Stage review: Quantum's staging fits melodrama of this Ibsen

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Thinking back, I can't tell you so much about the matter of the play as I want to sing the praises of its manner.

Sure, it's Ibsen, so there is serious matter. "John Gabriel Borkman" is about the megalomania of grand intent and the conflict between ambition and love. The eponymous hero is a flawed Ayn Rand capitalist (rather redundant, that), besotted by power. From one point of view, this is a tragedy of defiance, a "Faustus" or "Timon of Athens" of the middle class.

Ultimately, though, Borkman's grand ambition never seems to matter much -- he's just a small-scale Ivar Kreuger the Match King (a Scandinavian parallel) or Bernie Madoff (one closer to home). All his rant about a mining empire dwindles down to zilch. The real story is the melodrama of the unhappy family: "Borkman" is mostly about the mysteries of the baffled heart.

"John Gabriel Borkman"

Where: Quantum Theatre at Hart Building, 6022 Broad St., East Liberty.

When: Through Feb. 24; 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays.

Tickets: $35-$45 (students $18 or other discounts at 412-362-1713); or 1-888-718-4253.

Borkman is a bank manager who has been in self-imposed isolation following a prison term for some failed scheme we never know the truth of. He still dreams of redemption and power, but we see the result: his embittered wife, her lonely sister who had been his love, his estranged son and a clever woman preying on the emotional debris.

Neither the story nor the melodrama of capitalist megalomania nor stunted love measures up to what really matters, which is the theatrical experience Quantum provides -- the brilliance of a production that embraces all this frustrated passion and flings it across one of those magical performance spaces that Quantum has ripped out of the debris of the industrial city. In fact, that's a nice parallel to the play: a melodrama of emotional loss discovered in the hidden heart of a hollowed-out commercial building in East Liberty.

The genius of Martin Giles' production is to embrace the melodrama and let it swell to create and fill this theatrical space -- bare brick, platforms, Persian carpets, a Beckettian stunted tree -- that's wider and deeper than the audience. This world of emotional need is bigger than the everyday world from which we enter.

Mr. Giles directs with an expansive hand. In a passionate confrontation, the two will sometimes back off, throwing their rage across the whole wide stage. The result is an enlarged, thrilling conflict. It feels as though there's an invisible conductor, directing one moment up to operatic heights, the next, down to conspiratorial intensity.

The willing agents of the Ibsen/Giles vision start with the feuding sisters. As the embittered wife, Bridget Connors is conventionality warped into a gargoyle of anger, but she still manages to show a glimpse of her battered heart. As her sister, Robin Walsh gets to play a wider emotional gamut, but you gradually see how deep their sisterhood runs.

My favorite performances are by Daina Michelle Griffith, as the clever intruder, and Ken Bolden, as a feckless nobody who imagines himself a poet. Each provides comedy of a high order. Ms. Griffith commands the stage with such egotistical insolence that you just can't dislike her as perhaps you should, and Mr. Bolden is a wonder of battered optimism, picking himself up from each blow with renewed wonderment -- he's straight out of Dickens.

Luka Glinsky plays the son with such self-centered innocence that you kind of look forward to the battering that later life will provide, and Carly Otte is the young woman who does a dance of musical passion.

Malcolm Tulip's Borkman soars readily to the peaks of rant and self-conceit that Ibsen/Giles demand, but he pretty much stays there. I assume this is a directorial decision, but there's no nuance. I love his final scene -- it's as though a puppet had his strings cut.

That wonderful set, seemingly discovered all ready to go in the midst of a building under renovation, is in fact the creation of designer Tony Ferrieri, who always knows how to use what's there and then create what's needed and make it look like it was always there, as well.

Quantum manages to heat this raw space sufficiently, but if you're worried, bring a sweater and sit higher up, where it's warmer and your sense of the theatrical panorama improves, as well.

C. Todd Brown and Ryan McMasters provide site-enhancing lights and sound (although the environment pitches in: some of the running water sound, which I thought so appropriate, comes from the building itself). Christine Casaus' costumes avoid burying everyone in too many layers of frock coats and bustles.

Perhaps you think Ibsen is all about Victorian domestic drama and stern rectitude, but he's much more, especially in a late play like "Borkman." These middle-class Norwegians are like mythic heroes, waging war amid the craggy peaks of morality, and Quantum provides the stage they need.


Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.


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