A brand-new adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic tale "The Hobbit" crams the epic adventure, with its armies of dwarves and goblins, onto one stage with five nimble actors.
It's a production of the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis. Writer and director Greg Banks has worked with CTC on several shows, including "Huck Finn," "Pinocchio" and "The Jungle Book." Each time, he's taken a big story and turned it into a play for just a few actors. But he says "The Hobbit" may have presented the toughest challenge yet:
"There's a page in the script where the dwarves have to climb trees, then jump down and become the wolves that are attacking them, then turn into the goblins that are attacking them. Then get plucked into the air by eagles and flown away. That was challenging."
Banks said the key is being playful.
"You know, if I was a child and telling a story and acting it out with my friends, I'd go, 'I'm a knight and I'm fighting a dragon, and now I'm the dragon! And now I'm running away from the dragon 'cause he's burning down my town!' You just do it — you just shift from one thing to another," he said. "And I think that's the trick, in a way."
The story of "The Hobbit" follows Bilbo Baggins, who loves his comfortable life in the Shire. The wizard Gandalf comes along and chooses him to be a part of a quest. Baggins joins 13 dwarves on a journey to reclaim their home and their wealth from a fierce dragon.
Children's Theatre Company member Dean Holt has been in three versions of "The Hobbit," but this is his first turn in the role of Bilbo Baggins. He said the story is a great fit for young audiences.
"The kids tend to really enjoy life-and-death situations," he said. "They don't want to hear a kitchen-sink drama about the bills not being paid and stuff. They'll tolerate it, but this is the stuff that makes everyone lean forward and, I think, makes the actors get excited too. Because we get to jump around in a giant playground and tell a story."
Holt says Banks' fast-paced writing and directing demand a lot from the actors, who have to switch characters on a dime, and need to be constantly listening and reacting to each other as the story hums along.
Joy Dolo, who plays Gandalf, Gollum and other characters, said her biggest challenge is finding the truth of each role. In the case of Gollum, that means exploring the creature's loneliness, even as it's being angry and threatening.
"The Hobbit" is a fantastic tale, but it deals with issues that are all too real, like war, displacement and greed. At its heart, said Dolo, the story is about heroism — and how Bilbo finds in himself a hero he never knew existed.
"And kids need to see that," she said. "They need to see that if you have a little bit of courage, you can take on anything. You can take on spiders, you can go through Mirkwood, you can take on a dragon and find this wholeness within yourself."
Performances of "The Hobbit" begin Tuesday night and run through April 14 at the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis.
Writer and director Greg Banks said he'll be back at the theater this fall with an adaptation of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves." That one, he'll do with only two actors.