I have trouble following complicated plots. I find that it’s especially difficult with narratives about wars, imaginary lands, and wars in imaginary lands. For a little while I can keep track of the various battalions of characters and their movements, but then they start to intermingle and I forget who’s allied with whom, where they’ve stashed the sacred whatsit, and why so much depends on one brave orphan. And if there’s a twist of any kind, forget about it.
In The Hammer Trinity from the House Theatre of Chicago, playwrights Nathan Allen and Chris Mathews gorge themselves on each of those dishes in a multicourse banquet. Sure enough, there are wars, imaginary lands, complex alliances, a sacred whatsit, several brave orphans, and more twists and turns than you can shake a magic hammer at. I had no clue what was going on for long stretches, yet—and here’s another twist for you—I found it both thrilling and thought-provoking.
The first two installments of the “trinity,” The Iron Stag King and The Crownless King, were staged by the House in 2012 and 2013; now along comes the finale, The Excelsior King. You can see the three plays individually (though they don’t stand alone very well) or in a marathon performance lasting nine hours, including five intermissions and a dinner break.
Allen (who also directs) and Mathews cover a whole lot of imaginary ground during that time, and I’ll admit to getting lost more than once in the overgrown thickets of plot. But a good fantasy epic has more to offer than a relentless flow of events. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series conveys the fullness of the author’s made-up universe, which seems to stretch far beyond the edges of the tale we’re told; HBO’s Game of Thrones, based on George R.R. Martin’s novels (which I haven’t read), provides juicy court intrigue and fucked-up family drama. In The Hammer Trinity, extraordinarily vivid stagecraft is paired with a searching analysis of politics and national mythmaking.
It starts out as a relatively straightforward quest narrative. Our guileless hero, Casper Kent (Kevin Stangler), is sought out by a wizard cum storyteller named Hap the Golden (an enthusiastic William Dick, costumed to look like Dr. John). Hap reveals that Casper is not the simple farmer’s son he believes himself to be, but the long-lost heir to the land’s now-dead queen. Casper’s mission is to find and lift his mother’s magic hammer, which will make him king and unite the warring folk of the realm under a benevolent monarchy.
Once Casper gets his mitts on the hammer at the end of part one, Allen and Mathews widen the scope beyond the new king and his compatriots—chiefly, a stern Viking (JJ Phillips), a rueful cowboy (John Henry Roberts), and a chess whiz (Kara Davidson) who comes in handy at strategy-planning sessions—to encompass the other side of Casper’s story of triumph. This involves the unwashed mass of self-proclaimed “crownless” folk (and some outlaws, pirates, and capitalists) who’d prefer freedom and democracy to playing their prescribed roles in Hap’s rigid hierarchy.
They have a storyteller of their own: a dragon called Irek Obsidian. He looks something like a giant slab of shale come to life (the puppet design is by Jesse Mooney-Bullock) and is voiced by none other than Steppenwolf Theatre Company actor and playwright Tracy Letts. Irek spends much of the second play persuading Casper that his true destiny lies in relinquishing the crown, setting the stage for liberty or chaos depending on your perspective. The point Allen and Mathews seem to be making is that true power lies with whoever controls the narrative. “Stories save us all!” the characters keep shouting, but they have a definite destructive force here as well.
By the beginning of the third part, the two sides—Hap’s and Irek’s—are locked in spectacular civil war. It’s up to a new storyteller, the hippielike July of the Seven Foxes (Kay Kron), to spin a yarn that will convince everyone to lay down their arms and embrace pluralism. How she does this, exactly, is left awfully vague, but it somehow results in a romance with Casper and happily-ever-afters for most (though not all) of his friends.
Even when sense and motivation feel lacking or arguments aren’t exactly airtight, the script never stops supplying stuff to think about, while Allen, as director, pulls off one dazzling coup de theatre after another. Especially impressive are the battle scenes, which take place on land, at sea, and in the air, and are achieved with the help of toy models, Mooney-Bullock’s gorgeous cloth-and-metal puppets, and Matt Hawkins’s exhilarating fight choreography. Altogether it’s a surprisingly short nine hours.