Take three films totalling 11 hours and 23 minutes with some 42 characters, elaborate sound effects and music. Now compact all those elements into 65 minutes – performed by one man. Yes, One Man Lord of the Rings is exactly as titled. Written and performed by Charles Ross as a homage to the Peter Jackson films, it’s a manic mixture of both geek cred and skillful stage presence.
Ross is a Canadian actor and playwright also responsible for the wildly popular One-Man Star Wars Trilogy, which he first performed in DC as part of the 2006 Capital Fringe Festival. While at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in the winter of 2007 for a return engagement, he mentioned to Managing Director Jeffrey Herrmann that he was working on an adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Herrmann, a fellow Tolkien fan, jumped at the chance to host him when next on tour. One Man Lord of the Rings is at Woolly now through August 1.
Certainly there’s no arguing that this is a riveting display of talent – guided by the direction of longtime collaborator TJ Dawe, Ross goes through a rapid array of transformations both vocal and physical. But is a knowledge of the films necessary to enjoy it? Has too much time passed since the films’ worldwide success? Ross asked those questions himself at the end of the performance I attended, with humble self-deprecation. The response, however, was overwhelmingly positive from both the hardcore LOTR fans and those who had managed to never see them or even read the books. It was a hypnotic and hilarious evening.
It’s a befittingly bare-bones production, just Ross bounding and tumbling about in a black jumpsuit. His physical energy is remarkable enough, but it’s the vocal mimicry that is truly incredible. He manages to nail every actor’s vocal mannerisms – often alternating between several at a time while also hitting the sound effects.
From McKellan’s booming gravel tones as Gandalf to Sean Astin’s goofy round vowels as Samwise (“I can help you! Carry the loooooooaaaaaaad…”), Ross doesn’t miss a single quirk. He almost out-Gollum’s Andy Serkis, and his Elrond is spot-on to those of us who’ve always wanted Hugo Weaving to say, “Welcome to Rivendell, Mr. Anderson.”
Though Ross begins his rocket ride through the films with a good deal of loving reverence, by the end he’s also poked a lot of fun at the liberties Jackson took with the books (“Artistic license,” as the elves arriving at Helm’s Deep archly explain) without being too slapstick. It’s more funny precisely because it’s done with love – as when he has Sam plaintively ask, “Mr. Frodo, are we gay?” or when Denethor crazily calls out, “Bring wood and oil! …and more cherry tomatoes nom nom nom…”
Understandably he can’t hit every moment in the films, even at the breakneck pace he maintains. Somehow he manages to get most (and sometimes is illustrating more than one at a time), from impersonating whole armies of orcs on his fingertips, or dousing his head as a flaming Ent in the flood at Isengard. Obviously, this is a man who’s watched the films innumerable times, and that dedication pays off. It might strike some as fluff to act out a fantasy movie trilogy on stage, but there’s consummate skill here that harkens back brilliantly to classic pantomime.
It’s a true tour-de-force performance, with a bit of child-like nostalgia for the wonder the films generated. A night out as enjoyable as, well, an eleventy-first birthday party.
One Man Lord of the Rings
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D Street NW
Tickets 202.393.3939 or online