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Heavy lies the plot in ‘Crownless King’

Wilke (Morgan Maher) Hollow Thom Gadsden (John Henry Roberts) interrupt wedding “The Crownless King.”

Wilke (Morgan Maher) and Hollow Thom Gadsden (John Henry Roberts) interrupt a wedding in “The Crownless King.”

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When: Through Oct. 20

Where: The House Theatre of Chicago at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division

Tickets : $20-$40

Info: (773) 769-3832;

Run time: 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission

Updated: September 11, 2013 9:43AM

You’ve got to admire The House Theatre of Chicago for its determination to create new stories, for the joy with which its ensemble dives into the fiercely physical telling of those stories, and for the work of its many ingenious designers who never fail to embellish the tales with gorgeous stagecraft.

In fact, given the operatic nature of The House’s continually unspooling, myth-spinning productions, and the creative team’s obvious devotion to allegory, heroes, quests and spectacle, you might even dub this company “The New Wagnerians.”

Yet just as with Richard Wagner’s grand-scale musical dramas, there can be something strangulating about the plot-heavy shows woven by this company. Its new show, “The Crownless King,” penned by Nathan Allen and Chris Mathews, is a case in point. A cheat sheet is needed to follow the plot in any cohesive way. And despite all the eye-and-ear candy and derring-do, the whole exercise begins to grow tedious early in the first act as far too many back stories, spells, rivalries and twists and turns are revealed. The whole thing begins to feel like the live version of a very complicated video game for teenage boys.

Part allegory about the United States (the kingdom at its center is called New Plymouth), it is a hodgepodge of Arthurian legend, Nordic myth, tall ship armadas and pirates of the high seas, all uneasily blended with a thinly veiled reference to the American Revolution and the current state of the American empire. If forced to untangle the story I would probably have to walk the plank. Serious cutting and simplifying is needed.

That said, Allen has directed this massive undertaking (the centerpiece of a trilogy that began with last season’s “The Iron Stag King”) with immense panache and unstoppable energy. And his performers (plus the sonorous voiceover of Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Letts as a green-eyed dragon) could not be more gung-ho and charming.

Brandon Ruiter is the shy, bookish young king who grows into a leader. Paige Collins is his deceptively demure queen who is far more in love with the combative Wilke, played by Morgan Maher, just as the king’s heart seems to be with another young woman, played by Ray Kron. In an exceptional turn, Brenda Barrie is exquisite as the passionate, unyielding Lady Olympia. And her ferocious scene with John Henry Roberts, in which she oversees torture to exact the truth, suggests the dramatic potential in this epic.

Cliff Chamberlain is Hap, the storyteller. Christopher M. Walsh is the earthy and very watchable Bilge. Blake Montgomery is a demonic pirate. Ben Hertel is a hoot in a clever post-modern scene that riffs on stories and intellectual property. And Kara Davidson and Patrick Falcon play multiple roles and animate Rachel Watson’s wonderful fox and bird puppets.

Melissa Torchia’s ravishing costumes and headpieces all but steal the show (Barrie’s wire “crown” is a standout). And Collette Pollard’s re-engineering of the Chopin Theatre mainstage is just the latest example of her remarkable gift for defining storytelling space. If only the story lived up to the space.


Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic

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