Fear and Trembling in Copenhagen

"Oh, this is awful," Abraham, dressed in faded robe and turban, tells his young son Isaac in Ellen Margolis's provocative and thoughtful play When It Stands Still. "Your mother will have my head for this." Later in the play, Sarah discovers the myth of Iphigenia, in which the father who sacrifices his child in compliance with divine demand is indeed murdered by the grieving mother. Why does Sarah tolerate Abraham in the Biblical version, and take revenge in the Greek? Why would people ever think fear useful or sacrifice necessary? Was Abraham crazy? Was his god? And what important details are left out of this traditional story? All these questions bothered the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. His attempt to answer them was his greatest work, the 1843 treatise "Fear and Trembling." In the New Testament, humanity is advised to "work out your sorrow with fear and trembling." In Margolis's play, produced by Toy Box Theatre Company at the Gene Frankel Theater, Abraham tries to put this advice into practice. At the same time, in another universe, so does the young Soren Kierkegaard. The result is not grace, but more suffering, radiating outward from Abraham and Kierkegaard into the lives of the people they claim to love.

Margolis's take on this subject is never preachy. Often, it's comedic. A scene in which Soren compels Regine to play Abraham to his Isaac, pulling his hair torturously before raising the sword, is funny in a squirm-humour way. "And so on," the ancient Sarah says, "chapter and verse" -- ages before the chapters and verses of the Jewish and Christian sacred texts were written. Margolis also has a way of stating a seemingly bland fact about the life of her beloved Kierkegaard, then turning it in a few words into a provocative insight. "The Danish philosopher loved to experiment with fear and obsession," we are told. "In that, he was like God."

Nuanced, emotionally hyperrealistic acting makes this idea-heavy script move quickly to the zenith of both Abraham's mountain and Kierkegaard's tragedy. As Kierkegaard, Toy Box co-Artistic Director David Michael Holmes screws up his face in comedic agony during a drive with Regine and rolls his eyes in annoyance at his crass, boorish patrician father. Lindsay Tanner competently portrays Regine. This character is somewhat under-written, conforming to the stereotype of the down-to-earth "sentimental" (Kierkegaard's word) woman with no interest in the realm of ideas, who just wants to be a perfect bourgeois wife with the angry genius as her equally conventional husband. Of course, it seems that the real Regine was like that. Tanner is great at seemingly silently, broodingly hurt.

As Abraham, Kierkegaard's father, and Mr. Olsen, Rich Zahn proves himself a versatile character actor. He keeps those three roles clearly differentiated, physically and vocally. A scene in which Zahn appears in a fake Medieval chronicle play of the Sacrifice of Isaac, complete with bad, stiff, acting, derives its humor from the contrast with the good, realistic acting of the whole cast throughout the rest of the play.

The set, designed by director Jason Shuler, is a dreamscape of sharp, geometric grey, black, and white hills, and Medieval pageantry: gold cloth, a pair of fluffy, puffy white wings suspended from the flies, a proscenium-within-a-proscenium and even a deliberately unconvincing wooden ram on wheels. Jennifer Paar's costumes perfectly evoke the play's two cultures -- nineteenth-century upper-class Copenhagen society and the imagined culture of the Old Testament world.

Lastly, live violin accompaniment composed and beautifully played by Leanne Darling, who is seated in a choir loft-like space above the actors, increases When It Stands Still's natural tension and poignancy. How often can you hear live incidental music Off-Broadway?

Go spend some time with Soren Kierkegaard, trapped in the moment when Abraham leads Isaac up that mountain. Trust me, it's far from a torturous experience. Except if you really think about it, as did Kierkegaard -- and Margolis and company.

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