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(NOTE TO BROADCASTERS: Sans Fil is pronounced "sawn fee." Bunraku is pronounced


Montreal's Theatre Sans Fil performs 'The Hobbit' with life-size puppets Feb. 14-15 at UI

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Montreal's Theatre Sans Fil, a puppet company inspired by the Japanese tradition of Bunraku theater, will present J.R.R. Tolkien's popular fantasy "The Hobbit" with life-size puppets at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 14 and 15, in Hancher Auditorium on the University of Iowa campus. The performances are part of the Country Bancorporation Family Series.

The company's name means "theater without strings," a reference to the Bunraku tradition of puppetry in which large puppets are directly manipulated by camouflaged performers, rather than by the pulling of marionette strings. Theatre Sans Fils has updated the subtly expressive artistry of Bunraku with the wizardry of contemporary technical theater, including black lights, lasers and Dolby-Stereo quadraphony.

For Tolkien's adventures of Bilbo Baggins, the wizard Gandalf and their dwarf friends, Theatre San Fil uses nearly 50 life-size puppets-which is a trick in a story with a 25-foot-long dragon and 10-foot-tall trolls and goblins-and magical effects including the spinning of giant spider webs.

The company's production of "The Hobbit" was created in 1979 and became an instant international success, including playing to sold-out houses at the 1984 Olympics.

The Washington Post review stated, "Theatre San Fil's production is a bold and riveting theatrical experience for any age. Several qualities set Theatre Sans Fil apart, including their brilliant use of stereophonic sound . . . the set design and lighting are simple enough to inspire imagination and flexible enough to defy it."

Tolkien's books, including "The Hobbit," "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "The Silmarillion," can now be read in virtually every language and have become world-wide favorites. A philologist born in South Africa and raised in England, Tolkien was a professor at Oxford University until his retirement in 1959.

Although he worked on the original version of the Oxford English Dictionary and published numerous works on philology, he is beloved around the world as a master of imagination, expressed in the magical chronicles of Middle Earth. His stories are inhabited by lovable heroes, and fantastic monsters including orcs, trolls, goblins, dragons, and, in "The Hobbit," the slimy and riddle-loving Gollum.

His first book, written in 1936, "The Hobbit" was influenced by Tolkien's reading of English, German and Scandinavian folklore, resulting in a world where the creatures of several cultures' fantasies reside together, along with many invented by Tolkien. By the time he died, in 1973 at the age of 81, he was a cult figure with an international following.

For those who, like Gollum, have lived in a dark cave for a very long time, the story begins with Bilbo Baggins living safe and secure in his Hobbit hole. But soon he is recruited by the wizard Gandalf and a band of questing dwarves to accompany them on the great adventure for which he was destined.

As they travel through forbidding woods and over high mountains, Bilbo meets luminous elves, battles hideous monsters and discovers a magic ring that confers invisibility. Finally, at the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo encounters and matches wits with the fire-breathing dragon, Smaug.

Tickets for the Theatre Sans Fil production of "The Hobbit" are $22, $20 and $17. UI students and senior citizens qualify for a 20-percent discount, with Zone 3 tickets available to UI students for $10. Tickets for audience members 17 and younger are half price.

Hancher box office hours are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. weekdays, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and 1-3 p.m. Sunday. From the local calling area or outside Iowa, dial (319) 335-1160. Long distance within Iowa and western Illinois is toll-free, 1-800-HANCHER. Fax to (319) 353-2284. Orders may be charged to VISA, MasterCard or American Express. UI students may charge their purchases to their university bills, and UI faculty and staff may select the option of payroll deduction.

People with special needs for access, seating and auxiliary services should dial (319) 335-1158. This number will be answered by box office personnel prepared to offer assistance with handicapped parking, wheelchair access and seating, hearing augmentation and other services. The line is equipped with TDD for people with hearing impairment who use that technology.

Audio description will be available at the Feb. 15 performance.

Country Bancorporation and Kay J.A. Bernau are the major sponsors of Hancher's Family Series, through the University of Iowa Foundation.