In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Somewhere nearby, there lived an elf. The hobbit found a ring and carried it with him — an act of courage that led him and his kin to 2.6 billion dollars in box office revenue. The elf mostly just lazed around, thinking really slowly and getting himself into bizarre (and overwhelmingly avoidable) scrapes.
This is his story. Playwright Scott Courlander and his dark army have drawn together a fun script, solid laughs, good design, and inspired performers into a wacko tapestry that will entertain young’uns and elders alike.
If Tolkien had written for Mad TV, he’d probably write something like this. The plot is classic quest: the callow young elf named Todd (played by Forrest Rilling) is elected one day to an important mission to conquer an encroaching evil that threatens all of Medieval Story Land. Against all odds, and at great risk to his life, he ventures farther from home than he’s ever been, forging friendships and fighting off enemies in his search for the means to save his home.
Sounds portentous, but the dialogue and acting are goofy, spoofy entertainment, and the cast makes great work of it. Twelve actors — plus three musicians — embrace the rhythms and comedy stylings of sketch comedy to poke at overly-familiar fantasy tropes.
Not all who wander are lost. But some of them are, and one of them is Todd. If you thought Bilbo was sheltered, you need to meet this guy. Rilling plays Todd straight-on, as an earnest numbskull of an elf trying desperately to grow into the hero he needs to be. This elf doesn’t sneak silently through the woods; he has no lethal bow, no arch wit or dignified accent. He can barely lift a shield. Yet off he goes.
If ignorance is bliss, perhaps there’s some strength in it too.
Along the way he’ll run into characters with names like Moonstar, Sparkle-Twinkle, Sir Swordsly, and the Millenium Wizard. He’ll swordfight his way through the tricky parts (the engaging fight choreography is courtesy of Casey Kaleba), fight a monster called the Ocelopatrops (which closely resembles a drunk cartoon dinosaur), fall in love (sort of), and find his inner demons.
The world through which he merrily bumbles is alive with clever design, orchestrated quietly and constantly by the ensemble (with a big reliance on small props and tree branches). Jason Aufdem-Brinke’s lighting design raises the bar for Fringe shows everywhere, and Lois Dunlop’s many costumes strike just the right tone. And the three-person live band — keyboard and percussion, flute, and trumpet — underscore nearly the entire show, playing jaunty original tunes by William Yanesh.
Courlander originally wrote for the New York troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, and he’s succeeded on a number of levels. The show aspires to be entertaining both to children and adults, and leaps that hurdle with flair. It’s nuts, at moments downright absurd. Some jokes glint with structural self-awareness, reminiscent of Norton Juster’s classic adventure novel “The Phantom Tollbooth” (for example: there’s a dark, menacing front of weather rolling in called the Foreshadow). But it’s got some heart too, even if it sometimes functions more as a parody of wholeheartedness. And director Guillaume Tourniaire has a firm handle on how to stage whimsical scenes that approach a feeling of camp without going overboard.
Every scene brings a new surprise. The cranky dwarf Whisker-Toe is played by a middle-schooler (Becca Korn) who brings such grinning gusto to the role that she almost runs away with the play. To do that, though, she’ll have to fight comedy contender Chelsea Norment, whose portrayal of Graglore the troll is top-notch demented. The mysterious Red Knight, played by Justus Hammond, rounds out the fellowship.
There are many more characters, most of them diverting in the best of ways, but you’ll have to check it out live to get the whole panorama. What might have turned into an overdone mountain of camp instead proves spry, silly, and nicely controlled. Fulfill your destiny – and a seat in the front row – before these knights ride on.
Medieval Story Land has 5 performances, ending July 29, 2012, at Studio Theatre’s Milton Theatre, 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC.
Details and tickets