Chicago Theatre Review
The Greatest Good
The Hammer Trinity – House Theatre
Simply put, the House Theatre’s Hammer Trinity succinctly and enthusiastically upholds and tops, time and time again, the companies commitment to “amazing feats of storytelling.” From Natan Allen and Chris Mathews’s desire to create an American King Arthur and his court comes flourishes epic of staggering proportions with breathtaking stagecraft and an intellectual scope, I wish every citizen should be required to see.
Knit over nine hours and three separate plays the Hammer Trinity tells of the rise and fall of Casper Kent (Kevin Stangler), lost king of the Land and ruler of the Folk. The Iron Stag King begins in a land crownless and divided, where the mysterious storyteller Hap the Golden (William Dick) along with his companions Rienne Boileau (Kara Davidson), WIlkie Foresbrand (J.J. Phillips, understudied by Aaron Latterell), Pepper Tintype (Ben Hertel) and Hollow Thom Gadsden (John Henry Roberts) pluck the orphaned king from his hiding place and fetch him to the magical hammer that is his destiny, one step ahead of the murderous Henley Hawthorn (Joey Streakley) and the mysterious storyteller July (Kay Kron). In The Crownless King, Casper, now in possession of hammer and crown, finds that the story of glorious accent Hap painted is more tangled and requires some vicious cleaning to keep gleaming, as he struggles against the populist pirate Davy Boone (Joe Bianco) and the machinations July’s father Irik Obsidian (Tracy Letts). In the Excelsior King, July claims the story in an effort to save Casper and the fractured folk from themselves and prevent Kaelan Wayne (Christopher Hainsworth) whose thirst for power tripped the fall in the first place, from destroying the land and silencing stories forever.
Like any great epic all of this takes time to tell. Running nine hours the company has broken each chapter of the story into segments no longer than sixty five minutes (with a one hour dinner break, with the option to order food in the theater or venture further afield). It’s a significant investment of time but the rewards are well worth it. It takes time to get through Iron Stag, the simplest of the three plays, and set up the rules of the world: the power of storyteller as magic (Hap and July are our puppet masters, using Sioux to speak the world into being), the multitudes of folk (Vikings, alongside cowboys, alongside French academics, alongside Jeffersonian fops, alongside Bostonian pirates, etc) and the odd politics of belief in this world. Once we get into The Crownless King (my personal favorite of the Trilogy) we are free to leave the shallows and swim freely in the cold but delightful depths of betrayal and despair.
Allan and Mathew’s are top-story story tellers, carefully knitting their story together and giving it voice with honesty. Their language, though poetical and richer, is not so mired in antiquity and pomposity; full of vibrant jokes (most expertly pitched by Casper’s uncle Abraham Pride, the magnificent Christopher M Walsh), weighty thoughts, and occasionally tipping the wink to us, for humorous or horrifying effect. Allan and his own court of production worthies (special thanks must be payed to sound designer Joshua Horvath and puppet designer Jesse Mooney-Bullock) have poured their hearts blood into fully fleshing out a world of wonder. In the miniature and the mammoth scale (Oh! Those naval battles! My knees go weak with remembrance.), in the fast flowing fight scenes (some of the best fight choreography I’ve ever seen, well done Matt Hawkins) and the still but white hot moments of private confrontation. It’s a very cinematic experience but still feels immediate and dependent on our energies. And there’s a life-sized dragon on stage. What more could you possibly want?
But The Hammer Trinity’s true beauty lies not in its spectacle but in its usefulness. For all its epic quality it is a truly American play and deals with some of the thorniest problems that have plagued the country from before its independence to it’s present, turbulent state. The political questions are never highlighted or brandished but they’re there. But even more important than the menagerie of allegories, is the actual life and death debated with swords and pistols are the ancient, unsolvable question: how should a nation be governed (if at all) and what is our duty (if any) to our fellow citizens, whoever they may be. It is a story about what we chose to believe, or are made to believe, and what we would die for, or make others die for.
That level of commitment, that wonderful, awful commitment to an idea you’d kill for is fully held up in a fantastic cast. Dick and Kron are superb storytellers, both in world and out; the formal the very picture of avuncular amiability, until he isn’t, the latter undergoing a slow but meticulous transformation of a feral creature to a compassionate leader. Davidson rejoices in Rienne’s doubt and her wit, detailing her thoughts for us with the slightest gesture. And as for Roberts, the very essence of worldweary gunslinger with a vipers nest of regrets wriggling inside him, earned every moment of the applause and laughter and love we lavished on him. Even the “villains” of the place are played with aplomb and nuance, Bianco’s Davy Boone, rich in sardonic humor and quiet menace, became almost beloved of us as Hollow Thom, and Hensworth’s understatement and reasonability as Wayne, perhaps the mildest performance of all, made the architect of Casper’s woes supremely terrifying.
The whole Hammer Trinity is a play that embraces you. I have never been in an audience that has cheered so much, or been so of one accord (over nine hours no less) to the trials and triumphs of a cast of characters. Though the story be of an epic nature, we glom to it’s characters like family (just like family in fact; they drive us crazy, disappoint our hopes, break our hearts and we still rally ‘round them). It is a play that is interested first and foremost in telling a good story; as all theater ought to, but also challenges us to think about how we are beholden to our fellow creatures, and implores us not to fall into easy stories but to be righteous and just in all our dealings, personal and political. It goes above and beyond the call of duty to astonish us and encourage us, dozens of warm hands clasped around our own to consider our thoughts and feelings, the tales we tell and take part in, and be better people. A potent reminder that Story can “save us all,” so long as we trust in it.
Reviewed by Ben Kemper
Tickets available at thehousetheater.com, or at 773-769-3832.
The Chopin Theatre 1543 W Division St, just off the Division Blue Line stop.
Marathon Runs: 2/20-5/3. Saturday and Sunday at 2:00-11:00. $65
Single Shows of The Excelsior KingL: 3/14-5/1. Fridays at 7:30-10:30 $30
Double Feature (The Iron Stag King and the Crownless King). Friday April 3rd and April 17th at 7:00. $60
For more information about this or other shows visit, Theaterinchicago.com