The Yale Cabaret’s new season opener sits on a slippery slope, both literally and figuratively. “Brand” — pronounced so that it rhymes with “wand,” rather than “bland” — is acted out entirely on one hunk of a mountainous set-piece. Built of plywood platforms staggered to form what looks like a cubist’s cruel perversion of a conveyor belt, the massive construction, at one end, climbs up and into the “sky” like some kind of splintery mega-crag.
This impressive, but confusing and ultimately impractical, piece of design metonymically represents all that is right and wrong with “Brand” — a one-hour squeeze of Henrik Ibsen’s five-act play. Nearly everything about it is so incredibly thick that, long before the end, one has the inclination to give up, go home and die of sheer exhaustion.
The nine billed roles are played by only two actors who say nothing that’s not a rhyming couplet. Not one scene change gives them (or the audience) a moment’s relief from heavy, moralistic, philosophical dialogue, so that when the lights finally dim on this tour-de-force of a “small” production, all involved share a giant intake of breath.
The question, then, is not if the Cabaret pulled it all off. They certainly did. The question is more related to whether or not it should have been done in the first place. Who among us, so starved of thought, so removed from big ideas and intellectual rigor, really wants to sit through even an hour of this stuff?
And in somewhat awkward seating, no less. The over-designed set-piece is the first thing that the audience will notice, not merely because it’s so huge, but because the tables and chairs had to be set up around it in two long, claustrophobic, double-tiered rows.
Bearded Brad Love DRA ’07 plays the title character, a minister in a Norwegian village who, living by the maxim “all or nothing,” risks everything for his unwillingness to compromise. Lisa Birnbaum DRA ’07 takes on the remaining 8 roles, the most important of which is Agnes, Brand’s wife. Birnbaum usually succeeds in switching between characters — sometimes with nothing more than a turn of a head and an affectation of voice. Love, too, remarkably embraces the difficulty in playing a character whose conflicts boil beneath the skin.
Unfortunately, most of the plot melts together into a giant blur. What happens — as it happens — is never quite clear enough. There might be a war, a dying mother, a sacrificial first-born, a bloody epiphany and a visit from a ghost — but who can really be sure?
Sound effects and lighting seem, at times, to completely upstage the actors. Loud, shrieking howls and bright flashing bulbs awake us from any comfort we might have slipped into. The costumes, though, adhere (thank God!) to a “less is more” aesthetic. From a pair of extra-fluffy fur mittens to a flashlit-veil to a Monopoly-reminiscent top-hat, costume designer Anya Klepikov DRA ’08 never misses the mark in snagging just the right iconic detail.
Ambitiously, “Brand” wants to squeeze into an hour all the stuff of an epic poem — a tumultuous journey, heroic themes and a final, circular ending that leaves people stunned. But an air of pretense severs the connection between the emotions of the characters and those of the audience, as if the director — an undoubtedly talented Mike Donahue DRA ’08 — had, like the hero of the play, admirably and tragically tried too hard.