The Crownless King at the House Theatre of Chicago: Theater review
The second installment of the House Theatre's new fantasy trilogy has a hard time standing on its own.
The second installment of the House’s new fantasy trilogy picks up roughly where last fall’s The Iron Stag King left off: Manipulative storyteller Hap the Golden (Cliff Chamberlain) has installed orphan and supposed true heir Casper Kent (Brandon Ruiter) as ruler of the Folk of New Plymouth. But a new enemy arises in the form of pirate Davy Boone, who represents the interests of nearby Havenston and its control of the Salt sea. Hap arranges a royal wedding to cement the people’s affections for Casper. But he sets Casper up with savvy, loyal local girl Rianne (Paige Collins) rather than Casper’s real love, the mystical July of the Seven Foxes (Kay Kron). Oh, nd July’s turned out to be kind of the daughter of possible big bad Irek Obsidian (again voiced by Tracy Letts). Got all that?
The Crownless King suffers as so many middle passages of high-mythology trilogies do. It’s got to jog your memory about what happened in part one while also getting to the business at hand of expanding on that base, and simultaneously hoping to satisfy as a stand-alone piece for those who didn’t see the beginning and may not come back next year for the finale.
I’m not certain Crownless passes the latter test. Even with a brief recap narrated by Letts, I found myself struggling to recall the events of Iron Stag King and the status quo at the top of the new play; by the time Casper and July make reference in Act II to Pepper, a major character in Iron Stag King who doesn’t appear in this episode (but whose portrayer, Ben Hertel, continues on as an ensemble member), newbies might well be lost.
Even co-writers Nathan Allen and Chris Mathews seem to have forgotten some of their own ideas; though phrases like “don’t tread on me” and “the torch of liberty” still appear in the dialogue, the allegorical links to the formative days of the United States feel less explicitly made than in the first installment. Other elements are more modern, such as Montgomery’s weirdly Andrew Dice Clay–like dialect as Boone.
Allen’s staging retains the inventiveness of volume one, as does the actors’ guileless commitment to the world of the play. Yet after all the required world-building of The Iron Stag King, one wishes for a few more character revelations about our core crew. We don’t learn much new about Casper, Hap, Rianne or July in The Crownless King that we didn’t know at the end of the prior piece. For a world in which story is power, story has to be more than plot.