The Kennedy Center's sixth annual Imagination Celebration got off to an auspicious beginning last night with the Theatre Sans Fil's production of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" (adapted by Marielle Bernard). Tolkien's elaborate fantasies have been abused in recent years both on television and on film, but "The Hobbit" inhabiting the Terrace Theater seems inspired by the moral heart and splendid imagination so evident in Tolkien's words. Any spinning in the grave previously inspired by Ralph Bakshi will be quieted by this production.
Theatre Sans Fil (The No Strings Puppet Theatre) is a troupe from Quebec that utilizes giant rod puppets ranging from four to 12 feet in height. Manipulated in the Japanese Bunraku style by puppeteers cloaked in black, the puppets assume a life and motion that is supra-human; they suspend space, eliminate distance and thoroughly engage the audience in their peculiar fantasy world.
The tale follows the familiar, somewhat reluctant journey of Mr. Bilbo Baggins, the happy-go-lucky innocent who is drafted by the wizard Gandalf to help Thorin and his gang of dwarfs recover treasure stolen centuries before by a greedy, evil dragon. On the way to the heart of Lonely Mountain, they encounter elves, goblins and spiders, reinforce such bedrock values as courage and faith, and traverse the landscape of possibility.
Several qualities set Theatre San Fil apart, including their brilliant use of stereophonic sound on the prerecorded tape accompanying the production. Pierre Voyer's music, utilizing piano, synthesizer, bass and percussion, is intoxicatingly evocative, while the voices of the characters are spoken in mellifluous, yet believable voices.
The set design and lighting, by Guy Rouillard and the team of Tex Pinsonneault and Sylvain Prairie, respectively, are simple enough to inspire imagination and flexible enough to defy it. Several scenes, including the stunning construction of a giant spider's web and the battle fought therein, are played under blacklight.
The puppets themselves are ingenious, from the Everypuppet Baggins to dwarves that are all nose and braided beards under their hoods, from luminous spiders and thin, airy elves that "fly more than they walk" to the huge and oddly beautiful dragon. But the most marvelous invention is the obsequiously dangerous Gollum, a bundle of frenetic elasticity. Like many of the figures, he is manipulated or, more properly, animated by two puppeteers. At play's end, one expects a dozen puppeteers to step out; the shock is that there are only five.
Children at the opening were glued to their seats; sometimes to the edge, but glued, nonetheless. Adults fared no better. Theatre San Fil's production is a bold and riveting theatrical experience for any age. It will be repeated tomorrow at 7:30 and Thursday at 1 and 3 p.m.