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Ash Tree
Duke City Repertory Theatre

Ash Tree
Frank Green and Mindy Leanse
Duke City Rep is bringing us the world premiere of Ash Tree by Georgina Hernandez Escobar, who is a native of Ciudad Juarez but has spent a lot of time in Albuquerque. To be precise, this is the world premiere of the staged version of this play. It has had several prior staged readings, and a site-specific performance was given last year around a tree on the University of New Mexico campus. The play comes to us now carrying the Kennedy Center's National Award for Theatre for Youth. Like most good works for young people, it is meant for grown-ups as well.

Ash Tree is a one-act, lasting about 75 minutes, which is a perfect length for young audiences. The story is about three young sisters (the oldest being 14) whose mother is dying of an undescribed illness. The mother, named Beline, is a great storyteller, and she has imbued the children with strong imaginations and fantasy lives. The oldest is growing out of this, as teenagers do, but the younger two are still capable of sensing other realities easily enough.

The other level of being which Beline has taught them about is The Island of the Apples. This is the place where souls are reborn after they have died in this world. Beline has come from there, and now it is time to go back. This is the world where Merlin the magician and Echo the nymph exist, the world in the dark outside the windows, the world behind the mirror, the world inside paintings, and, most typically for children, the world underneath the bed.

The children have been told by their mother that they are warrior princesses, but if you're thinking Xena, you've got the wrong mythology. After Beline has been taken away (presumably to a hospital), one of the daughters, Tristen, feels it is her duty to go to the Island of the Apples and prevent her mother from being snatched back into it. The play uses a trope of modern science fiction in that the bedroom of the two younger girls is a "portal" into another realm. The girls do make contact with this other reality, but what happens, I won't reveal.

Georgina Hernandez Escobar is certainly erudite, and the play is hyper-dense with mythological allusions. The three daughters are named Selene (the Greek goddess of the moon), Tristen (from Celtic/Wagnerian mythology, or maybe from the Spanish and French word for "sad"), and Gaela (which the author told me is her Celticized version of the Greek earth goddess Gaea). There are references to Thetis and the king of Thessaly, the parents of Achilles, the greatest of warriors; Pegasus, and the aforementioned Echo and Selene, from Greek mythology; Merlin and the nymph Nimue who imprisoned him in a tree, from Arthurian legend; gnomes from Celtic legends; and even a dash of Schopenhauer ("The world is a fabrication of will").

The Island of the Apples had me puzzled. I was thinking of the golden apples of the Hesperides, from Greek mythology. After the show, I got to speak to the playwright, and she told me that the Island of the Apples refers to Avalon, from the Arthurian legends. The name "Avalon" derives from the Welsh word for "apple" and is the place where Arthur was taken to recover from his wounds after fighting Mordred, and where he is said to still be alive, waiting for the appropriate time to return and lead his people again.

You don't need to know anything about these various mythologies to appreciate the play, however. I found it an intellectual challenge, but the woman sitting behind me was crying audibly toward the end of the play, so it can be emotionally stimulating as well.

As for the staging, the set (the bedroom of the two younger girls) by Charles Murdock Lucas is pretty amazing, and lighting by Anna Nichols, original music by Kevin MacLeod and Kyle Vegter, and sound design by the playwright all add considerably to the atmosphere.

The cast is uniformly very good. The three girls are played by adult women, but there was little disbelief on my part. Mindy Leanse, Gwen Edwards, and Stephanie Grilo all act the appropriate ages. Sometimes they were a little loud for my taste, but kids can be that way.

Frank Taylor Green plays both Merlin and a gnome, in a very physical performance. I wonder if little children might be scared by the gnome, but, as we know from the Brothers Grimm, the scary stuff can not be shied away from. (And most of us know from Bambi how devastating the death of a mother can be, even if off-screen or off-stage.) Wendy Scott as the mother is sympathetic; she also plays the nymph Echo, who sometimes merely echoes Tristen's words, as you would expect, but at other times speaks dialogue on her own, and I don't know why.

The play is directed by the author, and she has brought together a good cast and crew to actualize, I presume, her vision of what she had written. I found the play engrossing throughout, but maybe that's because I like mythology quite a bit. The Kennedy Center judges thought this was the best play for young audiences submitted that year. Some children might find it a little too wordy, abstruse and confusing. On the other hand, most are probably more in touch with fantasy and other realities than I am, and would grasp the play with no problem at all.

Ash Tree by Georgina Hernandez Escobar is being performed by Duke City Repertory Theatre through October 21, 2012, at the Filling Station. Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8:00, Sunday at 2:00. Info at dukecityrep.com or 505-797-7081.


Photo: Richard Galli

--Dean Yannias



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