The One-Hour Lord of the Rings Trilogy | Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre

play_lord-of-the-rings.jpgLike baseball and seasonal allergies, this side project for the St. Louis Shakespeare Company has become a local institution.






I always look forward to spring and the return of the Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre. Like baseball and seasonal allergies, this side project for the St. Louis Shakespeare Company has become a local institution. Previous years have brought forth productions wrought from the likes of subjects as disparate as the films of cult director Ed Wood, and a TV movie produced by Hanna-Barbera starring the band KISS. These amusing shows are like a breath of fresh air when you consider how serious everyone seems to take themselves these days. So it should come as no surprise that I found The One-Hour Lord of the Rings Trilogy to be a smashing success. Literary hilarity meets sophomoric stupidity in this ambitious and amazingly faithful presentation.

I’m not going to rehash the plot because the intricacies alone would fill up a page. Suffice to say that there are these rings of power floating around. And, there’s one that has the power to control them all. So, naturally, it becomes necessary to destroy it. This leads to a journey that took filmmaker Peter Jackson around ten-and-a-half hours of screen time to tell, but which clocks in around 60 minutes in this condensed adaptation for the stage.

A game cast is led by Aaron Orion Baker, displaying a goofy and ingratiating charm as Gandalf the Wizard. The hinted at homo-erotic interplay between Sam and Frodo is explored to good comic effect by Adam Thenhaus and John Wolbers, respectively. But Chris Jones steals the show as the diminutive Gimli, playing the part on his knees (which must hurt something fierce with two shows a night) to approximate the stature of his character. He never fails to draw a laugh with his ridiculously overstated entrances and exits.

Richard Lewis is nutty as a pot-smoking Bilbo, and covered in leaves as Denethor, firmly clutching two action figures to represent Pippin and Merry. Ben Ritchie is properly heroic and stoic as Aragorn, in direct contrast with Robert Mitchell’s cool-dude, sunglasses-wearing Boromir. Roger Erb puts on a diaper and skullcap and contorts his voice in fine fashion as the treacherous Gollum and Smeagol. Suki Peters imbues Legolas with a vacant and brainless quality that quite suits the always preening and posing archer. Amy Kelly is a riot, comically spewing mouthfuls of water as Wormtongue. Additional players in this insanity include Joshua Payne, Christian Vieira, Al Erickson, Laura Ernst and Tyson Blanquart.

Writers John Wolbers and Liz Henning have done a terrific job of paring down this massive saga into one easily digestible lump. And they’ve peppered it with enough silliness to amuse even the most hardcore Tolkein fans. It’s a splendid mash-up of cheesy battle scenes and dopey speech-ifying that manages to both capture and poke fun at its source material. Sure, there are some fart jokes, but for some reason, they still make me giggle like a kid. And couldn’t the whole of community theater really use a good fart joke now and then?

Donna Northcott’s direction keeps the action and the gags flying by at a frantic pace. Though the cast has its collective tongue firmly in cheek, this is generally played straight enough to make the laughs that much harder and louder. Liz Henning’s costumes are actually quite good for the lead characters, and hilariously bad for the creatures they encounter. Amanda Handle’s scenic design gives the production a delightfully cheap, children’s-show look. | Chris Gibson

The Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre has distinguished itself once again, with its own unique and wonderfully funny, and reduced, take on The Lord of the Rings. Performances continue through May 9, 2009, at the Regional Arts Commission on Delmar. Call 314-534-1111 for tickets.

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