Is it possible to experience a three-part theater epic packed into a 10-hour marathon and go home feeling exhilarated instead of exhausted? Most definitely, particularly if the House Theatre of Chicago is doing the storytelling.
Since the company’s 2011 Miami debut with The Sparrow at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, the House has come back annually to entertain and fascinate an expanding pool of South Florida fans with its signature simple, mythic, highly theatrical style. What Carnival Studio Theater audiences experienced through shows like Death and Harry Houdini, The Magnificents and Rose and the Rime is back — times three — in The Hammer Trinity.
Written by House artistic director Nathan Allen and company member Chris Mathews, the three plays are connected, refracted parts of the pointedly grand-scale story of a “parallel proto-America.” In The Iron Stag King, The Crownless King and The Excelsior King, the playwrights offer up a hero’s journey to get us thinking about so many things: myths, politics, human nature, perspective, the cost of war, that vast gray area between absolute good and complete evil.
As in Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, The Hammer Trinity unfolds in a place with its own geography, factions, characters, customs and history. You can certainly go into each of the three plays knowing nothing — key pieces of information are offered bit by bit, then reinforced or repeated — but you may want to visit http://www.thehammertrinity.com/ before you go. The site includes a map of the invented country with its different regions, descriptions of the characters and a plot summary for each play.
Entering the world of The Hammer Trinity with some knowledge or context does help, particularly if you’ll be doing the $150 marathon (that translates to more than six hours of theater, two hour-long meal breaks and four intermissions). The time-money binge is certainly worth it if you want to experience Allen and Matthews’ epic in all its fullness. But knowing that some people won’t make that commitment, the Arsht has now dropped its marathon-only stance so that theatergoers can see an individual play for $55.
Each play begins with that familiar incantation, “Once upon a time.” And each is narrated by a different character, so that information you get in one play can get an entirely different spin in the next. And you should know that at least two of the narrators are unreliable.
First up is Hap the Golden (Raymond Fox), a manipulative magician who relates the background story of Kathryn Grey (Deanna Myers), latest monarch in the Lavender Crown, a line of kings and queens who once ruled the land through the power of a great hammer (think King Arthur’s Excalibur).
With a dragon-magician named Irek Obsidian stirring rebellion, Lady Kathryn forms a republic through an alliance called The Hand, joining forces with cowboy-like Gordon Pride (Patrick Falcon), marauding pirate Davy Boone (Joe Bianco), sinister Kaelan Wayne (Christopher Hainsworth) and the foppish Henley Hawthorne (Joey Steakley). Peace proves fragile, however, once Lady Kathryn and Gordon conceive a child. Murder and civil war follow. And that’s just the prologue.
The hero of all three tales is the orphaned Casper Kent (Kevin Stangler), the unknowing heir to the Lavender Crown. Once Casper learns of the hidden hammer and his destiny, he reluctantly embarks on a quest to find it, assume the throne and restore peace. He has plenty of help along the way, which is a good thing, as plenty of others are dedicated to his demise.
The second play is narrated by “democracy” advocate Irek Obsidian, who appears as a giant dragon puppet with a hypnotic recorded voice supplied by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tracy Letts. He, too, is a magician and every bit as slickly conniving as Hap the Golden.
The concluding play is told from the “feminine perspective” by the valiant July of the Seven Foxes (Kay Kron), Irek’s daughter and Casper’s true love, though not his queen.
Allen and Mathews have filled The Hammer Trinity with plenty of other fascinating characters too: Rienne Boileau (Kara Davidson), a superb archer, chess grand master and brilliant strategist; Wilke Forsbrand (JJ Phillips), a surly Viking sworn to protect Casper; Hollow Thom Gadsden (John Henry Roberts), a lethal “cradlesnake” who has spent years searching for his missing daughter; Lady Olympia (Isabel Liss), vengeful survivor of a genocide; Abraham Pride (Christopher M. Walsh), Casper’s colorful uncle; Virginia (Celeste Cooper), the plucky captain of a ship called the Nemesis; Ebon Kent (Jeremy Sonkin), the farmer who has been Casper’s wise foster father; and Pepper Tintype (Benjamin Hertel), an overly enthusiastic photographer who becomes a comic sidekick to Casper and company.
Such twists, varying the story by blending laughter and romance and loss, keep the epic engaging, as do the vibrant performances of the actors, who might be playing a major role one minute, then operating one of designer Jesse Mooney-Bullock’s endearing fox puppets the next.
Allen’s staging, with the audience seated on risers on two sides of a long rectangular playing area, is brimming with thrilling battles, intimate moments and clever touches, such as a fight to the death between miniature dragons and tiny bomb-dropping airplanes.
As fine as it is, The Hammer Trinity isn’t near-flawless epic theater on the order of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby. At the opening performance of the Miami run, actors muffed lines here and there, a technical glitch near the end of the third play meant the cast had to re-play the lead-in to a dramatic rescue, and a character’s French accent sounded more cartoonish than convincing.
Still, Allen and Mathews are masterful theater artists. And their ambition — to take audiences on a large-scale artistic adventure as a kind of capstone to the House’s first 15 years — is a mission accomplished.
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If You Go
What: ‘The Hammer Trinity’ (‘The Iron Stag King,’ ‘The Crownless King,’ ‘The Excelsior King’).
Where: House Theatre of Chicago production in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.
When: 1 p.m. (‘Iron Stag King’), 4 p.m. (‘Crownless King’) and 7 p.m. ‘Excelsior King’) Saturday-Sunday, through May 8.
Cost: $150 for the marathon, $55 for individual shows.
Information: 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org