Stage preview: Quantum Theatre mines Ibsen's dark humor
In Quantum Theatre's production of "John Gabriel Borkman," Robin Walsh, left, portrays Ela Rentheim, Malcolm Tulip is John Gabriel Borkman and Bridget Connors plays Gunhild Borkman.
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Henrik Ibsen has been called the father of realism for works exploring the dark side of the psyche and issues of morality that scandalized his 19th-century contemporaries.
It seems the Norwegian playwright also had a crystal ball.
The oh so modern-day crime committed by the title character in Ibsen's "John Gabriel Borkman" is embezzlement. When we meet him, former bank manager Borkman has spent eight years in prison for investing customers' funds without their permission and eight more years in self-imposed isolation, all the while defiant that his actions were in the name of the greater good.
The play takes place one evening when Borkman faces the women in his life -- his wife and her twin sister, who also happens to be the love of his life -- and "everything that's been waiting to happen happens," as Martin Giles puts it. Mr. Giles, a standard-bearer for Ibsen works throughout his career, is directing "John Gabriel Borkman" for Quantum Theatre.
Most interpretations take a brooding approach to Borkman. The New York Times' Ben Brantley, describing the role as played by Alan Rickman last year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, wrote, "Glimmers of ... past power are largely missing from the performance of Mr. Rickman, who plays Borkman as a man of ever-ebbing strength, sleepwalking through his final days."
In contrast, Mr. Giles and Quantum founder and leader Karla Boos, who saw that New York production, are mining the humor that they believe the playwright intended.
Newcomer to Pittsburgh Malcolm Tulip plays Borkman. "He is intensely obsessed; it's like it happened yesterday. So he's really dynamic, and that's very exciting," said Mr. Giles.
It's an interpretation that fits into the director's notion that Ibsen "is the deepest, darkest comedian of all time."
"Exactly," Ms. Boos concurred.
"Everyone mocks me about it now, but at our first read-through, I told [the cast] that, to me, the play crackles," Mr. Giles said. "This crazy single evening is when all the brooding, all the ice is shattered."
This being indoor season for the found-site company, Quantum has landed in a property that is awaiting a new tenant, the glass-front building at 6022 Broad St., East Liberty.
On a recent rehearsal day in the high-ceilinged theater space, heaters were going full blast. Mr. Giles and Ms. Boos invited a visitor to join them around a small table positioned upstage and facing the homemade bleachers that rise against two walls. A downstage platform provides Borkman with room to pace and an adjacent hollowed-out area is filled with deciduous trees, denoting a wintry season. Steps that wind downward from stage level will be incorporated in the action. "They are there, so we might as well use them," Mr. Giles said.
Bringing Borkman to life within the space is Mr. Tulip, a professor who teaches directing and movement at the University of Michigan.
"We went and auditioned him, and he's such a good actor. He's also a little different than you would expect for Borkman," Mr. Giles said. "For one thing, he's a very funny guy. He's a very good clown, literally -- he went to Lecoq training. He's really keying into the absurdity of Borkman's obsessiveness and physicalizing it really beautifully."
The sisters are played by Bridget Connors as Borkman's wife, Gunhild, and Robin Walsh as his soulmate, Ella. The play opens with these two mature women reunited after years of brewing resentment.
It's a scene that points to the heart and humor of Ibsen's plays, the director said.
"They start to talk to each other, and they fall into their old relationship about 15 seconds into the conversation. That first scene is funny as hell -- it's terrible, in a way -- but it is really funny. I think a lot of the stuff Borkman does, what he's become by being alone in this room for years, ends up being sort of wonderfully and heartbreakingly absurd."
There is some debate over whether Borkman truly believes he had anyone's best interests but his own at heart when caught with his hand in the bank vault. He may just be the theatrical equivalent of Bernie Madoff or "Wall Street's" greed-is-good character Gordon Gekko. Or it could just be that Borkman is so self-obsessed he can't possibly believe he has done anything wrong.
"He believes he can improve the country and make it prosperous and make everybody happy," Mr. Giles said. "There's a really funny line that he has in Act 3, when he and his wife are finally speaking to each other, she says, 'Oh, you would have done the same thing all over again.' He says, 'Well, no one else could have done that, another person would have done it for selfish reasons.' So he really has this belief that he could have made 'his kingdom,' as he calls it, a beautiful and prosperous place. He has this weird utopian belief. The scary part of it is, as he says, 'All this, I would have created alone.' "
With "John Gabriel Borkman," Mr. Giles continues a long-standing relationship with the works of Ibsen. In recent years, he has acted in Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre's "Hedda Gabler" and in Quantum's "Wild Duck." In the 1980s, he directed "Ghosts," "Rosmersholm" and "When We Dead Awaken" for his own Lawrenceville theater company. He even tried his hand at "John Gabriel Borkman."
"I was working with great actors then, too, but I can't even picture what that production was like." He believes he's more prepared to delve into the Borkman psyche this time around.
"Ibsen to me is the ultimate playwright. He gets so far into the human psyche and he faces all the really squirmy, uncomfortable stuff. It's just an amazing experience to work on [his plays] because it's so complicated; it's like trying to understand yourself or another person."
First Published January 30, 2013 12:00 am