That’s What I’m Tolkien About!
Yeah, me either.
Luckily, this odd take on Tolkien’s treasure is wonderfully original and endearing. The puppets aren’t creepy ragdolls hanging from wires — fitting, since the theater troupe responsible for “The Hobbit” is named Théâtre Sans Fil: theater without strings.
Instead, puppeteers clad in black leotards hunker behind their charges and manipulate them with considerable skill – such that the relatable movements and mannerisms of Bilbo are easily distinguished from the ethereally operated elves, skulking Gollum and magnificent (neon!) Smaug.
Of course, fitting the Dwarvish Odyssey into a 75-minute production means that several parts of the novel are abridged or excised completely. At first, my inner fanboy raged at the editorial exemptions, but Théâtre Sans Fil does good things with their rendition of the tale, abandoning slow (and logistically complicated) scenes like the “deus ex machina” eagle rescue and general weirdness of Beorn the Bear-Man. Little abbreviations of the book’s plot like these keep this version moving at a brisk pace, which will hopefully keep patrons from losing interest during the less exciting portions of Tolkien’s tale.
Much text is glossed over by the voice-over narration, which is more blessing than curse for those who’ve read Tolkien’s flowery prose and know his propensity to dwell on description. Unfortunately, some of the best scenes in the novel revel in dialogue, and the arguing trolls are sorely truncated to visual conflict.
I have to admit my immediate aversion to the synth-heavy soundtrack, but considering this production’s inception in 1979 by Théâtre Sans Fil creator André Viens, the musical influence is more understandable, and it’s actually pretty groovy during the periodic pauses in action for the on-stage puppets to jive to the music for prolonged moments. This is really Viens’ take on Tolkien’s aforementioned descriptive dialogue: Viens cunningly lets the puppets do the scene-setting, prancing around stage in characteristic movements (such as the super fun glow-in-the-dark scuttling spiders) instead of boring viewers by telling and not showing.
But, boy, does this production “show.” The puppets are marvelous and err on artsiness over humanoid figure fidelity. These theatre pieces are real works of love that display the year-long process to create the set of puppets for a production. Though elements of the show hearken back to its first run in 1979, the performancea t the Barclay is the first in twelve years since its discontinuation, and Théâtre Sans Fil has celebrated with redesigned puppets.
The stage locale props are extremely sparse and versatile, drawing attention back to those lovely puppets. Minor atmospheric effects are achieved with clever lighting and fog machines, giving us lightning storms and the red, steaming tunnel to Smaug’s cave.
Viens founded Théâtre Sans Fil in 1971 in Quebec, Canada, with productions voiced in his native French. In 1973, Viens read Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and was inspired to adapt it for the stage. From its inception, this complex production has required at least six puppeteers and two or three technicians. But this isn’t Viens’ only interpretation of Middle-Earth. In 1985, Théâtre Sans Fil also adapted “The Lord of the Rings,” exploring the epic in just over two hours (beat that, Peter Jackson).
Overall, “The Hobbit” was a great little experience – not too long, yet it preserves the fantastical wanderlust of the source novel, and the best Tolkientacular fever dream I never had.
Bravo, Viens and company.
You can visit KUCI’s website (www.kuci.org/talk) for an interview with Théâtre Sans Fil founder André Viens, available on the latest podcast of “What Would Arwen Do?”