By Joe McDonough
Playwright Blake Bowden and director Gina Cerimele-Mechley have returned to the Jarson-Kaplan Theater - this time with start-up Clear Stage Cincinnati - to complete the third and final part of their stage adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien's story, with its episodic structure, unique lexicon, multiple plots, and dozens of characters, remains a difficult theatrical challenge, particularly for the uninitiated.
The Return of the King, however, is the most successful and polished of the three stage productions and should please Tolkien fans.
The tale depicts the final battles between good and evil, as hobbit Frodo Baggins (a likeable Joe Sofranko) and human king Aragorn (a solid Josh Beshears) finally reach Mount Doom to destroy the powerful magic ring that the bad creatures of Middle Earth have been fighting to possess.
With a little bit of humor and even more warmth, Bowden takes time to develop his characters and relationships, breathing some depth into his hobbits, elves and men.
His storytelling is nicely straightforward and focused, though the vast task of wrapping up all that's contained in the end of the book leads to final sequences that inevitably feel too long on stage.
Cerimele-Mechley keeps her mostly capable cast working very hard as they battle through several of her well-choreographed combat scenes.
At Thursday's preview, a few of the dialogue scenes sagged a bit, but overall the cast of 23 showed impressive energy and focus.
Standing out in the ensemble are Aretta Baumgartner as the goblin-like Gollum, Tom Stiver as towering wizard Gandalf, and Bowden as hobbit sidekick Sam Gamgee.
As usual, the stars of the production are the wonderful puppets created by Carus Waggoner and Rick Couch, with movement coached by Baumgartner. The giant spider from The Two Towers is back as are a couple of big surprises for this installment.
The fine puppet work along with terrific costumes designed by Caren Young and Jim Stump make The Return of the King a great visual show on Thyra Hartshorn's movable set pieces lit by David Schmidt.
Composer Steve Goers adds in an effective musical soundtrack that aids in moving the play's many scenes forward.
The Return of the King, through October 25, Clear Stage Cincinnati, Aronoff Center, (513) 241-7469.
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