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Tolkien Classic in a Different Hobbitat : Outdoor Production Will Move Along by Utilizing the Preschool’s Varied Environment

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Joe Lauderdale, the Laguna Playhouse’s Youth Theatre director, is accustomed to taking on projects high on atmosphere. He helped stage “Alice in Wonderland” a couple of years ago and, by all critical accounts, was able to evoke the fantastic visuals of Lewis Carroll’s book.

His latest show is similarly challenging. Lauderdale and his young cast (16 kids, most from Orange County, ranging in ages from 12 to 15) open Brainerd Duffield’s adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” today at Anneliese’s Willow Brook School, a private preschool in Laguna Canyon. Like “Alice,” “The Hobbit” is offered outdoors, utilizing the school’s varied environment.

“There are parts (of Willow Brook) that are more lush, other parts that are more dry and barren, which suits us well,” Lauderdale said earlier this week during a break in rehearsals. “The outdoor aspect is essential with this production because it is an environmental piece requiring a lot of room. We try to give a sense of a long journey.”

With “Alice,” Lauderdale and co-directors Jody Davidson and Scott Davidson took the audience--literally and figuratively--here and there as Alice moved along on her whimsical trip. “The Hobbit” has the same plan, so audiences should be prepared to do some walking and not to be afraid of a little interaction as Tolkien’s diminutive hero, Bilbo Baggins, makes his way toward his confrontation with Smaug, the dragon.

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There is one significant difference between the two family-geared shows: While “Alice” relied heavily on the sensational costumes designed by South Coast Repertory regular Dwight Richard Odle, “The Hobbit” takes a more subdued approach, depending less on the cast’s appearance and more on its acting.

“We don’t try to hide the human form in obvious costumes, like having the dragon look like the usual big, ugly dragon,” Lauderdale said. “This is less literal and more artistic; you can see (the child actor) but also get an evocative sense of who (the actor) is portraying.

But even though they don’t dominate the show, Lauderdale said, “the costumes are incredible, with a lot of hand-painting and dyeing (in the designs). They’re suggestive of the medieval period.”

With so much required of the cast, Lauderdale said he took special pains to acquaint the actors with the script and Tolkien’s original novel. Fortunately, most of the youngsters had read “The Hobbit” either on their own or at school, where it’s a standard on many reading lists.

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Lauderdale went a step further by discussing the plot and analyzing any subtexts students might have missed. “It really is a pretty complicated story, it kind of wanders around with many different characters, so we had to make sure they felt clear on it. After that, it was just getting them to realize what they are trying to communicate with the dialogue.”

He also kept in mind a lesson learned during the run of “Alice”: Make sure the actors know when to turn up the volume.

“Sometimes simple projection is what you’re after--that certainly was the case with ‘Alice,’ ” Lauderdale said. “We were really at the mercy of the area. We had nearby horses going wild, whinnying like crazy, and planes zooming overhead. Those are the kinds of obstacles you have to cross when you do this kind of theater.”

In choosing “The Hobbit,” Lauderdale admits to a fair degree of trepidation, primarily because of its huge popularity with Tolkien fans. The book, which serves as a prelude to “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, is considered by the writer’s devotees to be almost a sacred document.

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Lauderdale said he had to dismiss all that or risk being paralyzed in his directing. “I can’t be bound up in it being a classic and so well loved. If I did, I’d just be too intimidated and never do justice to it. By putting that all aside, I think I can make it fresh, with my own stamp.”

Still, he seriously considered staging something else, including an adaptation of Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel, “The Red Badge of Courage.”

“I kept coming back to ‘The Hobbit,’ though,” Lauderdale said. “None of the scripts we looked at quite fit the outdoor setting as well. This one struck me as the perfect story to do, classic or not.”

The Laguna Playhouse’s Youth Theatre will present “The Hobbit” today at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. and Sunday on the hour from noon to 4 p.m. at Anneliese’s Willow Brook School, 20062 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. The show will play each Saturday and Sunday at the same times through Oct. 27. Tickets: $5 (children 13 and under) and $8 (adults). Information: (714) 494-0743.

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