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A CurtainUp Review
John Gabriel Borkman

The Pearl Theatre's latest production of John Gabriel Borkman affords a rare opportunity to see one of the last of Henrik Ibsen's psychological dramas which prompted many to tag him as "Ibsen the psychologist" and "the Freud of the theater." It comes at a particularly opportune time coinciding as it does with the revival of The Price by Arthur Miller for which Ibsen psychological plays were said to be the models. John Gabriel Borkmen Like The Price, does not rank as the jewel in the crown of Ibsen's oeuvre. Yet it is a chilling tale of greed and manipulation that resonates now as it did in 1896 when it was written.

It's three main characters are obsessed by their past. Gunhild and John Gabriel Borkman occupy the large estate, owned by her twin sister Ella who was Borkman's first love. Husband and wife have not spoken to each other in the eight years since he's been released from prison for embezzlement. Neither have they had any contact with Ella. And so, as the play opens, we see Gunhild in the downstairs parlor, seething and plotting to restore the tarnished family name and fortune. Upstairs John Gabriel paces "like a sick wolf prowling in his cage." He won't go out into the world again until he can come up with a scheme to regain his place in the corridors of power. He is less guilty than angry, a blame placer rather than a blame bearer.

Sister Ella who Borkman threw over to please a man in a position to advance his career was unaffected by the fraud that ruined many others. That's why she took charge of her sister and brother-in-law's child Erhart and paid for their house and its upkeep. As the play opens, she has returned to claim Erhart (currently living in the same house as mom and dad) as her namesake and heir before she dies from an unnamed fatal disease. Naturally, she also wants a chance to tell Borkman how by killing love he has killed what's best in himself and her.

The only outsider to break up the various confrontations, is the vivacious and worldly wise Mrs. Fanny Wilton (Robin Leslie Brown). Her nearby house has clearly been an escape from the somber Borkman household for young Erhart and as soon as she enters the stage it's obvious that she's a stronger contender for his devotion than either Gunhild or Ella.

So much for the plot. Has director Shepard Sobel's suceeded in his rescue mission of this neglected work with a production that lives up to its timeliness and power? Sad to say, the words are all there but without the needed flourish. Mr. Sobel has failed to wring the needed bravura performances out of his actors, especially the three key players, two of whom, Carol Schultz and Joanne Camp, are respected Pearl regulars. They do come close to the full force of the drama in the last scene when their obsessive efforts to redress the past come to a visually and emotionally forceful finale. As the sisters reach out to each other across the body of Borkman so the actors finally tap into their inner reserves.

While that last image with its stark contrast of the black-clad figures against the white snow will remain with you, too much of what happens before is regrettably full of missteps. This misdirection begins when Ella enters and she and Gunhild face each other. Their silent confrontation, instead of building excruciating tension merely goes on and on so that you begin to think one of the women has forgotten her lines.

Other drama filled interchanges are lost in delivery that ranges from flat to overblown. There seems no anticipation or control of lines that tend nowadays to cause titters. Schultz's Gunhild is particularly overwrought. Doug Stender's Borkman lacks the dynamism of the once powerful egotistical leader who sees only others and not himself to blame for his misfortune. The scene in which he and Ella meet again and she accuses him of the unforgivable sin of bartering away what he held dearest in the world is so lacking in large emotions that the impact made is with what comes out as a jokey punch line, Borkman's declaration: "I am a man -- when it comes down to it, one woman can be replaced by another." In the same manner Gunhild explodes onto the scene between her husband and sister so melodramatically that the audience instead of being shocked again responded with laughter.

The play's most interesting minor character is Erhart who represents Ibsen's typical individual resisting the demands of others. Like Nora in The Doll's House, he is allowed to escape from this bleak household. Unfortunately, Christopher Moore seems more a well-bred English good time Charley than a sensitive young man fighting to resist his manipulative elders.

On a more positive note, Robin Leslie Brown, who starred in the Pearl's last production (Mirandolina, does much better by her minor part, the sexy neighbor who helps Erhart to make his getaway. John Wylie is endearing as the poet who, unlike others who were hurt by Borkman's business dealings, has continued visited Borkman regularly during his self-imposed upstairs exile but comes to realize that Borkman never believed in his talent. Like the old furniture dealer in The Price, his is the voice of reason though his wisdom tends towards naivete. The poet's daughter (Susan Pourfar) is the only other visitor -- a gifted young pianist she aptly entertains the brooding financier with Saint-Saëns' DanseMacabre.

Set designer Beowulf Boritt has effectively used lots of dark draperies to suggest the opulent yet dreary atmosphere of the manor house outside Christiania. As already stated, the most memorably evoked scene is the snowy landscape with a single bench on which Borkman collapses and the sisters come together again at long last. According to a note in the program the furnishings in Gunhild's parlor and Borkman's study are for sale. If you want to take part of the Pearl home with you though, be prepared to like gold gilded legs on your chairs and settees.

by Henrik Ibsen
Directed by Shepard Sobel
With: Robin Leslie Brown, Joanne Camp, Emma Holl, Christopher Moore, Susan Pourfar, Carol Schultz, Doug Stender, and John Wylie
Set Design: Beowolf Boritt
Lighting Design: Amy Appleyard
Costume Design: Anna Oliver Sound Design: Johnna Doty
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 10 minute intermission
Pearl Theatre Co, 80 St. Mark's Pl. (1st/2nd Avs), 598-9802
11/09/99-12/19/99; opening 11/22/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 11/20/99 performance

©Copyright 1999, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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