convergence-continuum’s ‘The Casual Tree Ward’ a tedious treatise on truth and faith
By Bob Abelman
The blurb promoting the world premiere production of Robert Hawkes’ one-act “The Casual Tree Ward” reads: “The Goddess Freyja (or is she?) is tending to Yggdrasil, the World Ash Tree (or is it?), trying to protect it from increasing drought. An itinerant water-bearer tries to persuade Freyja to go with him to where water is plentiful. She refuses. Does the world really depend on this single tree, or is this a self-generating myth? All is made clear (or is it?).”
The key question not asked is “huh?”
Hawkes has written a folkloric short story that uses the threat of death of the tree of life as the modus operandi for characters from Norse mythology – Freyja, the goddess of love (Andrea Belser); Odin, the god of wisdom (David L. Munnell); and a pragmatic human named Nero (James Alexander Rankin) – to argue over the differences between truth and faith, facts and hope, proof and belief.
Argument and explanation occasionally devolves into bickering and all of it is an exercise in verbosity that can easily alienate an audience whose insight into Middle Age Icelandic storytelling may not be up to snuff, whose interest in theater-as-debate may be limited and whose patience for 80 minutes of literary prose and wordplay void of poetry is short.
Fortunately, this convergence-continuum production does not break into the North Germanic language spoken by the Scandinavian people during the European Middle Ages, which must have been tempting.
To their credit, all three performers find and feast on the sharp wit Hawkes weaves into the script. And while Belser has some difficulty fighting through the hard veneer of a Nordic goddess, Rankin and Munnell both unearth something very accessible and modern in their portrayals.
While a modern take on these classic characters makes them interesting, it does fly in the face of Scott Zolkowski’s costume design set in a time without buttons or zippers. Director Susan Soltis does a nice job of augmenting the script with Beau Reinker’s sound design and Cory Molner’s lighting design to make the work theatrical. But the huge tree that scenic designer Jim Smith has placed center stage in Liminis Theatre’s narrow performance space keeps her from finding anything for her actors to do except go toe to toe with each other.
Hawkes emulates the skalds of yore by telling a tale about the world on the brink and the need to forge a better relationship with nature. Though the tale has never been more relevant, the telling of it is too much of a test of acumen and endurance to be entertaining or particularly informative.
“The Casual Tree Ward” by convergence-continuum
WHERE: Liminis Theatre, 2438 Scranton Road, Cleveland
WHEN: Through Sept. 15
TICKETS & INFO: $10 – $20. Call 216-687-0074 or visit convergence-continuum.org
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 6, 2018.
Lead image: Andrea Besser as Freyja, David Munnell as Odin and James Rankin as Nero | Photo / Tom Kondilas