Not once, not twice, but three times on the night I saw One Man Lord of the Rings, performer Charles Ross broke character(s) to grouse to the audience—gently, humbly, and with a degree of wry self-deprecation so advanced it can only be called Canadian—about getting reviewed by critics who don’t know their Tolkien.
Three times he did this. Three. Which, coincidentally, is also the number of Elven Hosts who received the summons of the Valar to cross the Great Sea, the number of Houses of Men that were named Elf-Friends during the Wars of Beleriand in the First Age, and the number of Rings of Power forged by the Elves in secret and entrusted during the Third Age to Elrond, Galadriel, and to the Maia Olorin, whom the Elves named Mithrandir, the Dwarves called Tharkûn, and who was known to men as Gandalf. While we’re on the subject, let’s note that three is also the number of times this critic read The Silmarillion before his 12th birthday, the number of Tolkien reference books (The Tolkien Companion, The Guide to Middle Earth, and The Tolkien Bestiary) he carried in his elementary school book bag like protective talismans throughout fifth grade, and the number of times their protection failed him utterly, allowing junior sociopath Michael “Toad” Malin to dump the entire contents of said book bag across the tater-tot-smeared floor of Westtown-Thornbury Elementary’s all-purpose room.
So, yeah: Anyone steps up to me all “Recite all eight lines of the Verse of the One Ring!”—I’m right back up in his or her (but invariably his) grill with, “You want that in Westron or the original Black Speech, bitch?”
All of which is to say: Bring it.
This reviewer is pleased to report that, by the end of One Man Lord of the Rings’ elf-swift 65-minute running time, it gets well and truly broughten.
Let’s start by acknowledging that Ross has a point about who this show is meant for, if not the precise one he thinks he’s got. Knowing one’s Tolkien isn’t the issue, really; yes, One Man Lord of the Rings is a paean to the painstakingly wrought vision of one man, but that man isn’t the tweedy Oxford linguist who wrote the books—it’s the hairy, hobbity Kiwi who brought them to the screen.
Peter Jackson’s the true subject here; Ross hurls his body and voice at breakneck speed through paces enshrined by the film trilogy: its language, its performances, and, far more than anything else, its sound design.
A Elbereth Gilthoniel! Using only throat and lungpower, Ross reproduces the trilogy’s most memorable aural cues—the birth of the Uruk-Hai, the screech of the Nazgul’s flying beasts, the march of the badass armored pachyderms known (to those of us who care about such things) as Mumakil—all in high, if phlegmy, fidelity. (The posters should offer the Gallagher caution: “The first few rows are gonna get wet!”)
He’s got Hugo Weaving’s arch and arch-eyebrowed Elrond down pat, he invokes Orlando Bloom’s preening Legolas with a tilt of the head, his pitch-perfect version of Christopher Lee’s Saruman manages to chew through the production’s nonexistent scenery, and his radial-fracture-risking re-enactment of the Lord of the Nazgul’s implosive death gets the round of applause it deserves.
Ross tosses in smaller notes for those of us who’ve clocked serious field time with the DVD extras—that one background-extra Ent who dunks his head in water to douse his flaming canopy turns up onstage, briefly, and Ross lets a caesura hang heavy in the air after intoning “They’re taking the hobbits to Isengard!”—practically daring anyone who’s seen the YouTube remix to supply him a backbeat.
But there are more macro pleasures here as well, which require few to no Advanced Placement credits, as when Ross channels John Noble’s squirrelly Denethor, stuffing his face with laughably (and loudly) succulent fruits while 1) sending his son to certain death; and 2) taking in some seriously emo hobbit cabaret.
Nerdy nitpicks? Sure: Ross’ Gandalf sounds an awful lot like the Obi-Wan Kenobi of his One Man Star Wars, more Alec Guinness’ piping tenor than Ian MacKellen’s rumbly basso profundo. (To be fair, he’s got it where it counts, nailing the all-important Saruman/Gandalf vocal mix that heralds Gandalf the White’s first appearance.) His Aragorn isn’t quite there, either; Viggo’s got a scosh more Kermit to him.
The only real disappointment—and it’s a surprising one—is how gently Ross chides this trilogy’s manifold excesses. One Man Star Wars seemed to attain an ideal fuel mixture, a 60-40 blend of the straight-ahead and the satirical; here, perhaps because Ross believes the Jackson films haven’t permeated the culture as thoroughly as the Lucas films, the pot shots are parceled out too parsimoniously.
Yes, there’s some mild ribbing of the third film’s multiple endings, but somehow the trilogy’s most self-indulgent/cheesetastic scene, in which the members of the Fellowship of the Ring visit Frodo’s sickroom for one last framed-in-the-doorway glamour shot, escapes without a scratch.
Yes, yes, you say, But Is It Art? Specifically: Is it theater?
Those are the wrong questions, little more than riddles in the dark. Here’s what we can say for certain: It’s funny. Its sheer physicality is impressive as hell. And, should you happen to belong to that hopelessly nerdy subset of the population that can pick a Sindar elf out of a lineup of Noldor elves, it’s something else, too: something meaningful. Something moving.