CHICAGO: For those who grew up on a steady diet of The Lord of the Rings, King Arthur and Superman, The Hammer Trilogy—currently playing at the House Theatre through May 3—may be treading familiar territory. Boy grows up poor. Boy discovers that he is the son of a king. Boy must lift a hammer that can be held high only by the true king.
Okay, so there may be some Thor in there, too, though director and cowriter Nathan Allen doesn’t see much difference between classical theatre and superheroes. “It’s just Greek theatre with capes instead of togas,” Allen figures.
The Hammer Trilogy was specifically born out of a desire to create an American King Arthur story. “Arthur is an origin story for Great Britain. We were interested in how we might make an American mythology and origin story and set it in a proto-America,” says Allen, who shares writing credit for the show with House company member Chris Mathews. “It all ends up looking like the French and Indian War—just this mixture of nature and early technologies, and also a panoply of cultures coming together.”
The trilogy is made up of three plays: The Iron Stag King (which originally ran in 2012), The Crownless King (which appeared the following year) and The Excelsior King (now in its world premiere run). This is the first time the three plays have been staged together—there will be a nine-hour marathon version on weekends, and the plays will be mounted individually throughout the week.
Similar in length and scale to the Lord of the Rings films, Hammer features thematic conflicts such as personal-liberties-versus-the-greater-good and divine-right-of-kings-versus-bootstrapping-your-way-to-greatness. If this all sounds too grandiose, worry not. There are also sword fights, puppets and a 30-foot dragon voiced by Tracy Letts.
The latter contribution is oddly appropriate. “Letts is an honest-to-God American theatre hero!” exclaims Allen. Raise that hammer high.