entourage. Into Bilbo's humble home steps a revolving troupe of dwarves -- thirteen in all -- whose entrances are so adeptly staged that you don't notice there are only eight actors. (They come in the front door, escape into Bilbo's offstage dining room and enter again in different clothes.)

Thorin (Michael R. Derting), the ragtag militia's figurehead, tells of being usurped by a greedy, fire-breathing dragon that has stolen all of his family's royal possessions. The dwarves vow to avenge the deed but need one more body to take their army a step beyond the unlucky number thirteen. It is their wish that Bilbo be, depending on the result, their patsy or their hero.

Once the dwarves have thrown down the gauntlet and sucked up all of his food, Bilbo is oddly compelled to join their crusade. In a brief, almost throwaway scene, Cordes debates aloud the pros and cons of such a journey. But he's soon sidetracked by Gollum (Michael Andrew Smith), who is, in Bilbo's words, "a slimy cave thing."

Smith is remarkable as this bizarre hybrid; though he's not costumed in anything wet and slippery, he does something rather novel to invoke those traits: He acts them. Once a hobbit and now something low-to-the-ground and reptilian, Gollum stealthily slides in from the wings (Smith grotesquely propels himself on what appears to be a rolling plant caddy) and proceeds to quiz Bilbo with a series of riddles. His dastardliness is intensified in the way he keeps calling Bilbo the pet name "Precious"; Gollum has all the signs of being predatory. The riddles are obvious, of course -- the preschoolers in the house were shouting out the answers -- but Bilbo struggles. Then he presents a challenge of his own, aided by a magic ring that makes him invisible yet audible and powerful.

After a near-lethal encounter with feral trolls, Bilbo and the army of dwarves eventually meet again at the mouth of the dragon's lair. Bilbo's magic jewelry becomes his passkey into the blackness. Set designer Susie McIlwain transforms the door of Bilbo's cottage into the dragon's gaping jaws, and director Robert Foulk's lighting design is simple -- two gleaming orange spots for the dragon's eyes. The combination creates a monster, and the terror is palpable. It evokes a classic bit of cinema history -- the scene in which Dorothy and her friends first stand before the hologram face of The Wizard of Oz. That is no small compliment.

The play ends rather pleasantly, de-spite the death of a major character. As Bilbo says in the prologue, it's a sad story but has a requisite moral: Stand up and be counted or sit down and shut up. It's not a lesson lost on young ears, and even those completely unfamiliar with Tolkien's work will get it.

While the other fine actors, including George Forbes and a capable coterie of high school and college students, de-lightfully change into various Tolkien characters, the picnic table onstage is just as active. In ad-dition to a table, it also serves as a mountain, a barricade and a stockade. Sheryl Bryant's costumes are equally clever, with their bloodstains and hot-glued ears and horns. This is ingenuity unhindered by a modest budget.

After several years as stage manager at the Unicorn, Foulk takes well to directing. He is as skillful with actors alone in a spotlight as he is with epic battle scenes. He gives The Hobbit the historical breadth its legions would say it deserves and a sweet but never gooey center.

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