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Photograph: Michael BrosilowPaige Collins, Brandon Ruiter, Walter Briggs and Cliff Chamberlain in The Iron Stag King: Part One at the House Theatre of Chicago

The Iron Stag King: Part One at the House Theatre of Chicago | Theater review

Sword-and-sorcery fantasy gets stirred up with ideas of early America in the first installment of the House’s new trilogy.


Nathan Allen’s genre-spanning Valentine Trilogy, staged between 2004 and 2006, helped cement the House Theatre’s early following. Now, to open the House’s 11th season, artistic director Allen and fellow company member Chris Mathews launch another planned trilogy with this expansive fantasy that encompasses both a traditional hero’s journey and, more surprising, musings on the nature of good government.

The plot rests explicitly on the power of stories; two of this first installment’s most powerful characters, Hap the Golden (Cliff Chamberlain, masterfully mixing affability and sociopathy) and the mystical July of the Seven Foxes (Kay Kron), literally shape their world via storytelling. “Stories are powerful, magical things,” states one character; “All of nature is audience,” says another.

Perhaps appropriately, that world draws heavily on existing narratives in a kind of myth-synthesis (synthologizing?): Our band of heroes quests for a hammer that can only be lifted by a true-born heir to the throne, evoking both Excalibur and Thor’s Mjölnir; said orphan king, Casper Kent (Brandon Ruiter), pointedly shares his adoptive father’s surname with Superman’s secret identity.

Allen and Mathews tweak the traditional Game of Thrones conceit by setting the once and future monarch against a seemingly villainous fop (Joey Steakley) whose ultimate goal is to establish representative democracy, supported by an uprising of “the Crownless.” Peppered with images of rattlesnakes and eagles and references to the Gadsden flag, with combatants sporting six-shooters as well as swords, part one of The Iron Stag King could be read as a fantastical allegory for the debate over the early American soul. Staged and performed with playfulness and polish, it whets our appetite for the next installment.

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