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Extinguishing a Firebrand 

Last Planet Theatre's two-hour version of a long Ibsen play is admirable, but lacks fervor

Wednesday, Oct 16 2002
The name "Brand," like most of Henrik Ibsen's names, has poetic resonance in Norwegian -- the stern and determined Pastor Brand has been touched by fire (or brann). Brand is a fierce zealot who strives toward God with a devotion that leads to the death of his own child. He's also a Protestant, a freestyle religionist opposed to "the God of every dull and earthbound slave" like Enjar, the happy-go-lucky painter who remembers Brand from childhood. "All you want is to flirt and play and laugh and mouth your faith in false prayer," Brand accuses Enjar, "but you do not want the truth." Brand's uncompromising fidelity to the truth gets him in trouble first with his family, then with the town, and at last with God himself, who (in Ibsen's world) can't really tolerate perfection.

Brand reads better than it plays, like Ibsen's Peer Gynt, partly because the philosophical drama flows more easily on paper, but also because an untrimmed production of the script would run to about six hours. (Never mind the scenes of mountain climbing, avalanches, and boating in a storm that were impossible to stage in Ibsen's time; Brand was conceived as an unproducible idea for a play, like an architect's unbuilt skyscraper.) So Last Planet Theatre's attempt at a two-hour version is admirable simply because it's there. Staging Brand is a lot like being Brand -- scaling a high, uncertain, Scandinavian crag.

Unfortunately, no one seems to have told actor Matt Leshinskie that Brand is supposed to be passionate. A Brand without fire is nothing but a fanatic disciplinarian, and that's how Leshinskie plays him. He sets his jaw, glares, and looks determined enough in his dark, sober clothes, but Leshinskie lacks the half-crazy fervor that would make Brand comprehensible to a post-religious audience in San Francisco. The whole point of Brand is that Ibsen took him seriously; his unwavering faith is more than just the windiness of a country minister. A mountain guide in the first scene, following Brand up an icy slope to save a girl, hollers, "The glacier's too thin; it's going to crack! ... If you don't stop, we'll die!" But Brand is not afraid to die. He devotes himself to God with a simple loyalty that should be understandable even to us infidels, and an actor who can't infect the audience with at least some of this bracing enthusiasm has fallen short.

I don't mean such enthusiasm is easy. In fact, the near-impossibility of Leshinskie's job is one reason so few companies ever perform Brand. Without a spark of holy charisma in the leading man, though, there's no play at all, since other characters need to gravitate toward his persuasive outlaw faith. Enjar's wife, Agnes, is so impressed with Brand's words and bold behavior that she joins him in a boat for a trip across a storm-tossed fjord (to save "the soul of a dying sinner"). This adventure ends her marriage to Enjar; she marries Brand. Later he commands the fierce allegiance of a few reformed reprobates in a mountain village. None of this devotion to Brand makes any sense if the man of God comes off -- as he does here -- as an uptight, gloomy old pill.

Lauren Bloom, as Agnes, does creditable work, and Cheryl Smith as Brand's mother may be the strongest actor on the stage. Leshinskie himself would be all right if he weren't playing Brand, but other actors (especially Cody Bayne as Enjar and David Morton, in smaller roles) are inexcusably lame. The whole show lacks dramatic tension. We're never sure whether to like Brand or hate him, and in a strong production that ambivalence would be visceral and emotional rather than baffling. We shouldn't think, "What a stiff," but rather, "Here's this courageous guy, but he does such horrible things."

I was hoping for a better production. The play's relevance right now is more than obvious: What feeling would make a man strong or crazy enough to risk his life -- or other people's lives -- for God? What, in other words, is worth dying for? These questions have been out of Western currency for years, but they're answered on a daily basis (albeit with bad logic) by fundamentalist Muslims who believe Americans are as compromised and cabbage-headed as the ordinary Norwegians in the play. A show that brings clarity to these questions -- by balancing them skillfully, as Ibsen does, instead of coming down hard on one side -- would be a tremendous help. This version of Brand doesn't do it.


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