House Theatre artistic director Nathan Allen and Chris Mathews have partnered to create the epic trilogy “The Iron Stag King,” which Allen describes as the tale of “Arthur, in a parallel proto-America.” This pioneer American/Norse/British fantasy adventure, with over thirty cast and staff members, was slated for production at the end of their tenth season, but was pushed back when “Death and Harry Houdini” went into an extended run as one of the most popular shows of the year.
Ten years old, House Theatre creates immersive experiences for viewers. “There is no moat separating the audience from the performance. Our goal is, when the audience leaves, for them to feel less alone,” says Allen. The company is chomping at the bit to put on its dungeon-crawling, violent show, which is filled with zany segmented metal animal puppets, flying lights, algorithmic sounds and Tolkienesque costumes. The writers shared their hopes, dreams, and tongue-in-cheek qualms about their massive Dungeons and Dragons meets cowboys and Indians baby in interviews during and after “Iron Stag King”’s first rehearsal.
Nathan, you’ve written for House many times before, including “The Sparrow,” which won a Jeff award, and the Valentine trilogy. How does your experience with Valentine inform “Stag”?
NA: We were significantly younger when we did the Valentine trilogy. We were still learning what kinds of stories we were interested in. Valentine was a conscious effort to experiment with hero-ness. I was a big Joseph Campbell nut, figuring out how do these kinds of stories work, and with Valentine we were basically trying to make our version of Star Wars. The epic scope allows for the span of that conversation. I was never fully satisfied by the Valentine trilogy, and now it’s time to revisit it from another angle. If that was “Star Wars,” this is “The Dark Knight,” more mature and intelligent. Not that “Star Wars” isn’t mature and intelligent…
House is billing “Iron Stag” as an attempt to “explore the nature of leadership, governance and the American struggle to balance personal liberty with sacrifice for a greater good.” Unpack that massive mantra for me.
NA: (Laughs) The first trilogy was an analysis, retrospectively, of what we were dealing with during 9/11. It was all about injustice, or pain, and dealing with it on a scale of forgiveness, justice or revenge, and how that affects our spirit and our character as people. This is looking at an American popular problem: The King Arthur structure of the “round” table, but one of the dudes is wearing a crown. Arthur is the nationalist myth for England; I’m interested in looking at what ours are. It’s looking at those ideas of governance, community, union… through a magic hammer and a dragon and things. Camelot fails, and so must ours. It must be revealed to be only a myth.
This production’s timeframe was pushed back by the extraordinary run of “Death and Harry Houdini.” Did it change anything about this show, or your perceptions of what House audiences will expect?
NA: You always want more time! And this is literally buying more time. Hopefully something like 10,000 people have seen “Houdini” by the end, and if we hadn’t kept it running, they wouldn’t have known about “Iron Stag.”
CM: It’s an opportunity or a damnation, and I’m gonna say it’s an opportunity to give a little variety to the audience. We’ve made so many new audience members with “Houdini,” and this show is gonna be a big swing in a different direction. I hope it’ll show off the other styles of performing that we’re interested in. “Houdini” has set the bar high, but this show’s gonna match that. We will meet our own standards.
Nate, in a promotional video online you used some Dungeons & Dragons lingo. “The tank attacks the thing… somebody shoots arrows at that thing, somebody casts spells to heal the dude taking the damage… somebody else is running around and stabbing it in the back!” At the risk of sounding ridiculous, are there dungeon crawls in this?
NA: Totally! We embrace the popular part of the mythology, that’s the fun stuff, the candy. Fantasy is fun for people, which is why it exists—there is something romantic and playful about it. D&D works pretty well, or World of Warcraft… There’s a billion people playing that game or something! And there’s something true about its storytelling that makes it work.
NA: That’s a good question. Hopefully it’s awesome, that’s all that matters! “Last of the Mohicans” stuff, butting people with rifles after only having one bullet…
CM: With “Cyrano,” there was so much elegance in the swordplay that even as deadly a weapon as a sword is, it is still a gentleman’s art. So much was about the spectacle of the swordplay. With this world, with the West and guerrilla, martial and melee fighting styles, it lends itself to being hopefully a bit more brutal and savage. Rifle butt to the face… Different visceral experience.
NA: Swords, bows and arrows and flintlocks. And a cannon.
And… a cannon?
CM: The suggestion of a cannon (laugh) offstage. To blow apart some infantry lines. There are really massive battles to some extent, and good one on one action. The proximity will make it feel like massive melee.
The overall design is fit for an epic—what about sound design?
NA: Harrison is modeling sound like wind cues and rain cues, not using the “bucket” of sound libraries… With modeling you are creating a computer program—and video games do this—that responds to your modeling an environment. You mathematically create the sound of wind out of a sine wave, and filter that through the sine wave of pine trees, which sounds different than wind on a desert. Allows us a kind of crazy control over giving the audience this immersive experience. The magic of theater.
Crazy. What ideas would you like to play with in the future?
NA: Those are my secrets… I wanna write Superman! My movie of Superman would be the best ever. Otherwise, we’re always looking for whatever is inspiring us in the moment for how to give the audience a fun, immersive, special and moving experience in some way. Sometimes that comes out as this crazy American fantasy or as a cheerleader with super-powers. It’s not about the genre; it’s about giving a uniquely moving experience that feels amazing.
House Theatre at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 West Division, (773)769-3832. August 31-October 21. (Half-Priced Tickets)