Wednesday, September 19, 2012

REVIEW: THE HERO'S JOURNEY, TONGUE-IN-CHEEK - 'Iron Stag King: Part One' by The House Theatre

(Photo by Michael Brosilow)

The fantasy genre is rarely explored onstage. And the few times the theatre has welcomed it dramatically–"Lord of The Rings" in Toronto and the West End, for example–the plays too often become victims of vicious critical scorn and audience mockery. Many would argue that science-fiction and fantasy have no place on the boards–probably because of competition from the cinema's costly, elaborate, and ever more realistic visual effects. A ten dollar movie ticket to a "Harry Potter" film usually gets you a more awesome two hours than a thirty dollar theatre ticket to a young adult production of "The Hobbit". My two cents.

But, now that I think on it, stage realism fights a similar battle against the camera close up. Can one get more intrusive, personal, and, dare I say, honest than a tight shot on an actor's face? But the plays of Inge, Miller, Wilder, and other realist masters prove hugely popular, regardless. I like to think that onscreen and onstage fantasy can coexist peacefully and symbiotically as well. "Iron Stag King: Part One", the first installment in a new trilogy by the House Theatre at the Chopin, is a valiant step towards that coexistence, but falls far short of its potential. Nathan Allen and Chris Matthews' play, attempting to do justice to fantasy epics, inadvertently lampoons a genre I adore and cherish.

Harrison Adams' sound design is airy and spectacular, Sarah Hughey's lights are alive with whimsy, Justin Verstraete's fight choreography in the latter half is thrilling and contains a clever sequence with arrows, Nathan Allen's in-the-round directionthough I'd prefer the play in prosceniumis swift and decisive, and Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts lends his smoky voice to a big ol' metallic dragon. Now, if only the play, itself, was better. The story of the nubile peasant-turned-king Casper Kent and the wizard-storyteller Hap The Golden is essentially just the hero's journey with the slightest deviation from that tried-and-true plot structure. 

But the hero's journey, in its contemporary explorations–"Harry Potter", "The Lord of The Rings", "Star Wars", etc–is not only dependent upon the brand of labyrinthine mythos on which "Iron Stag King" relies. Such fantasy, my friends, is called a Role Playing Game. The three sagas listed above all revolve around well fleshed-out characters and mind-blowing stakes. Stakes being conspicuously absent here, "The Iron Stag King" is more akin to The World of Warcraft, Age of Empires, and Myst, but without the skill, intelligence, or interactivity of those quest games. Have you ever watched a friend play a video game while only one controller was available? The goings are slow, tedious, and frustrating.

That is not to entirely devalue the character work in "Iron Stag King". Our hero, Casper, whose father's death early in the play spurs his epic quest, is given an earnest and likably innocent portrayal by Brandon Ruiter. And there is much satisfaction to be gained in watching Ruiter discover his rightful Kinghood, as he repeatedly intervenes in some otherwise unsolvable situations by excitedly exclaiming, "Your King commands you!" Predictable and hokey, yes, but it gave me chills every time. The same can be said for Walter Briggs as battle-hungry warrior, Wilke Forsbrand, and Ben Bertel as Pepper, a shop boy with an eye-rolling secret. I also must offer the utmost praise for my critical  colleague, Ms. Ada Grey, whose formidable acting chops were proven last season, downstairs at the Chopin, in The Hypocrites' "Six Characters In Search of An Author". Ms. Grey is back in "Iron Stag King", performing alongside her real-life father, John Henry Roberts, in a touching and surreal vision sequence.

The standard-issue object imbued with great power, here, is a hammer–not unlike Thor's– once held by the Lady of The Grass, Casper's deceased mother. The hammer is said to bring the lands together, but beyond that wisdom, I'm not so sure as to the nature of its power. That tidbit was likely revealed during the preface's avalanche of exposition. The fellowship of the hammer's quest is guided by a magician-storyteller named Hap The Golden, played far too omnisciently ambivalent by Cliff Chamberlain. Hap and others constant harp on "stories" and "storytelling", which comes across as a corny and self-congratulatory pat on the back for simply showing to the theatre. It is said, at least twice, that the stories of kings must be told to be "an example for us all." A single utterance of that phrase might have proved effective, but the grating repetition rings of parody as it hits you over the head with that sacred hammer.

In fact, as a humongous science fiction and fantasy buff, I was rather taken aback by just how self-deprecating, and wink-wink-nudge-nudge the play is. The dialogue brings constant attention to its own absurdities, the villain, a fictitious early American politician named Henley Hawthorne (Joey Steakley) is irksomely foppish, and many of the supporting characters are more comic than fantastical. Truly, there is an ever-present tongue-in-cheek sensibility that eliminates just about any seriousness until the somewhat successful final half hour. Also, pardon my nerdery, but if one of your supposed "good guys" is supernatural, then your supposed "villain" must have, at least, an equally magical prowess. Henley Hawthorne certainly doesn't seem magical–unless I missed something, which is highly possible given the sheer amount of expository detail. So, why doesn't Hap just whisper a jibberish enchantment, and have dinner on the stove by 8:30?   

Before the final thirty minutes are two full hours of name dropping and obscure histories that go later unmentionedall scored by Kevin O'Donnell's original music, delightfully reminiscent of the first few bars of Shirley Bassey's "Diamonds are Forever." A benefit of the hero's journey in  introducing an unfamiliar world's mythology is that the hero is always ignorant to the wider goings on around him–just like us. Casper knows very little of his circumstances and what is to come next. His newfound pack of friends explains it to him in a manner rambling and uncommitted, so the varying significance of each packet of data is not fully  relayed. Those sections of the story cannot rely on the same visual splendor that House achieves in the penultimate battle scene. Those sections belong to the actors' vocal nuance and the expressed imagery contained within the dialogue. But the spoken words are incredibly stilted and too design-centric to bring the story to vibrant life.

I'm going to stick with "Iron Stag King" parts two and three, being curious as t0 where the trilogy will take us. After all, the inherent expository nature of a first volume does not work in this play's favor. But the details are a necessary evil of course, and the immediacy mustn't be neglected. In "Part One," it sadly is. As it is said, stories of kings must be told to be "an example for us all." "Iron Stag King: Part One" should prove a cautionary example for its creative team as they continue on their journey. -Johnny Oleksinski

"The Iron Stag King: Part One" by the House Theatre runs at The Chopin Theatre through October 21. Visit for more information.