The Hammer Trinity tries to do a lot, but it has the advantage of being a nine-hour play, and one in which (if one sees it in a single afternoon and evening, as I did, tension is successfully maintained to the point where one almost wishes it were longer which is quite a feat). Its main conceit is to mix European folk narratives and magic with the story of the American Republic and its ideological development. It takes as its starting point a narrative which is heavily based in modern and traditional British and European folk, fantasy, and literature. The hero Casper Kent, as the play itself briefly points out, resembles many other fairy, folk, and fantasy heroes. He is an orphan, living in poverty, unaware of his birthright to be king, and embarks with friends on a great quest to raise a magical hammer which will proclaim him as a true king and restore order and unity in the land (King Arthur, Rowling, Tolkien, Lewis, and even Dickens are nearly alluded in the play). He encounters dragons, enchantresses, lords, ladies, grandmasters, ancient, academies, wizards, and magic. However, the wizards and sorceresses use American Indian language for their storytelling incantations, and characters have names and like Virginia, July, and Davy Boone.
Soon Casper’s quest to become king, preserve the peace, give hope, and dispense justice and mercy to the poor is opposed by forces that speak about egalitarianism (although do not really embody it), democracy, freedom, republicanism, and anti-federalism. These discourses eventually collapse into arguments for personal responsibility, the elimination of the weak, and the virtue of selfishness (Rand’s title is all but used) in forces that threaten to destroy Casper’s reign and storytelling itself. (Although the industrial Robber Baron Kaelan Wayne who pursues the death of myth, the rise of technology—he sends airplanes against the dragons—the elimination of the weak, proclaims virtue in self-interest, and tries to destroy Casper and all who call him king does tell a hilariously bad and heavy-handed version of Casper’s story while forcing him to watch—I wonder what Russian-American novelist playwrights Nathan Allen and Chris Matthews could be mocking?)
During the course of the play, the romance of monarchy is pitted against the idea of egalitarianism; responsibility to the poor, vulnerable, and all “folk” against the value of personal responsibility and self-interest; and the idea of allegiance against that of freedom. We hear phrases like “for the greater good,” “story save us all,” “hope is a cruel currency” and most chilling of all “thus always for tyrants” the motto of America’s first colony, Virginia, which became Booth’s stated justification for killing Lincoln. Clearly, the play ultimately argues for some sort of balance, but sides more with the liberal ideas of social responsibility (or conservative ones of paternalism and allegiance) arguing that “love [and all of its obligations and allegiances] is freedom incarnate.”
Despite very powerful performances by John Henry Roberts as the tortured and mysterious Thom Gadsden; Isabel Liss as the imperious, tender, glamorous and withered Lady Olympia; Kara Davidson as Casper’s lovely, and fiercely intelligent, fairly-tale queen; Kay Kron as the earthy and ethereal July of the Seven Foxes; Christopher M. Walsh as the wise, wearied, avuncular, and shrewd Abraham Pride, it was Kevin Strangler’s understated and unassuming performance as the hero Casper Kent from which I could not withdraw my eyes. He showed constant kindness, likability, and humility as a friend and king, but the highpoints of his performance came when he wasn’t speaking. He showed constant confusion, pain, and vulnerability as he watched the other characters try to tell him his story, and take their part in it, making the most extreme sacrifices for him.
During the entire play which ran for many hours and during most of which he was on stage, he never went out of character. Even when other actors were the center of the action, he still was constantly playing Casper Kent. Technically, this show is very sophisticated despite a small venue. The play takes place at sea, in a cloistered academy, in catacombs, forests, and great halls. Each place is convincingly rendered by a mix of the actor’s performances, very minimalist sets (Collette Porter), convincing costumes (Melissa Torchia), and theatrical, but affecting lighting (Lee Keenan). The dragons and fox puppetry (Jesse Mooney-Bullock) used highly different techniques, but were so skillfully done that we could hear and see emotion in their sounds (Joshua Horvath.) Tons of sound effects where called for throughout the play and they never seemed out of place, over-done, or staged: simply part of a real experience so that the play always remained squarely in the fantasy genre, even its overtones, were heavily political rather than religious or mythological
“The Hammer Trinity” runs at the Chopin Theatre located at 1543 W. Division Chicago. through May 3rd. The play is divided into three parts which can be seen together or in parts. However, most performances are marathon performances and are on Saturday and Sunday’s at 2 pm and run until 11 pm with various intermissions and a break for lunch. Tickets range between 30 and 60 dollars, and can be purchased by calling the box office at 773-769-3823 or by visiting www.housetheatre.com.
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Parking is plentiful in the area, but public transportation is the best, in particular of you are going to do it all in one day.