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Quantum Theatre's 'Borkman' relies on season, as well as stage

| Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Robin Walsh, Malcolm Tulip and Bridget Connors star in Quantum Theatre's “John Gabriel Borkman.' Credit: Heather Mull
Bridget Connors, Luka Glinsky, Robin Walsh and Daina Michelle Griffith in Quantum Theatre's 'John Gabriel Borkman.' Credit: Heather Mull

For Quantum Theatre artistic director Karla Boos, the season is often as important as the setting.

Since its founding in 1990, Quantum Theatre has become known for staging its productions in unique places that are not theaters, such as a cemetery or the warehouse of a defunct brewery.

The time of year is equally important when scheduling the season's offerings, Boos says.

So, it's no accident that the company's production of “John Gabriel Borkman” begins performances Thursday in the Hart Building in East Liberty.

“It was by design,” Boos says. “It's a winter play I could not do outside in the summer.”

Playwright Henrik Ibsen's 1896 play takes place on a wintry evening in a house in the Norwegian capital city now known as Oslo, as a driving snow falls outside.

Downstairs in the parlor, Gunhild Borkman broods by the fireside.

Upstairs, her husband, John Gabriel Borkman, paces alone in the attic where he has been holed up since his release from prison.

Ruined and disgraced but not repentant after serving time for embezzlement, the former banker schemes and fantasizes ways to redeem himself and reclaim his former life.

The drama heats up with the unexpected arrival of Ella Rentheim — Mrs. Borkman's twin sister as well as Mr. Borkman's former mistress.

What follows is an evening of bitter accusations, truths, betrayals and revelations that will affect everyone involved.

“Ibsen is the most unflinching explorer of the human psyche,” says Martin Giles, who is directing the production. “There still is nobody who has dug as deep or come up with a more harsh critique of human nature.”

Greed and debt are big themes in many Ibsen plays, says Giles, who points out that Ibsen's father was a successful businessman who went bankrupt, and that shame always haunted Ibsen.

Ibsen wrote the play as an indictment of 19th-century capitalism. However, contemporary audiences can easily draw parallels and connections to more recent scandals and examples of greed and fraud in the banking and financial worlds.

“Borkman was using everyone's money for his big ideas without thinking about the consequences,” Giles says.

Giles is a longtime Ibsen fan. His New Group Theatre performed a half-dozen of the playwright's works during its active years in the 1980s and '90s. He also appeared in two Quantum productions of Ibsen: as Gregors Werle in “Wild Duck” (2003) and Tesman in “Hedda Gabler” (2009).

“You've got to do Ibsen every once in awhile or you are not doing theater,” Giles says.

Boos and Giles had talked about doing one of several Ibsen plays.

She decided to go with “John Gabriel Borkman” after seeing an Abbey Theater of Ireland production of it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2011 that starred Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw and Lindsay Duncan.

“… three great roles for three great actors (and) surprisingly poetic,” Boos says.

The Quantum Theatre production will star Malcolm Tulip, an actor, director and associate professor in the department of theater and drama at the University of Michigan, who has been cast in the title role.

Appearing with him are Pittsburgh-based actresses Bridget Connors and Robin Walsh as Gunhild Borkman and Ella Rentheim.

Giles acknowledges that Connors and Walsh make an unlikely pair of twin sisters.

“We assume they are fraternal twins,” he says.

What may surprise audiences, Giles says, is: “It's horribly, horribly funny. It's so absurd and so recognizable in its family dynamics. This play doesn't brood. It crackles.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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