May Be Hobbit Forming

Charles Ross basically has the best job in the world. The solo performer has been touring his One-Man Star Wars Trilogy since 2001, in which he plays all the characters of the original trilogy (fie on the prequels), sings the score, and tosses himself around the stage in a frenzy, encapsulating all three movies in about an hour. In 2004 he added a One-Man Lord of the Rings to his repertoire, based on the lengthy Peter Jackson film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy trilogy, but he had to shelve it for years while the stage rights to the trilogy were tied up with a $25 million musical that went from Toronto in 2006 to the West End in 2007, where it ran for a year and was never heard of again.  Whereas his Star Wars only required the go-ahead from one guy, George Lucas, getting permission to perform the One-Man Lord of the Rings again proved considerably more complicated. But now Ross’s 70-minute distillation of Jackson’s 11.5 hours of film is up and running again, and it’s playing through the weekend at San Jose Rep, which hosted his Star Wars show last summer.

Charles Ross in One-Man Lord of the Rings.

Ross is a hell of a mimic, and his character voices are superb, whether it’s Christopher Lee’s Saruman, Sean Astin’s Samwise, growling orcs, or the booming Eye of Sauron.  It’s small wonder that he has to take a moment to drink water between movies, because sometimes you wonder when he has a chance to take a breath between all the different voices, sound effects, and dramatic music he accompanies himself with as he acts out all the memorable scenes from the movie in a frenzy of physical activity.

What makes it funny, though, is not how well he rushes through all the scenes and memorable lines and characters, and the inventive workarounds he comes up with to evoke the special effects—though that’s certainly wonderfully entertaining in its own right. But what makes it original—heck, what makes it a show—are all the clever comic bits he inserts to comment on the movie and make it his own. His elf Legolas is always brushing his luxuriant mane of hair. Whenever people talk about buying time for Frodo to save the day, someone reminds him, “And Sam.”  “Yes, and Sam,” the first grudgingly adds. There’s even a bit about Tom Bombadil, the chatty nature spirit from the books who’s somehow left out of even the most extended versions of Jackson’s obsessively inclusive cinematic epic. He gives snippets of songs new lyrics about changing the DVD, about how he needs to drink some water now, or little mini-commentaries like “False ending number two.”

Sure, some jokes are a little too obvious, such as Hugo Weaving’s Elrond saying, “Mr. Anderson,” but that too lends itself to the sense of fellowship, because who wasn’t thinking that when they first saw Weaving in that role?  And here too, Ross’s impression of him is dead on.

But The Lord of the Rings is a very different animal from Star Wars. As much as people loved those movies and sat through marathon sessions of the extended versions of all three, people are unlikely to know them by heart the way some people do the Star Wars movies. People haven’t grown up with them the same way, and their roots in the popular consciousness don’t run as deep. “I wrote this show back in 2004,” Ross said in a low-key, very casual epilogue after the curtain call, “back when the films were still popular.” I’ve only seen each movie twice or three times, and there were plenty of moments in the solo show when I had no idea what was going on—not because Ross is difficult to understand but that the whole summarized style of the piece depends on familiarity with the original to make any sense.

As Ross took a short rest after zooming through The Fellowship of the Ring, he took an applause pool of the audience of who’d watched the extended versions of the films, who’d watched them all in one day, who’d read the books, and who’d never seen or read The Lord of the Rings at all. “My dear god,” he said to the few who clapped to be counted among the last group. “I haven’t the foggiest idea what you’d be getting out of this.” It’s funny because it’s true.

At the same time, it hardly matters. Even if you often have no idea where you are on this whirlwind tour of Middle Earth, Ross’s magic energy, chameleon-like verbal quick-changes, and hilarious scripted ad libs are enough to make it a tremendously entertaining hour upon the stage—which may seem short for a theatrical show, but it’s just about right for this kind of breakneck piece. After he’d ripped through The Two Towers, my wife leaned over and whispered, “I really have no idea what’s going on, but I could listen to his orc impressions all day.” In short, it’s one performance to win over them all.

One-Man Lord of the Rings
Through July 29
San Jose Repertory Theatre
101 Paseo de San Antonio
San Jose, CA

Show #69 of 2012, attended July 24.

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