The Iron Stag King | Stage review
"The design was great—they weren't trying to convince you that things were real."
That's how 14-year-old Charlie, who lives near Horner Park on the city's North Side, described The Iron Stag King, the latest show from the dynamic House Theatre of Chicago. It was a sharp observation of the the House's aesthetic, which is thrillingly yet plainly theatrical. (The ensemble's signature style was most recently evident past spring and summer in Death and Harry Houdini.) The actors and designers of the House don't try to hide the mechanics of the stage show as big-budget touring productions do; instead, they find magic in live performance on an intimate stage.
There might have been no better example during Iron Stag than a battle between an eagle and a snake. As eager humans bet on which animal will win, other cast members manipulate dueling puppets designed by Lee Keenan. Abetted by a smart sound design, it's a thrilling sequence—"very creative," decreed Charlie's brother, 10-year-old Mike, after the show. "The puppets were really cool."
A world premiere intended as the first of a trilogy, Iron Stag feels like a heady mashup of fantasy and Western. Packed with action and intrigue, it will appeal to older kids and game adults alike. (Over at our sister magazine Time Out Chicago, theater editor Kris Vire also rated the show four stars out of five.) Recommended for kids age 12 or so and up, it's suitable (as Mike proved) for smart middle-schoolers, although parents should know the show does contain some swearing and stage violence.
The broad strokes of the plot will be familiar to almost any age. In the narrated prologue, we learn that the kingdom has been ruled peacefully for generations by one royal family who can wield a mystic hammer. (Iron Stag quickly distinguishes itself here by making the the lineage more than merely patriarchal: "The hammer passed from father to daughter to mother to son.") But the powerful words of an unseen master storyteller convince the populace that anyone can rule the land; forging a compromise, the reigning queen crafts a coalition of five regents, herself included. When that peace is shattered and the queen and her consort are slain, her newborn babe—cut from her womb in another simple but effective moment of stagecraft—gets spirited far away, through the woods by an iron stag. Naive to his true heritage, young Casper is raised by a kindly farmer, Eben Kent. Seventeen years later, as the country teeters on the brink of another civil war led by Henley Hawthorne (who claims he seeks to form a democracy), Casper finally learns of his parentage from Hap the Golden as he is called upon to fight and assume his "rightful" throne.
The play makes no pretense of hiding its multiple influences, from biblical fables to Arthurian legend to Tolkien's Middle-Earth. Still, there's a novel spin thanks to its sheen of Americana—the trappings of the Wild West in costumes and settings, and even Casper's coming-of-age backstory. When his father tells him, "You're a Kent," echoes of the Superman mythos resound.
But its ultimate success comes from asking some big (and grown-up) questions — Is it better to be governed by democracy or a monarchy? What amount of sacrifice is acceptable in war? Do the ends justify the means? — without providing pat answers. Playwrights Nathan Allen (who also directed) and Chris Mathews let the audience ruminate on these issues, even as they blur the line between hero and villain in act two, which led to some great conversation between kids and adults after the show.
"I'm suspicious of Hap the Golden," Mike told me afterwards. (As well he probably should be; the conclusion of the first part of this trilogy left the terrain uncertain. Who's the villain—Hap, Henley or the heard-but-not-seen voice of Tracy Letts?) Meanwhile, the House can be proud that they've made some enthusiastic new fans, including a previously skeptical teen. "I went in wary about how long it was," Charlie said (the entire running time was about two-and-a-half hours, including intermission), "but it was really interesting."
The House Theatre's The Iron Stag King runs through October 21 at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W Division Ave. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 7pm. Tickets cost $25.