Deep in the second act of The Iron Stag King: Part One—a visually lush but utterly confusing new fantasy romp from the House Theatre of Chicago—our underdog heroes wheel out a scale model of a battlefield and review their plan for the climactic confrontation. It's a classic, even hackneyed exposition scene, but I drank it in like a marathon runner at the mile-20 water station. At last I had a clear sense of what these characters were thinking, and why. So what if the only goal is to grab a magic hammer and ring a bell? A quest I can understand is one I can get behind, so let's go find that hammer.
Maybe that makes me denser than the typical House Theatre audience member (though the strangers I quizzed at intermission seemed to feel as lost as I did). Or maybe cowriter/director Nathan Allen is banking on the notion that archetype matters more than specifics in the fantasy genre—that good guys go on a quest because that's what good guys do, and details are for Muggles.
The quest-addled good guy in this case is Casper Kent, played by fresh-faced Brandon Ruiter. Born to a benevolent queen in an era of violent democratic reform, Kent was smuggled out of harm's way as an infant, to the safekeeping of a simple woodsman who's been raising him unaware of his royal lineage. As he reaches young adulthood, Casper falls under the influence of the wandering storyteller Hap the Golden, a trickster/guide who catalyzes the story's meandering quest. Kent, Hap, and the rest of their merry band set out to defeat the violent antiroyalist demagogue Henley Hawthorne, played with delightful puritan starch by Joey Steakley.
There's probably a commentary on the promise and danger of democracy rattling around in all of this, but I'll be damned if I can find it. If fantasy is a pastiche of cultures and myths, the script Allen has written with fellow House member Chris Mathews is a pastiche of pastiches. The authors have blended medieval Arthurian lore with revolver-toting cowboy tropes, and thrown in Hawthorne's Cromwellian antics as a kicker. Hawthorne is nominally a proponent of democracy, but one suspects that he's only really keen on the type of democracy where he holds all the votes.
Contrast that base opportunism with what's presented here as an equally dangerous yet noble monarchy. Legend has it that the magic hammer can only be hefted by true royalty—and once hefted, well, usurpers beware. Although the hammer's only magic property seems to be its choosiness about who can lift it, it's pretty big. A clop or two from that thing will do some damage.
If The Iron Stag King's message about power and government is obscure, perhaps it's because the House folks poured most of their energy into making the production look awesome. Collette Pollard's set is a tight, empty square in the center of a tiered seating ring; together with Melissa Torchia's vivid costuming, it makes you feel like you're watching a game of Dungeons and Dragons come to life. Lee Keenan's stunning steampunk puppetry is a unifying visual element amid the riot of Old West and medieval motifs, blending industrial-age angularity with the heraldic look of such creations as the iron stag, a pack of foxes, and a very large contrivance that's best left undiscussed.
Harrison Adams's sound design is equally rich, reaching Lost-esque levels of suspense thanks to Kevin O'Donnell's ominous original score. As a bonus, Steppenwolf Theatre heavy Tracy Letts voices a shadowy villain called Irek Obsidian.
But a show of this scale and ambition needs something more going for it than fantastic aesthetics and technical savvy, as important as those things are. In the end, the fantasy genre boils down to creating a weird but recognizable place where relatable characters do the astonishing things we wish we could. What The Iron Stag King lacks is the relatable characters. Occasional stabs at untangling their motivations fall short; at one point, for instance, the ghost of a minor character's dead daughter appears onstage, providing the first and last inkling that her father is anything more than muscle on the mission. Rather than make me care, the moment just baffled me.
So even though there's no sin quite as bad as providing too much exposition, and even though it was too little too late, that battlefield model came as a welcome relief. A good dungeon master has to focus on the fundamentals of plot, allow for the cultivation of character, and make the stakes clear. Maybe in the follow-up installments to this trilogy, Allen can leave the model out onstage for the duration.