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A CurtainUp Review
John Gabriel Borkman
By Les Gutman
What would you do for success? What would you do for love? What would you do if you had to choose between the two?
These are the questions at the heart of John Gabriel Borkman, Ibsen's next-to-last play. Warning to audience members with pacemakers: the answers may cause your heart to skip a beat.
CurtainUp reviewed another, far less successful, staging of this play in 1999. That review is linked below, and I won't repeat the details of the play which are found there. Whereas the other production failed to render the play's emotional content effectively (Elyse Sommer noted it elicited laughs at its most pivotal moments), here director Max Montel prompts gasps and sighs from the audience.
It's easy to understand why Borkman doesn't reach the top rung of Ibsen's ladder. It's more melodramatic than his best plays, and it's easy to get snared in its traps. This production doesn't avoid them entirely (the opening scene, in particular, veers towards soap opera, and Richard Leighton's full force rendering of the title character's bluster and pomposity would have been more better scaled down a notch or two), but at its most critical points, it redeems itself well, achingly illuminating the work's pivotal points.
Erhart Borkman (Robert Thompson) is one popular guy. He has two older women fighting over him, two younger ones entranced by him and a father who wants to use him as his meal ticket. No, he doesn't have a play named after him (the title character is his dad), and Ibsen has given the development of his character onstage short shrift, but its fair to say that without him there would be no play here. Mr. Thompson makes good use of the limited opportunities he is afforded; I still wish Ibsen had told us more.
By contrast, the young man's mother, Gunhild (Charlotte Hampden), really just a placeholder, is lavished with attention by Ibsen. An essentially sad woman behind a patrician shell, married to the embarrassing John Gabriel as a fill-in for her sister, Ella (Ellen Barry) -- he relinquished Ella's hand to another man for financial advantage -- Gunhild thrives only to possess and control Erhart; she sees him as her salvation. Ms. Hampden is at once steely, fragile, suffering. Despite their antagonism and differences in demeanor, her sister, who needs Erhart just as much, shares similar anxieties. Ms. Barry is breezier and seemingly more stable. Though together they edge their opening confrontation perilously close to the precipice of melodrama, both succeed later when it counts. The breathy-voiced Ms. Barry is particularly impressive in her critical scene with the elder Mr. Borkman, in which he reveals his perverse morality as she blames him for killing her capacity to love.
Truth be told, there's not much in any of these characters to root for. John Gabriel Borkman is appalling and never sympathetic. Yet Mr. Leighton's characterization still strikes me as more two-dimensional than need be. The same can be said for Kate Suber's Mrs. Wilton, the divorced woman who, to everyone's dismay, steals away the boy. There's nothing especially wrong with her performance, but there is a lingering feeling there was more that could have been achieved. Far more satisfying is Erik Frandsen's Vilhelm Foldal, a peculiar character who brings much-needed outside perspective to what we would today call an extraordinarily dysfunctional family. In the smaller and least significant role of his daughter Frida, Amber Gross is fine.
This production is on solid footing, and Max Montel's efficient and well-paced direction is generally commendable, quibbles notwithstanding. The terrific setting of the Century Center ballroom again serves Ibsen well, costumes are excellent and lighting is impressive. Rolf Fjelde's translation (as has been the case in earlier plays in this series) finds a good balance between the contemporary and the period. Another worthy addition to the Century Ibsen series now winding down.
LINKS TO ANOTHER PRODUCTION OF THIS PLAY
John Gabriel Borkman at the Pearl
6,500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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