Seated in a circle on the floor, the cast of The Iron Stag King reads through the final scene of the House Theatre of Chicago’s new play. While many of the company’s past productions have incorporated elements of magic or the supernatural, this is its first foray into the genre of high fantasy. Fittingly for a play inspired by Arthurian legend, the seating arrangement calls to mind the Knights of the Round Table, with director, cowriter and House artistic director Nathan Allen serving as the King Arthur of this rehearsal-room Camelot.
“My interest in King Arthur was always this idea that Camelot falls due to the contradiction of the round table,” Allen, 34, says in the House’s Uptown office. “It can be as round as it wants to be, but one of the chairs is still a throne and one of the knights has a crown and Excalibur. There’s interesting potential in having that ideal community threatened by the idea that one of them is more powerful than the others. There are all kinds of things echoing for me in how leaders lead, and how heroes can be the savior and downfall of their community.”
“And we want there to be wizards involved,” cowriter Chris Mathews, 32, adds with a laugh.
Conceived by Allen as an adaptation of Arthurian mythology, the original idea was shelved until last year. With the assistance of fellow company members Mathews and Phillip C. Klapperich, Allen folded the King Arthur elements into a larger fantasy world and began work on The Iron Stag King, the first part of a proposed trilogy.
The story, which should be familiar to any fantasy buff, follows a young orphan and his questmates as they embark on a journey to find the mythical weapon that will save a kingdom. The twist? That kingdom resembles a turn-of-the-19th-century United States. “It ends up looking very much like the French and Indian War,” Allen says. The writers name the works of Tolkien and George R.R. Martin, Walt Simonson’s Thor comic books and Dungeons & Dragons games from their youth as helping them accrue a rich fantasy vocabulary. But their biggest story influences come from two unlikely sources: The Federalist Papers and Ken Burns’s documentary The Civil War.
“I’ve been calling it a parallel proto-America,” Allen says. “Because that’s what Arthur is, it’s a proto–United Kingdom. When we’re porting it over to America, we start talking about American translations of those symbols, about kings and rebels and not knowing whose side we should be on and a conflict between the idea of sacrifice for the greater good and the protection of our personal liberties. It sounds supertimely, but is more primal than political for us.”
The rehearsal’s circular seating reflects the production’s in-the-round staging, which emphasizes the play’s primitive, communal aspects. “There’s an effort in the design to make it as primal and holy as possible, to feel like we’re all sitting around a campfire telling this story,” Allen says. “I think we’re good at designing spectacle that invites the audience to participate.”
“That’s probably due to our budgetary restraints,” Mathews says. “Because of those limitations, we tend to create just enough that etches out the vessel of what we want the audience to imagine on their own.”
The Iron Stag King: Part One previews Friday 31 and opens September 9 at the Chopin Theatre.