One Man Lord of the Rings is a sprawling solo saga of swords and sorcery

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Peter Jackson, eat your heart out. For his epic film trilogy, the New Zealand director used a $280-million budget, a large cast, groundbreaking visual effects, and Oscar-winning music to bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic story of hobbits, elves, and sorcerers to the screen. For his One Man Lord of the Rings, Charlie Ross relies on himself—and nothing else. Ross performs his stage show with no props or costumes, condensing the sprawling story into 60 minutes and relying on the audience’s knowledge of the source material to fill in the blanks.

This is the same approach he took when devising his solo interpretation of the original Star Wars trilogy, which he debuted in 2001. What you see on-stage is one guy; the Ewoks and X-wing fighters are all in your mind.

“Rather than make it like a puppet show or something like that, I figured, use the body and go with that,” Ross says in a telephone interview from his home in Victoria. “See what the body can do. And it sort of lent itself to my sense of humour anyway. I found throughout my life that sometimes a sound effect at the right time can convey way more than anything else, and somehow only can be conveyed in its strangeness by a sound effect. I guess using sound effects as I do, and doing impressions of the actors, and throwing myself around the stage, it kind of re-creates the energy that’s there in all the sci-fi, high-tech format that’s in the actual film.”

Both shows have been major successes for their creator and his frequent collaborator, director and dramaturge TJ Dawe. Ross has taken One Man Star Wars Trilogy and One Man Lord of the Rings to stages everywhere from Edmonton to Sydney, Australia, although his take on all things Middle-earth hit a roadblock soon after it premiered in 2004.

That was when the Saul Zaentz Company sent Ross a letter, which he describes wryly as “an invitation not to be taken to court”. That company owns the stage and screen rights to The Lord of the Rings, and while its letter was not a cease-and-desist order, it wanted to make sure that this Canadian theatrical upstart was playing by its rules. Fortunately for Ross, he had Gandalf the Grey himself on his side.

Sir Ian McKellen, who played the benevolent spell-caster in Jackson’s films (and in the current trilogy of movies based on Tolkien’s The Hobbit), attended a performance of One Man Lord of the Rings at the Waterfront Theatre, and he was, as the English say, chuffed. The veteran actor provided the show with the hilarious endorsement, “If you liked the Lord of the Rings trilogy, you’ll love Charlie Ross’s version. And if you didn’t, well, at least his is shorter.”

“He loved it, which was great,” Ross recalls. “And it was the day after he’d come to see it that I got that sternly worded letter. And I didn’t know what to do. I’d exchanged email addresses with him, and he was in Vancouver working on a film called Neverwas, so I just contacted him and I went and had lunch on the set, just myself and him. And I asked him, ‘What can I do?’ He told me all about some of the stuff that went on with Peter Jackson and how even though it might seem really daunting, it’s easy to weather the storm, because you’ve got nothing to lose by not doing the show—just wait it out, and eventually it will work itself out. It took four years. But he wrote me a letter of recommendation, and he answered phone calls directed toward him with regards to me. Such an awesome guy.”

Four years, $20,000 in legal fees, and a no-doubt nerve-wracking performance before reps of the Saul Zaentz Company later, Ross was able to reach a licensing agreement with the rights-holders, and One Man Lord of the Rings has been captivating audiences all over the world ever since.

Well, not quite everywhere in the world. When he’s asked what Jackson thinks of the show, Ross reveals that, although he has taken his Star Wars performance there twice, he hasn’t been able to find a promoter for One Man Lord of the Rings in the director’s homeland of New Zealand, where all of the films have been shot. The conventional wisdom is that Kiwis feel possessive of the movies and will reject any foreigner’s attempts at reinterpreting them. Ross doesn’t buy that.

“Weirdly enough, whenever I meet people who’ve come out to see the Star Wars show, when I tell them I do the Lord of the Rings show, they’re telling me the exact opposite,” he says. “So I’m either going to have to cash in my chips and do it myself, or find somebody who’s got the balls to promote it. And I think it would do just fine. And then I could answer that question. Because I think Peter Jackson would like it. Or he’d think I’m a complete loser. One of the two.”

The Vancouver Fringe Festival presents One Man Lord of the Rings at the Waterfront Theatre from Thursday to Sunday (February 6 to 9).

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