If you have a tree in your yard and you water it now and then, you may also talk to it. Because trees are good listeners. And after you talk to your tree for a while, you may make up a story about that tree. For example, I have a "chamaecyparis snow," a dwarf cypress that has a huge ego because she is so gorgeous. And she knows it. It's a much longer story, but I'll spare you the details.
As human beings, we are called upon to create stories — about trees, about ourselves, about gods and goddesses, about everything that surrounds us — and those stories can save our lives. In The Casual Tree Ward by Cleveland playwright and actor Robert Hawkes, we encounter three Norse gods who are batting around the kind of subjects gods talk about because they don't have the NFL or Minecraft.
Produced by Convergence-Continuum Theater, this 80-minute one-act is a rich and heady goulash of ideas, philosophical concepts and deep musings. But thanks to Hawkes' impish sense of humor and droll wordplay, the going never gets as sticky as it might. And the talented cast under the agile direction of Susan Soltis finds a way to keep the material from feeling like a deep dive into a brainiac's cerebellum.
On the surface, it's a very simple story. The pivotal character is the goddess Freyja who is associated in legend with love, sex, beauty, fertility, war and death. In other words, she has a bigger job description than Jared Kushner, and that's almost impossible. But she is mostly concerned with the huge tree that is currently growing up through her house and is dying of thirst. You see, it hasn't rained where she is for a long time.
But good news! A dude named Nero (no, not that one, another Nero, accent on the second syllable, whose name means "water") is on hand with a bucket of that stuff that keeps all living things alive, including us. He tries to convince Freyja to leave this drought-stricken area and go with him to the hills where the rains are falling.
But Freyja is in no mood to leave her ash tree, which we learn later has the name Yggdrasil (that's pronounced "Adrasil"). As she says, "You take me away from here and what happens? The Tree dies. Because I will die and my idea of the Tree will die, because when I give up the story and my faith in the story, it will all die. Everything will die. You, too."
But that's not all we learn as Freyja and Nero fence with words, exploring concepts such as truth, belief, the power of myths, and other weighty topics. Freyja is an advocate of belief, and she believes that her tree is sustaining the world even as it groans and creaks. Nero is comforted by facts but Freyja is having none of it, at times echoing the recent pseudo-philosophical belch by Rudy Giuliani that "truth isn't truth."
At times, Nero admits he's totally lost and requests readmission to this particular conversation, which gives the audience a welcome breather. Another bit of relief from the torrent of Hawkes' intricate word mosaic arrives in the form of the god Odin, who apparently hanged himself from this same tree as an act of sacrifice.
Odin is written funny, and David L. Munnell makes the most of this character's off-handed erudition and his cut-to-the-chase candor. He's on hand to help the other two negotiate a resolution to the heady quagmire they've found themselves in, and by all accounts he succeeds.
As Freyja, Andrea Belser exudes a preternatural calm as she caresses the big old tree to which she's become mortally attached. And hats off to scenic designer Jim Smith, who has crafted a tree that is both enormous and remarkably adorable, a tree you'd love to take home and live with for an eon or two.
James Alexander Rankin provides a perfect counterpoint to Belser as his Nero tries to battle belief with logic and ties himself up in knots in the process. Along the way, Freyja admits to doubt herself, Odin admits he's just the corporeal manifestation of Freyja's strong belief, and Nero just wants to take his bucket and get the hell out of there. But he's developed an affection for Freyja that is either fact or belief, or something else entirely.
It's not necessary to follow each and every pathway that Hawkes forges to find pleasure in the fulsome flow of his language and the thoughts that twinkle on and off like Christmas lights. At times, you just want to bask in the glow. Of course, potential metaphors abound in such a work, with the dying tree possibly symbolizing, well, pretty much anything you can imagine.
And that's the key, isn't it? We humans are the only mammals (as far as we know) that are capable of using our minds to create universes all around us. And who's to say they don't exist just because other people can't see them? And while we're busy turning our stories into beliefs and beliefs into rituals and rituals into rules — the world goes on.
This remarkable play is a window into that part of our humanity. And while playwright Hawkes may come off as a bit too smug at times, he earns most of that smugness with his energetic and fearless attack on what makes us, each one of us, godlike.