'The Hobbit' hits Penn-Trafford stage before movie screens

| Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, 10:26 p.m.

Amber Shojaie has been spending a lot of time on YouTube lately.

But it's not just for fun. It's research for portraying Gollum in the Penn-Trafford High School Drama Guild's Production of “The Hobbit,” which begins a three-day run on Friday night.

Amber, a sophomore, is taking her turn in the role Andy Serkis made famous in the “Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy and is reprising in another trio of movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien's characters from Middle Earth.

Amber said she studied videos featuring Gollum, a deformed and transformed former hobbit, to be able to imitate his raspy speech and hunched posture.

“Playing a creature is pretty exhilarating,” said Amber, who is participating in her third school production. “I've never played anything other than a human.”

The play precedes the opening of the first installment of Peter Jackson's film adaptation of “The Hobbit” by two weeks.

Not many theater productions have tried doing “The Hobbit,” said play director Tom Bekavac, who has worked on Penn-Trafford shows for 25 years.

The story follows Bilbo Baggins, who gets swept into an adventure to raid a treasure protected by a dragon. With the play featuring 13 dwarves, the production lends itself to incorporating as many students as possible. About 40 will be on stage during the course of a show.

“It's a huge cast,” Bekavac said. “It's a good story, and I've always wanted to do it.”

It's a change of pace from last year's fall show, “A Christmas Carol.”

Tolkien's tales are known for featuring epic battles. Among the crew for the Penn-Trafford show this fall is Rob MacIntyre, who has 16 years of experience in stage fighting.

Crew members helped to build clubs and spears from PVC pipes and foam to supplement some toy swords that were bought or the show.

“They look amazing,” Bekavac said. “They look realistic.”

The costume department also had to create much of the clothing from scratch because no other recent productions had anything similar. Many of the robes or other outfits are color-specific for a particular role.

The dwarves — most of whom are played by female students — wear long beards and improvised fat suits to accentuate their pot bellies.

Without the computer-generated effects of Hollywood, Gollum appears in a camouflage suit and goggles with LED lights.

“I spend a lot of time at Jo-Ann fabrics,” said Donita Sanders, a retired family and consumer sciences teacher who helped create the clothing.

The shows this weekend follow weeks of preparation since auditions ended in late September.

Students playing the main characters said they have enjoyed embodying their roles.

Senior Dan Forringer said his character of Gandalf has a tendency to use his wit to trick people into doing certain tasks. Sophomore Taylor Powell said she relishes exploring the inner evil of the Elven Queen.

As for senior Jarrett Reiche, playing Bilbo lured him to become a big fan of Tolkien's work. He's been in every one of the guild's shows for the past four years and is interested in studying acting at Penn State.

“It's a frantic part,” he said of Bilbo. “It's fun to play it and be kind of crazy.”

Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8671, or cforeman@tribweb.com.

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