A rare staging of `Brand,' the play that made Ibsen famous

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Brand Play by Henrik Ibsen, translated by Michael Meyer. Directed by Craig D. Kinzer. The intrepid City Stage Company (CSC) has braved the heights of yet another dramatic mountainscape. The company opened its 19th season with Michael Meyer's slightly condensed translation of ``Brand,'' the 1866 poetic drama which established Henrik Ibsen's international reputation but which is rarely performed in its entirety in English.

``Brand'' is the symbol-fraught epic about a courageous but uncompromising Norwegian village pastor who lives -- and dies -- by the credo ``All or nothing.'' When Brand's mother is nearing death, he refuses her the last rites unless she gives up all her wealth. Her responding message, ``God is not as hard as my son,'' anticipates the subsequent revelation to the doomed Brand from an unseen voice, ``He is the God of Love.''

Brand sacrifices not only himself but his infant son and his devotedly subservient wife, Agnes, to his stern absolutism. Shortly after the child's passing (caused by Brand's refusal to move to a warmer climate), he insists that Agnes give all of the baby's clothing and other effects to an importunate Gypsy. Erika Petersen's portrayal of Agnes's emotional and spiritual anguish over this sacrifice makes for one of the most poignant passages in the production, staged by Craig D. Kinzer.

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Since Ibsen once described Brand as ``myself at my best moments,'' the actor entrusted with the role of the controversial cleric faces the problem of seasoning fanaticism with rectitude. In his expressive performance, Robert Stattel presents an idealist whose conviction becomes an obsession, a leader who inspires his followers with standards they find it impossible to meet. Using his inheritance, Brand achieves his purpose of replacing the old village church with a fine new edifice. But immediately upon

its completion, he denounces the project as vanity. When he tries to lead his flock from their dark valley to the light of the mountaintop, they falter on the way and end by stoning Brand. He is left to climb alone and to perish in the symbolic avalanche that destroys the glacial Ice Church and ends the epic.

Playing on a bare wooden stage surmounted by steeply rising steps, the CSC brings a lively immediacy to the remote events. The action features Jeffrey Hayenga as Ejnar, the painter-turned-missionary, and Susan Bruce as Gerd, the wild Gypsy girl Brand encounters in the mountains. Other principals in a generally satisfactory cast include Sally Chamberlin (Brand's mother), Patrick Tull (the crafty Mayor), Frank Dwyer (doubling as the Doctor and Schoolteacher), and Tom Spackman (the establishment-minded Pr ovost).

The revival is enhanced by Rick Butler's austere setting, Stephen Strawbridge's atmospheric lighting, and Catherine Zuber's soberly picturesque costumes. The two-part arrangement of Ibsen's five-act play runs for about 23/4 hours, with one intermission. After Nov. 29, ``Brand'' will be joined in repertory by a dramatization of Mary Shelley's ``Frankenstein.'' Eyes of the American Play by Samm-Art Williams. Directed by Walter Dallas.

In his most successful play, the heartwarming ``Home,'' Samm-Art Williams chronicled the tortuous return of a black prodigal to his native North Carolina soil. Mr. Williams's ``Eyes of the American'' is a far cry and a long way from ``Home.'' In his new work, which has opened at Theatre Four, the author dramatizes a power struggle -- with attendant CIA involvement -- on a Caribbean island recently granted independence.

The long one-acter revolves around the relationship between a revolutionary posing as an inoffensive taxi driver and a American agent posing as a businessman. In the aftermath of victory, Ottley (Glynn Turman), the underground rebel leader, assumes the attitude and trappings of the dictator he has struggled to overthrow.

The Negro Ensemble Company production staged by Walter Dallas adds to the problems of an already complex script by casting the stalwart Graham Brown as both the CIA snoop and the ruthless governor whom Ottley is fighting to replace. In the multiplicity of quick transitions, identification can pose a problem. Seret Scott fares better in the dual role of Ottley's doomed wife and the revolutionary intelligence chief.

Mr. Williams retains his flare for writing humorous dialogue along with scenes that can explode into violence. He is also a perceptive observer of ideological partisanship, the frictions between mainland and island blacks, and the corrupting effects of power. But the many fragments of ``Eyes of the American'' do not, finally, add up to a satisfying piece of theater. It appears that the effects of independence can present problems not only for those who achieve it but for a playwright who seeks to drama tize the phenomenon.

Llewellyn Harrison designed the all-purpose shantytown setting, with lighting by Sylvester N. Weaver Jr. and costumes by Julian Asion. ``Eyes of the American'' is scheduled to run through Dec. 1. The Special Musical by Mike Gutwillig (book and lyrics) and Galt MacDermot (music). Directed by Ran Avni.

In its odd and cheerful way, ``The Special'' manages simultaneously to celebrate a Montreal legend, interfaith marriage, and Quebec's decision to remain part of Canada. Aided by the charm of a Galt MacDermot score, the new musical at the Jewish Repertory Theater tells a love story in the ``Abie's Irish Rose'' tradition. The sweethearts of the present version are Jewish Hershie Levitt (Adam Heller) and French-Canadian Manon Boucher (Patricia Ben Peterson).

The young people meet casually through their respective fathers at Rubinsky's soda fountain-eatery, a Montreal neighborhood institution renowned for its meat sandwich ``special'' and the dry humor of proprietor Joe Rubinsky (Paul Ukena). With the recent death of Moe Wilensky, the real-life character who inspired the role of Joe, ``The Special'' serves as a tribute by Mike Gutwillig to his fellow Montrealer.

At the point in the sentimental romance when it comes time to decide whether ecumenism and family tolerances can be stretched to accommodate the path of true love, Joe's place supplies a neutral meeting ground for Rabbi Wiser (Steve Sterner) and P`ere LeBeau (Raymond Murcell).

Mr. Gutwillig's sketchy libretto and rudimentary lyrics proceed trilingually (English-French-Yiddish) as Hershie courts Manon despite initial family objections. The 1980 referendum to decide whether Quebec would secede from Canada adds its own touches of conflict and history to this urban folk tale.

Whether soloing or in various vocal combinations, the Jewish Repertory cast gives a good account of itself, smartly accompanied by a side-stage trio of keyboards, accordion, and guitar. Mina Bern as Hershie's sassy grandmother and Simon Juras as Manon's chauvinist brother squabble their way amusingly through ``I Don't Want That You Don't Want,'' a comic duet of familial conflict. It is one of the liveliest numbers in Mr. MacDermot's pleasant score.

Ran Avni directed the production. ``The Special'' is scheduled to continue making the case for multi-ethnic harmony through Nov. 17. -- 30 --

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