Thursday, October 16, 2003

Fellowship of 'Ring' makes a 'Return'

Cast, crew share camaraderie in final stage installment of Tolkien's trilogy

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

When the curtain goes up on The Return of the King Friday, it will mark both an end and a beginning.

Return is the final episode of Blake Bowden's stage adaptation of J. R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, which has been running almost in tandem with the three big-screen installments, starting in autumn 2001.

What: The Return of the King
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through Oct. 25. (School performances are scheduled throughout the week.)
Where: Clear Stage Cincinnati, Jarson-Kaplan Theater, Aronoff Center for the Arts
Tickets: $16, $14 seniors, $12 students. 241-7469.
For the uninitiated, Rings is an epic battle between good and evil involving Orcs, Ents, Elves, Dwarves, Wizards and Hobbits. The good guys have to overcome their distrust of each other to work for a common goal - the destruction of the One Ring of Power. Their success or failure - as concluded in Return of the King - will define the future of Middle Earth.

For the first time, part of the trilogy will be presented under the banner of debuting Clear Stage Cincinnati. (The first two entries were produced by Ovation Theatre Company, but Bowden and director Gina Cerimele-Mechley switched allegiance this year.)

From start to finish

Mechley has been along for the entire journey (initially as fight choreographer for Fellowship of the Ring), fitting a pregnancy and a new baby into her production schedule.

She and Bowden are joined by a handful of others - puppet team Carus Waggoner and Rick Couch (designers) and Aretta Baumgartner (puppetry/movement director); cast members Baumgartner, Elizabeth Harris, Jaimss Carpenter and Joe Sofranko; design team members Thyra Hartshorn, Mike Venturini, Eric Bardes and Dave Budke; graphics designer Jay Nungesser; and student assistants Megan Hils and Rachel Mock.

Three years is a serious commitment, particularly for what is essentially a community endeavor.

We sat down in the shire one sunny Sunday last month (in this case, in the shadow of McAuley High School where a miscommunication left cast and crew locked out of their rehearsal space).

Like the adventure they're passionately committed to telling on stage, they chorus, there's one reason why they're here: the fellowship.

Harris, a veteran of several emerging theaters, has played Fellowship member Gimli in all three installments, and her involvement was never in question, she says. "I couldn't quit halfway through!"

Set designer Hartshorn, who in real life works for Cincinnati Ballet and ballet tech ohio likes that cast and crew "are all from different parts of the theater community."

For the artistic team, the Rings project never has been far from their minds. "It takes the whole year - there's no down time, you're always thinking about it," says Hartshorn.

Bowden started adapting this final episode in January. Puppet building continued on from last year's The Two Towers.

The first read-through was in March, auditions were in April. No small part of casting consideration was what size person could be cast for some roles involving puppets - to say nothing of ability to manipulate the puppets or walk on stilts.

Began as freshman

Sofranko, a junior at Walnut Hills High School, joined the company as a freshman for the experience of working with professionals. He returned "mostly for the cast - and because I got a better part" as he was promoted to central character Frodo.

Many of the company will go into other projects - Sofranko will go to Walnut Hills' Guys and Dolls. Carpenter is wrapping up an original script, The Death of Shakespeare ("He's on trial and his characters judge whether he goes to heaven or hell") that he's hoping Clear Stage will be interested in presenting.

Cerimele-Mechley spent her first day off from Return of the King choreographing fights for ballet tech's Romeo and Juliet.

They all want to know whether Bowden has a project that will bring them together for continued camaraderie.

It turns out he does. Tolkien looks like a mere warm-up for the gods, monsters and trials of men to be found in one of the world's oldest recorded stories. Confides Bowden, "I'm working on a script for "Gilgamesh."


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