Hobbit forming

Chico Cabaret features a large cast in its production of The Hobbit.

THE CALL TO ADVENTURE <br>Wizard Gandalf the Gray and hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Marc Lawrence and Michael Duch, both standing) listen in amazement as dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Sean Sullivan, gesturing) relates a frightful tale to them and the other dwarves they are adventuring with, in Brainerd Duffield’s stage adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s <i>The Hobbit.</i>

Wizard Gandalf the Gray and hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Marc Lawrence and Michael Duch, both standing) listen in amazement as dwarf leader Thorin Oakenshield (Sean Sullivan, gesturing) relates a frightful tale to them and the other dwarves they are adventuring with, in Brainerd Duffield’s stage adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

Photo by Tom Angel

Bilbo Baggins is being harassed by his bosses.

These latter consist of about 12 irritable dwarves who have hired the diminutive halfling to do some “burglaring” for them among the treasure-hiding rifts of the Misty Mountains. Towering over the hobbit and dwarves is one Gandalf the Gray, a wizard of modest magical ability who is seemingly along only for the ride.

“It’s time Baggins proves his worth as a burglar!” one dwarf demands.

“Yes, he’s done nothing but talk!” shouts another, prompting the remaining dwarves to chime in.

Suddenly, a commanding voice shouts out, “That doesn’t work!”

Only, it’s not the shout of an evil troll, or Gobbo the Goblin King, or even Smaug the Dragon. It is only the voice of the play’s director, Phil Ruttenburg. “It’s not fast enough,” Ruttenburg instructs. “It’s gotta go bim-bam-boom.”

The actors take their places and try it again.

Ruttenburg and his theater group, the Chico Cabaret, are mounting a fairly ambitious production of The Hobbit, that classic tale of halflings, dwarves, wizards, trolls, goblins, elves, men and dragons set among the fanciful-yet-familiar landscapes of Middle Earth. Written back in the 1920s and published during the ‘30s, the book was the work of the late British philologist and author J. R. R. Tolkien, whose later epic The Lord of the Rings is currently seeing life as a trio of films from director Peter Jackson, the first of which, The Fellowship of the Ring, saw light last winter.

With the second installment, The Two Towers, set to be released this December, the back-story of The Hobbit seems not only appropriate, but also welcome. It is here that we are first introduced to the characters of Bilbo, Gandalf, Gollum and so on, who each figure so importantly in Tolkien’s more ambitious later work.

But there is more to the Chico Cabaret’s production than simply trying to tie in with the current and upcoming releases of the popular films. The production, which is to feature a large cast of around 30 adults, teens and children, great costumes, sets, music, and a large functioning dragon’s head near the show’s climax, is in many ways much more about community.

Phil Ruttenburg is sitting in his office at Chico Cabaret talking about the theater’s production of The Hobbit, when he’s interrupted mid-sentence. A dark-haired girl of about 15 appears in the doorway, clad in a black skirt and top, with prerequisite exposed midriff and sporting those pointy cat-eye-framed glasses.

Hobbit director and Chico Cabaret co-founder Phil Ruttenburg inspires his cast during a recent rehearsal.

Photo by Tom Angel

As it turns out, the girl—"Jenny"—is the show’s assistant director, and she’s interrupting only to inform Phil that she needs to leave for class now. “And I’m not going to be here tomorrow,” she states, very matter-of-factly, “'cause I’ll be in school until like 5:30. But I’ll see you Wednesday.”

A rolled-up poster is jammed under her right arm.

“Are you stealing my poster?” Ruttenburg inquires.

“Yeah,” she admits. “Well, you told Dana she could take one, and there were like five in there. You want them?”

“No,” he says emphatically.

“I figured you wouldn’t want a bunch of gigantic punk rock posters.”

“No. But if I ever do another punk rock show. …”

After Jenny’s departure, Ruttenburg settles in for a discussion of his show.

He explains that the decision to do the play came about as the result of a very successful children’s theater workshop the venue hosted back in June. The kids demonstrated such familiarity and sheer enthusiasm with the hobbit theme of the workshop that Ruttenburg decided to look into producing a stage version of the popular book. Fortunately, his research proved that an adaptation already existed and was available through the play publishing company of Samuel French.

“It does a pretty good job [of adapting the book],” says Ruttenburg. “I mean, there are obviously some things that are not in there. But it’s pretty good.”

Given the enthusiasm demonstrated not only by the kids involved with the workshop, but their parents, too, the theater group then decided to turn The Hobbit into a full three-week production and to expend considerable effort in preparing and presenting the show.

“We had Eric Ricketts [of Chico Creek Fencing Center] choreograph fight scenes,” says Ruttenburg. “We had a person here who was doing some music for the songs. And we had Lydia Taylor work with [the kids] on specific movements. All the kids in this show got training on walking, talking, and moving like the characters. And Lydia was familiar with the story, so she was very specific about how a hobbit walks, how a dwarf walks, and that kind of thing. So it was really nice.”

THE CLOTHES MAKE THE DWARF <br>Actor Marc Lawrence (who portrays Gandalf the Wizard) helps Solomin Smith (who plays dwarf Gloin) get into costume before a rehearsal at the Chico Cabaret.

Photo by Tom Angel

Ruttenburg is also fairly happy with his principal cast members.

“I was a little worried about the role of the hobbit [Bilbo Baggins],” he admits, “because he has to carry the show, and that’s a lot for a kid. But luckily we got an adult by the name of Michael Duch, who is absolutely wonderful.”

Duch’s physical stature, it is necessary to point out, suits the character well.

“And then the other great find,” Ruttenburg continues, “is Marc Lawrence, a friend of mine who did some acting way back in the ‘80s. He’s playing Gandalf.”

Lawrence’s spindly 6’ 4” height, long white hair and beard render him perfect as the gray-attired wizard. “He is Gandalf,” says Ruttenburg. “He’s perfect. He’s a woodworker and made his own staff.”

He mentions that local actor Harve Holt will play Gobbo the Great, the goblin. “He’s done quite a bit of theater around town,” explains Ruttenburg. “He’s another big guy; he’s probably like 6’ 4". And he has such a powerful voice. He is going to add yet another level.”

Ruttenburg speaks in almost awe-filled tones when he talks about the actor filling the webbed feet of the slimy, treacherous Gollum.

“He’s [played by] a teenager, and he is incredible,” says Ruttenburg. “Ricky Hayes. He was in the [June] workshop. This kid is so talented, he is going to be worth [seeing]. He is Gollum. People are going to be totally wowed by him.”

Ruttenburg is clearly proud of all his cast. But he gets particularly excited when he talks about Smaug the Dragon, the tale’s ultimate villain.

“Sue [Ruttenburg, Phil’s wife and partner in the theater] is making Smaug the Dragon,” he says, beaming. “It’s going to be this huge head. It’s kind of a big puppet. And we’ve got some tech guys who are figuring out how to create the voice. The eyes are going to light up, and smoke is going to be coming out of his nose. It’ll be cool.”

Even so, Ruttenburg thinks the tale itself is the most important aspect of the production.

"[It’s] an opportunity to get everybody together,” says Ruttenburg, “and there are lots of kids and lots of families that love the story. There’s a big interest in The Hobbit right now. It’s still very popular in schools. It’s a wonderful story and a great adventure.

“And it’s about little people who are heroes.”

Tickets are on sale now for Chico Cabaret’s production of The Hobbit at the following locations—The Creative Apple and Zucchini & Vine, both in Chico, and at the Country Touch in Paradise. Cost: $12, show only; $24 with Guzzetti Catering meal. For reserations and more information: Chico Cabaret, (530) 895-0245.