If you can’t wait until March 2016 to see a live-action Batman v. Superman, you can see a sort of alternate-universe version onstage in the new third installment of the House Theatre’s fantasy trilogy: An idealistic young orphan who took his adoptive father’s surname, Kent, takes on one Mr. Wayne, a pragmatic man of wealth who believes his advanced technology and strategic prowess can and should overpower more arcane forces.
Okay, Christopher Hainsworth’s ultralibertarian "rogue Viking" Kaelan Wayne is pretty clearly the bad guy to Kevin Stangler’s Casper Kent, champion of the greater good. But there’s no question co-writers Chris Mathews and Nathan Allen know what they’re doing. Wrapping up what they’re now calling the Hammer Trinity, a fantasy epic with notes of Americana, they know the superhero is as much a part of American mythology as the Gadsden flag to which they also allude.
It’s possible to see part three of the trilogy, The Excelsior King, by itself most Friday evenings during the run. But I don’t recommend dropping in there any more than I would renting The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies on its own—you come in too far into the story, hurtling toward the climactic battle with too little time to get acquainted with the characters (or, here, to figure out how and why Casper finds himself trapped in stately Wayne Manor).
Better to go all in, and see the Hammer Trinity in its entirety at a Saturday or Sunday marathon performance. Parts one and two, The Iron Stag King and The Crownless King, have been somewhat revised since their debuts in 2012 and 2013 (click through the titles to read my original reviews), and some of the new cast members brought on board for the full endeavor bring their own new colors to the whole: William Dick, taking over for Cliff Chamberlain as manipulative storyteller Hap the Golden, gives his man more of a seedy undercurrent from the start, while Stangler’s Boy Scout demeanor and dark mane of curls only underline the Superman vibe in comparison to his blond-haired predecessor, Brandon Ruiter.
The allegorical ties to America’s self-told story get ever more tenuous in the final entry, in which we find ourselves ultimately rooting for a benevolent king to establish the balance between individual liberty and the greater good. But for an epic that takes pains to frame storytelling itself as a literally world-shaping force, The Hammer Trinity finds plenty of magical examples amid its swords, sorcery and six-shooters. (Did I mention the giant dragon puppet voiced by Tracy Letts?)
There’s a particularly memorable coup de theatre in the final act, which sees heroine July of the Seven Foxes (Kay Kron) leading a charge into a seemingly hopeless battle, that combines simple, clever staging with the sheer amount of story we’ve gone through with these characters to produce a giddy chill in recognition of theater’s unique powers. It’s a crowning achievement.
The House Theatre of Chicago at Chopin Theatre. By Nathan Allen and Chris Mathews. Directed by Allen. With ensemble cast. Running time: 9hrs; six intermissions.