Quantum uncovers humor in Ibsen drama

| Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013, 9:00 p.m.


Yes, it's cold outside.

But the atmosphere is even frostier at Quantum Theatre's “John Gabriel Borkman.”

Rest assured, the actual premises are toasty enough. Quantum's heating equipment warms the intimate performance and audience areas.

The setting for Henrik Ibsen's 1896 play is a wintry evening in a house while a driving snow falls outside.

Moreover, the relationships between the characters are decidedly chilly.

Eight years after serving time for embezzlement, John Gabriel Borkman paces in an upstairs room he seldom leaves, brooding over the past and fantasizing his eventual redemption and return to power.

Downstairs, his wife, Gunhild, alternates between seething over her loss of fortune and social status while plotting how her now-grown son, Earhart, will restore the family's reputation.

Though the Borkmans live separate lives and never speak, they have one thing in common. Unable to let go of the past, each dismisses the pain Borkman's greedy schemes caused for others, while portraying himself and herself as victims.

The characters may be more than a century old, but they have contemporary relevance to the masters of recent banking, investment and housing scandals. The action and the rancor heat up with the entrance of Ella Rentheim, Gunhild's twin sister and John Gabriel's former mistress, who raised Earhart when the Borkmans lost their money and their reputation.

She, too, has plans to continue the past into the future: She wants Earhart to move back into her house.

But Earhart and his associates, we quickly learn, have a different future in mind.

Michael Meyer's translation and Martin Giles' direction make clear the divide between those who freeze themselves in the past and those who step into the warmth of the future.

Ibsen's dramas are seldom thought of as comedies. But Meyer and Giles mine a surprising amount of humor from this play.

Most of that humor comes at the expense of the characters' inability to see the contradictions between what they believe and the reality that surrounds them.

Malcolm Tulip's impatient, self-centered John Gabriel and Bridget Connors' selfish, shrewish and jealous Gunhild reframe every action and conversation to their own needs and vision.

Tulip's John Gabriel is particularly cruel when dealing with Foldal, his one remaining friend, sympathetically played by Ken Bolden.

Robin Walsh's Ella Rentheim is slightly more sympathetic.

But they're all emotional boa constrictors ready to strangle others for their needs.

So it's a delight whenever Daina Michelle Griffith's scandalous Fanny Wilton, Carlyn Tote's childlike Frida Foldal and Luka Glinsky's independence-minded Earhart inject their equally self-centered, but refreshingly unrestrained, oxygen into the stifling surroundings.

Costume designer Christine Casaus outfits everyone in period clothing that's suitable to their characters, particularly the chic, eye-catching outfit Fanny Wilton wears.

Set designer Tony Ferrieri uses invention and artistry to solve the myriad challenges presented by a room with a single entrance and exit and the need to move swiftly between three distinct settings.

One final note: As Quantum artistic director Karla Boos explains in her program notes, “Dream of Autumn,” the company's next production scheduled to open April 5, is planned as a companion piece to “John Gabriel Borkman.”

Written by John Fosse, a contemporary Norwegian playwright, it shares writing styles with Ibsen's play while having a different outlook on similar themes.

If that's not a compelling reason to leave home, it's important to know that this neatly conceived production is an excellent opportunity to see this rarely produced Ibsen drama.

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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