BWW Review: THE HOBBIT at Synchronicity Theatre
Synchronicity Theatre was teeming with excitement this past Friday evening as Atlanta families gathered in pajamas to watch the opening of the imaginative, high-energy new Family Series production of J.R.R. Tolkien's beloved classic, The Hobbit, a joint venture with Havoc Movement Company. Though the imaginative steam punk costuming by Emmie Thompson is only partly successful, Joel Coady and Barrett Doyle's dynamic unit set, working in tandem with Maranda DeBusk's gorgeous lighting design, sets the perfect stage for the mostly effective ensemble of five actors, including Brooke Owens, who gives a lively and engaging portrayal of unlikely hero Bilbo Baggins.
Greg Banks' interactive adaptation of Tolkien's novel tells the familiar story of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who is commissioned by powerful wizard Gandalf and a group of dwarves to burgle the cave of the fearsome dragon Smaug. Bilbo and his friends must battle great obstacles - goblins, trolls, and the monstrous Gollum - in order to take back the treasure rightfully belonging to the dwarves, and along the journey, Bilbo demonstrates that one doesn't have to be big to be courageous.
Brooke Owens plays a great Bilbo. Her energetic and funny line deliveries, though fun for the adults in the audience, play especially well to children, and, on Friday evening, her performance was very well-received by the milk-and-cookie crowd. She is also adept at generating and maintaining interest through non-verbal facial work and exaggerated movements. The rest of the small ensemble also do a fine job of storytelling, but the challenges of playing multiple diverse characters sometimes prove daunting. Ash Anderson, contorting her body gruesomely, plays an excellent Gollum, but her Gandalf, a role presumably assigned to her to fit the needs of the small-cast production, is not nearly as strong. And the fact that she's not really right for the role is not helped by the fact that she's saddled with wearing industrial painter's stilts which cause a noticeable loss of muscle control.
The main component of the unit set is a thick canvas sheet that hangs from the rafters in the shape of a mountain. It's innocuous enough to provide a backdrop for Bilbo's hobbit-hole, but spectacular enough, when lit in vibrant reds and oranges, to double as the Lonely Mountain. Behind the canvas are iron bars that allow the hobbit and the dwarves to climb above the stage level, creating both a dynamic playing space as well as adding to the impending sense of danger that permeates the story. Downstage, a small turntable adds to the chaos of the adventure, a chaos that is beautifully realized in Havoc Movement Company's acrobatic fight choreography.
Though the least effective element of the production is the costuming, the choices are still mostly benign. At times, the steam punk costuming actually works well. For instance, many of the dangerous creatures encountered by Bilbo and his friends wear steam punk-inspired masks, and they look great, properly monstrous. The ensemble members can easily slide them on and off, transforming themselves from dwarf to goblin and back again. In that, they are also wonderfully versatile. The main characters, though, don't retain the essence of hobbit and the essence of dwarf. Bilbo, for instance, wears a vest and pants and a tie. In these, he looks decidedly human.
Synchronicity's stage production of Tolkien's beloved story is a definite success. The ease with which the production navigates the gigantic story in multiple locations is, alone, a feat that is worthy of enormous praise. And it's fun to watch men become trolls and dragons right before one's eyes. It's just great fun.
The Hobbit plays through February 23 at Synchronicity Theatre.
For tickets and info, visit synchrotheatre.com.