Ten years ago, the House Theatre of Chicago made a name for itself using first rate technical skills to bring pop genres like science fiction and fantasy to the stage in a decidedly non-cheesy way. One of their signature productions was the epic, genre-hopping “Valentine Trilogy.” I’ve seen many of the subsequent House productions, some rather overrated, and none, in my opinion, ever captured that previous burst of magic. Until now.
Valentine author Nathan Allen, in collaboration with Chris Matthews, is back with the first part of another epic trilogy, and so far it is at least the equal of its predecessor. It is my custom to describe the plot of a new work in broad strokes, but really my advice is “just go see it.”
The play is a riff on the Arthurian mythos as well as that of the Norse gods. But beyond that, Allen and Matthews have reconceptualized these ancient tales to fit particularly American themes. It’s a brilliantly innovative fusion that must be seen to be comprehended. Casper Kent (Brandon Ruiter) is a good hearted foundling who is trained by the mysterious magician/storyteller Hap the Golden (Cliff Chamberlain) to reclaim a magical hammer that will grant him power over the land. In this endeavor he is opposed by “the crownless,” a group of populist demagogues led by Henley Hawthorne (Joey Steakley) best described as Evil Thomas Jefferson.
As co-writer and director, Allen creates an amazing visual feast in which medieval knights, pirates, cowboys and colonial fops coexist. And it all makes sense.
Allen and Matthews mine this mythology for thoughtful sociopolitical themes. Fairy tales traditionally reveal a bias toward aristocracy. The noble blooded prince must claim the power which is his birthright. Democracy here is initially viewed with suspicion and the potential corruption. But nothing is that simple and it’s made clear long before the stunning denouement that the truths we cling to depend on our point of view.
“Iron Stag King” is more than great theatre, it is modern mythmaking at its finest.