Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came Mixes Scholarship and Swordplay

The “Childe Rowland” (or Roland) story comes from a mishmash of sources: the Song of Roland, a chanson de geste probably written about 1040 CE; a Scottish ballad; a line from a (fake) madman ending a scene in Shakespeare’s King Lear; a Robert Browning poem (audio version) arguably more about the poet than Childe Rowland; and a fairy tale retelling of the Scottish ballad, in chronological order. Steve Schroer, founder of the Hardcover Theater and prolific playwright, adapter, and professor, used all of these sources and others, including his own mind, to write an adaptation of the story that addresses head-on one of the more disturbing elements of the original. Six Elements Theatre, in collaboration with Hardcover Theater, is producing the result, a play titled Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.

A watercolor image of a small figure in a field near a dark and twisted tower, with white words advertising the title of the play and the author.

Six Element Theatre’s poster/program cover, by Whittney Streeter. Image courtesy of Six Elements Theatre.

In general, the play is in the model of other meta-fictional stories: there’s a genre-savvy narrator, the Seer, who uses her wry wit to point out the tropes and genre elements. “You know the pattern,” she says to Childe (that is, not-yet-a-knight) Roland, early in the first act. The other characters tend to act as if they don’t know they’re in a play, even though the Seer literally brings the house lights up at one point. Within the world of the play, the characters are in a fairy tale, and it’s a familiar story even if one doesn’t know the exact tale: a sister kidnapped by the King of Elfland and three brothers each sent on the quest to rescue her. The older two fail, of course, setting Roland on his way to the King of Elfland’s Dark Tower. He doesn’t know the way, but that’s fine; he’s the hero. He’ll make it there, as long as he does the thing he must do, and doesn’t do the thing he must not do.

Once he’s in Elfland, he interacts with various elves all in rather pastoral occupations: a cowherd, a shepherd, a goose girl, and so forth. The interactions don’t go well; this is the disturbing element that Schroer wanted to tackle in his story. In his playwright’s note in the program he’s coy about the nature of the interactions for reasons of spoiler prevention, and this review will preserve that notion, but astute readers will be able to guess what happens (and it’s revealed in the first twenty minutes or so of the play). That having been said, though, while Schroer confronts the topic, he has no easy or simple answers for Roland or the audience, and we’re left trying to fit everyone’s actions into a worldview not shaped for them.

The set is a minimalist collection of moving pieces made of black platforms and white skeleton-like wooden structures echoing parts of a staircase or the walls of a steepled church. A chorus of three elves (primarily women) comes out at various points in the play to describe the current setting to the audience. The chorus was especially effective, in fact; while a different production might choose to augment the stage with scrims or lighting effects, nothing was particularly needed other than the words.

Because it’s a fairy tale involving a would-be knight as the main character, it would not be out of line to presume that there’s some sword-fighting in the story. Given that Six Elements Theatre is also the home of Human Combat Chess and the Brawl of America stage combat workshop, one might also presume that it was well-done. Indeed, it was; the most effective fight, in my opinion, was the one between three actors midway through the second act. The choreography was excellent and effective, and the actors who participated in it had clearly put in the time to make it look exactly as it should.

The Historic Mounds Theatre is a small theater, seating fewer than two hundred, but the ceilings are high and the room feels very spacious, giving the actors a lot of room in which to work. The stage itself, and the aforementioned set pieces, offered multiple platforms and pseudo-balconies to increase the drama as the dialogue and rising action did so as well. While the first scene of the play perhaps didn’t have the zip that it might in later performances, overall, the professionalism of the writing, acting, directing, and especially the stage crew was in fine display. Performances that stood out included Jessica Thompson Passaro as the Cowherd, Barkeep, and an Elf, with precise comic timing in all her roles. Laura Wiebers was also impressive as the unflappable and unchangeable Seer, and Matthew Kelly, the scenery-chewing Elf King, nearly stole the entire play. Aaron Ruder was a strong and stable Childe Roland, and he, Mason Tyer, and Henry Southwick (winner of the wittiest bio in the program) played the roles of brothers to the hilt.

A blonde woman in a quasi-medieval dress and three white men grouped a few feet from her

From left to right: Bernadette Sponberg-Paraday as Burd Ellen, Mason Tyer as Nicholas, Henry Southwick as Julian, and Aaron Ruder as Childe Roland. Photo by Teresa Woodward, courtesy of Six Elements Theatre.

Fans of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series might be drawn in by the name, or by the promise of a story based on the same source material, but in all honesty, other than the broad strokes of the story, it’s not worth looking for similarities. Schroer has clearly gone a very different direction with his lead, his setting, and his underlying themes. Fans of fairy tales, especially dark, fractured ones, will find more to love than those who primarily appreciate King’s prose and his dark, brooding gunslinger. Those who like their fairy tales with a side of meta-commentary and more questions than answers will enjoy Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came most of all.

Especially if they enjoy stage combat.

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came is at the Historic Mounds Theatre, 1029 Hudson Road in St. Paul, on March 11, 13 (a pay-what-you-can performance), 17 (with a post-show discussion), 18, 19 (2:30 pm matinee), 24, and 25. Tickets range from $15 to $25, other than Monday, March 13. All shows other than March 19 are at 7:30pm and the play lasts about two hours, with one intermission.

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