If you think a stage production of “The Hobbit” would draw actors with an impassioned appreciation of the source material, you would be right.
Here is how R. Kevin Kline, playing Balin in the Eau Claire Children’s Theatre performance of the J.R.R. Tolkien novel, described the cast: “I think this is one of the most wonderful collections of nerds and RPG (role-playing-game) players and Dungeons and Dragons players and gamers in Eau Claire,” he said, chuckling in the middle of his sentence. “So yeah, this is kind of a passion for some of us. And yeah, I’ve been a Tolkien fan since I was a kid.”
Kline was among numerous cast members who spoke before a rehearsal at The Oxford, the Children’s Theatre office. The run of five “Hobbit” performances opens Friday and wraps up Saturday, March 21.
“The Hobbit” was first published in 1937. It chronicles the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and dwarves who fight to take back the Lonely Mountain from Smaug the dragon. The story of Bilbo is continued, and his nephew Frodo is introduced, in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy: “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King.”
Brian Hoffman, who is Thorin in the show, became fascinated with Tolkien’s world in elementary school.
“I remember … whatever the special day it was when they didn’t teach you anything and you all sat in the auditorium and watched a movie,” he recalled.
“They’d show us the Rankin/Bass ‘Hobbit’ cartoon (created by the Rankin/Bass studio and premiering in 1977), which maybe is a little silly now. But when I was 7 — Oh my god, it was amazing, and it’s just a prototypical adventure and it’s got sword fights and magic and jailbreaks and chases.”
Other cast members pinpointed the time they became Tolkien fans.
Jacob Feigum, who portrays Bilbo, began with the novel.
“I first read ‘The Hobbit’ when I was 12 and have read it several times since,” he said.
Not only that, Feigum added, “I’ve got a 4-year-old; I’m showing her the Rankin/Bass ‘Hobbit’ cartoon. She’s not quite into it yet, but I’m working on her.” The comment drew laughter from fellow actors.
David Engebretson, in the role of Gandalf, said he grew up with Tolkien.
“My whole family were big fans of the movies, the books, all of the lore in ‘The Silmarillion’ and all of that coming into one,” he said. (The book Feigum named is a set of Tolkien’s mythological tales that, according to the website tolkiensociety.org, the author worked on for more than 50 years and which came out in 1977.)
An engaging read
“The Hobbit” has what Hoffman described as a lighter feel than other Tolkien works.
“You hit ‘The Hobbit,’ and it’s just this playful tone,” he said. “It’s literally like he’s telling a story to his kids, and it’s so refreshing and it’s so nice and it’s such a great read, and that really makes it stand out in the man’s work, and it’s just something that you can share with your family, and it holds up to all ages.”
While “The Hobbit” is known as a children’s book, Engebretson said, “It’s just so different than a lot of the books you see today. It’s a little heavier, but it’s just a really great adventure that was so revolutionary for its time.”
“It’s got everything,” added Tanner Kircher, who plays Kili. “It’s got elves, dwarves, trolls, goblins and dragons, and really it just brings the mythical world to life.”
Tom Lund put in perspective the heightened importance Tolkien gave hobbits as a literary figure.
“Tolkien made them more prevalent when he wrote ‘The Hobbit,’ kind of like the Elvis of the myth world,” said Lund, who plays the multiple roles of Bert, Elf, Goblin, Attendant, Elf Guard and Smaug the dragon.
Cody Sather, playing Bifur, explained the attraction of the play for young people such as himself.
“It’s really all that kids like,” he said. “It’s sword fights, dragons and big adventures.”
Before “The Hobbit,” Feigum hadn’t done any theater since about 15 years ago, when he was in high school. But his wife, who brings their daughter to Children’s Theatre shows, talked him into it.
“She said, ‘You’ve got to do it. Even if you don’t get in, you’ve got to try,’” he said. “And then I ended up with the lead.”
Engebretson also got coaxing from family members. “They were like, ‘You need to audition for this.’ I was like, ‘Maybe I will.’”
To which they responded, “‘No, you NEED to audition for this.’”
Like Feigum, Lund has returned to the stage for the first time since high school.
“I’m a little bit terrified too, but it’s been so much fun and it makes me want to stay in theater even after,” he said.
Kline expounded on what a special opportunity it is for fans of Tolkien to be part of the show. He cited two reasons in particular.
First: “For those of us who would sit and read ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ and all those fantasy novels, oftentimes we were the kids who were in the background, maybe the kids who got bullied and whatnot,” he said. “And so these stories spoke to us.”
Second: “Being here in a theater, you find a community of supportive people,” he added. “And for those folks who have felt they were in the background, now they’re amongst friends and they’re able to just strut their stuff on stage.”
Hoffman echoed that point.
“It’s a very rewarding experience because you come from a background where those books can be your escapism and your solace and you can enjoy them, but it’s a very solitary individual experience. It makes it especially rewarding to be in a show like this.”
Ryan Dettbarn, who plays the roles of Essie, Elf, Goblin and Elven Queen, is looking forward to sharing the spirit of mutual appreciation with audiences.
“I feel like this show has really brought people together and created this sort of community where everyone wants to do justice to Tolkien’s work and to portray these characters that have really proven timeless over the years and have touched the lives of so many people and created lasting memories,” she said. “And I think it’s just really important to kind of bring that into the community to show how important this can be.”
While a stage production can’t match the technical wizardry of, say, Peter Jackson’s films about “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, cast members said viewers should appreciate the familiar elements, including the dialogue.
“It was really kind of fascinating reading the script the first time and seeing how much they worked around the limitations of the stage to try and bring as much of the core elements and as many of the iconic lines,” Engebretson said. “There are many lines that are verbatim from the book.”
Hoffman, who considers himself “kind of an obnoxious purist” about Tolkien, expressed umbrage at the liberties Jackson took with “The Hobbit” movies, or as he put it, “just making things up wholesale. I’m still a little bitter about those.”
That said, he is understanding about some scenes being trimmed because of time limitations.
The production will feature some special touches beyond the words in the script. “All the battle cries we tried to use actual Dwarvish from the Tolkien works,” Hoffman said. Plus, a piece in the set will contain the words “Welcome to The Oxford, Eau Claire Children’s Theatre,” in elvish.
Speaking of which, Kline is hoping that audiences truly will feel welcome. As he put it: “We really want to get these kids at the end of this play to say, ‘Oh, I want to read that book,’ or ‘I want to be up on that stage.’”
It’s a feeling to which this production’s cast members surely can relate.