Sunday, February 3, 2013

Theatre review: "John Gabriel Borkman" a Quantum Theatre production

Henrik Ibsen’s next-to-last play John Gabriel Borkman doesn’t come to light nearly as often as do, for example, The Wild Duck, A Doll'a House, Hedda Gabler and The Master Builder. Like them, it peers into the darkness and confusion of suppressed emotions amid the bonds of domesticity. 

This play long stays loaded with words which speak longer and louder than actions. Such heaviness could be hard to bear amid the somber shadows and ghostly drapes on a temporary stage within the seemingly unfinished Hart Building in East Liberty. Especially while winter blasts and chills just outside the doors. Such a setting validly has its own say.

However director Martin Giles and his excellent Quantum Theatre cast have imbued this rarity with so much vitality and conviction that the heat permeates every corner even though the characters lives seem trapped in ice while, outside, nature’s whiteness covers human tracks. The impressive performances make it look as if the people on stage are determined to keep every nerve pulsing, Giles stimulating compelling movement as if masterfully choreographing, as if body language has as much to say as do words. At the same time each cast member speaks the dialogue with fluent assurance.

Giles has also added a fascinating, astonishing symbolic extrapolation, wherein a young girl, playing violin wildly, sensuously dances as if unable to control herself. Although this takes that part of the play into an inconsistent place, it comes across as another example of how Giles makes this a vibrant experience.

Former bank manager John Gabriel Borkman has imprisoned himself in an upstairs room of his home, cutting himself off from connections with his wife Gunhild and his son Erhart. This follows Borkman’s disgrace and actual incarceration for illegal speculations with investors’ money. He has visitors: old friend Vilhelm Foldal and Foldal’s violinist daughter Frida.

Ella Rentheim, Gunhild’s long-estranged sister and John’s one-time lover, comes to ask that the young man’s parents permit Erhart to live with her and take her name. But Erhart has become attracted to wealthy divorée Fanny Wilton and wants to get away from the clinging older women of his family.

In time John tries to come out of his self-imposed isolation and, seeks to resuscitate his fortunes and to breathe again, embracing the fresh air and freezing whiteness engulfing his home.

Much of the first act dwells on how these people feel rather than what they do. The women gossip, quarrel, recriminate, pacing back and forth, unable to contain their inner turmoil while, above them, Borkman, confined within his own misery, in equally ceaseless footsteps, tries to reason his way out.

Were it not for how Giles and his cast move so dynamically that act could eventually seem to not go far. Fortunately the second act invigorates the visit. Part of that comes from the characters taking bigger, stronger steps.

Bridget Connors perfectly swoops and fidgets as if Gunhild can find no rest from her inner turmoil. Contrast that with the expert, subtle flowing containment that Robin Walsh gives Ella. And when Daina Michelle Griffith as Fanny marvelously comes sparkling amid them, you understand why Erhart can’t wait to warm his hands and heart in her presence. Witness too the sweet, convincing sincerity of Ken Bolden’s Vilhelm. Visiting actor Malcolm Tulip plays John. He has a great feeling for Michael Meyer’s transformation of Ibsen’s words. But strange body language. He moves stiffly, awkwardly. As if some kind of automaton. Surely this is deliberate symbolism. It does not merge with the naturalness of the other performances.

Tony Ferrieri’s set design becomes a marvel of its own. The draped furniture, the shadowy walls, tellingly say the house is nearly empty even with people in it. And then the whiteness shifts, almost as if windblown, and turns into a snowy landscape.

This much overlooked play presents a challenge for directors and actors to make it come alive. You can infer the problems; too much talk for too long before something dramatic really happens. But since it abounds in Ibsen-placed symbols, Giles embraces the concept and dynamically solves the problems, turning this into something worth coming into from out of the cold.

Quantum Theatre’s production of John Gabriel Borkman continues through February 24th at the Hart Building, 6022 Broad Street, East Liberty. 1-888/ 71-TICKETS (1-888/ 718 4253) and


  1. Very Informative! This blog is great source of information which is very useful for me. Thank you very much for sharing this!
    Theatre Shows