Review: “The Crownless King”

RECOMMENDED

Where: The House Theatre of Chicago at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St.
When: through Oct. 20
Tickets: $20-$40
Phone: 773-769-3832

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

At one point in “The Crownless King,” the second part of The House Theatre of Chicago’s fantasy-adventure trilogy that started last year with “The Iron Stag King,” our royal hero, young Casper Kent (Brandon Ruiter), makes a rousing speech about the virtues of maintaining the peace in the face of hostility, and I found myself thinking, “send this boy to Washington, D.C.” Then he heads out to sea in a borrowed ship to meet rebel pirate Davy Boone and put his idealism into practice — and all hell breaks loose.

Frequent flashes of contemporary relevance are just part of the fun in Artistic Director Nathan Allen and company member Chris Mathew’s epic, which revels in its convoluted plot and complex geography inspired, it seems, by everything from Arthurian legends to “The Pirates of the Caribbean.” Part two takes place mostly on the high seas, and though it feels a bit like it’s treading water between the “Stag King” set up and what hopefully will be a thrilling part three finale, it also offers plenty of action, character development and creative stagecraft, not to mention ethical conundrums involving leadership and the quest to find the balance between personal liberty and sacrifice for a greater good.

Having raised the magical hammer that proves him to be king and theoretically unites the lands, Casper has to figure out how to wield it, maintain the loyalty of the “folk,” and navigate among competing forces. On one hand, rebel pirate Davy Boone (Blake Montgomery) is leading his fleet to attack New Plymouth. On another, Lady Olympia of the Grass (Brenda Barrie), who has ships Casper could use to defend the town, in return wants the king to surrender Hollow Thom (John Henry Roberts), a man who has become his ally but destroyed her people.

And that’s not even the main conflict. The underlying theme — historiography territory — is that he who tells the story shapes and controls it. The antagonistic storytellers battling for dominion are Hap the Golden (Cliff Chamberlain), a magician with murky intentions who holds sway over Casper and the court, and Irek Obsidian (voiced by Tracy Letts), a powerful dragon with a hidden agenda and motivations that are not yet clear. 

As was the case for “Stag King,” Collette Pollard’s scenic design places the audience and the actors inside a kind of cage, but this time around, a dramatic cliff-hanger finale symbolically frees everyone for whatever is to come. Despite the small size of the playing area — or perhaps because of it — director Allen and his designers have created some impressive special effects ranging from the glowing dragon Irek to puppet wolves and miniature ships.   

All in all, “The Crownless King” isn’t the best show you’re likely to see this season, but it does typify The House Theatre of Chicago’s imagination and ingenuity.