2013 Edmonton Fringe Review: One Man Star Wars and One Man Lord of the Rings

Twelve years ago Prince George, British Columbia native Charlie Ross began performing One Man Star Wars shows, and the Edmonton Fringe was one of his top destinations. A dozen years -- and a license from George Lucas -- later, he's still doing it, and a decade ago he added Lord of the Rings to his repertoire.

This year he's doing both at the same festival, alternating night by night. I attended both the Sunday LotR and Monday SW (only one of them abbreviates well) showings, and might as well just review them in tandem.

The first thing to say right out at the beginning is that One Man Lord of the Rings (OMLOTR from now on) is better than One Man Star Wars Trilogy (OMSWT). As Ross freely admits, his Gollum is better than his Yoda and his Gandalf is better than his Obi Wan.

It's not just in the characterizations though: OMLOTR is a tighter performance, both more technically proficient (despite, or perhaps because of his long history doing OMSWT Ross seems often bored or unfamiliar with the material, typically making far more mistakes and breaking character far more often) and being better drafted story-wise (not surprising here with Lord of the Rings being something he watched entirely in his adult life, not coloured by childhood devotion to the source material). It begins with the exposition that would be explained to you if only you had bothered to read the books. Ross is wonderful as he goes from Frodo to Gandalf to Bilbo to Gandalf, moving his body up and down so seamlessly you almost forget there isn't a second actor up there. The pastoral energy in the first movie is captured perfectly, and by the time Aragorn has joined us at the Council of Elrond you're right there in with the story. Equally chilling is his portrayal of the death of Boromir, playing both the shooting and receiving of the arrows to the chest with awesome precision. Oddly, his portrayal of the Witch King versus Frodo isn't nearly as effective, but its hard to say exactly why. Once the Fellowship is on its journey and we've all enjoyed a good Matrix joke at Hugo Weaving's expense we switch to his powerful reproduction of the death of Gandalf (the Grey) and the opening scenes of the Two Towers.

Here is where Gollum makes his appearance, and Ross' version is very impressive. You can watch it on the YouTubes if you like. It's good that Gollum arrives, because that and his excellent portrayal of Aragorn discovering the hobbits survived the Rohirrim's assault on the Orc band is what helps you get through the Two Towers portion that drags quite a bit (as indeed the movie does).

As the combat starts increasing in OMLOTR it becomes quickly apparent where one of the problems inherent to OMSWT arises: in OMLOTR Ross is playing Orcs battling Hobbits and Men and Elves and Dwarves with some Fangorn and cave trolls thrown in. All of these creatures, its worth noting, have 2 arms and 2 legs and a head and a torso. Charlie Ross has these as well, so during the various fights and combat scenes you're able to see him performing as the actors (digital or 100% analog) did in the movies. In OMSWT Ross has to break out his "4 years of mime school" to play Star Destroyers, X-Wings, Death Stars, Ion Cannons, AT-AT walkers, AT-ST walkers, the Millenium Falcn, droids, and speeders. You realize how much of the original Star Wars especially was told through special effects: the X-wings attacking the Death Star is a long stretch where no humans move around: they sit in pilots chairs while their vehicles do battle, and Ross has to represent them while humming the music.

OMSWT is also is impacted by the fact that Luke is a bit of a whiner, and Ross decides to really overplay that aspect of his character. The problem you may realize is that Luke is the main character, and that means that we get to experience whiny Luke in large chunks throughout the show. Add in the (on Monday, at least) technical difficulties and the fact that too many of the jokes in OMSWT take you out of the narrative, and it makes the older work suffer in comparison with the newer one. OMSWT has its strengths too, to be sure. Oddly enough few of them occur in the first movie and not many more during Empire, it's during Return of the Jedi that the work finally gets its legs and becomes a fine work in its own right. Ross's Jabba the Hutt really brought the crowd alive, and his Emperor, while not on par with a certain 74 minute YouTube star's, is very good. By the time Jedi rolls around the story is going gangbusters well.

Both shows, it must be said, are actually worthless if you haven't seen the source material. In a way the big weakness of the shows is that the casual fan of each ("I think I watched Lord of the Rings" or "I haven't watched Star Wars in 10 years") is also going to get very little out of the play. Do you really remember in detail Gandalf's confrontation with King Theoden if you only saw the movie once in theatres? How often do you need to re-watch Star Wars to appreciate Ross simulating the canyon run from A New Hope? If you aren't really a big fan of each franchise, you probably should stay away. If you are, though, these shows are for you! If you can see both starting with OMSWT then do so, if you can see both with OMLOTR first that's your second option, OMLOTR alone your third, and OMSWT the fourth.

Oh, and spoilers: incest. A brother and a sister kind of make out.

Final word: If you get this picture then get your ass to One Man Star Wars and One Man Lord of the Rings