If the financial scheme hadn’t collapsed, “All the deposits would have been replaced. All the securities I’d used so audaciously would have been back again...Nobody would have lost a share.”
A recent deposition from an Enron Corp. executive? A quote from last year’s dot-com CFO? Nope. Try Mr. J. G. Borkman, Norway, circa 1896. At the Century Center Theatre, John Gabriel Borkman, Henrik Ibsen’s tale of white-collar crimes and squandered lives, has arrived more than 100 years after its premiere. Right on time.
Though John Gabriel Borkman is part of a scheduled five-year program of Ibsen’s major works (this is the 11th of 12 plays), it couldn’t have come at a more pertinent moment. In the play, Borkman has secluded himself in his estate for eight years, disgraced but unrepentant after serving five years in prison for a bank scandal. Borkman has lost more than his reputation, however. He is visited by his former love, Ella, whom he had spurned during his quest for career advancement. Meanwhile, Borkman’s son Erhart is plotting a contrary path -- he’ll forsake a large inheritance and leave the country with a woman of questionable reputation. One man reflects on the past, when he had given up love for money. The other looks toward the future, when he’ll forsake money for love.
Driven more by character than plot, the language of John Gabriel Borkman often borders on the poetic; Ibsen chose to explore the personal rather than the societal, and subordinated stagecraft to psychology. Director Max Montel steeped the play in a rich emotional brew and made the situation as contemporary as today’s newspaper, and the characters as recognizable as those in any workplace.
As the title character, Richard Leighton captured Borkman’s ruthlessness. Borkman must believe he’s been sabotaged by the world rather than vanquished by his faults, and Leighton understood and shrewdly revealed the many facets of the complex businessman. As Frida Foldal, a music student of Borkman’s, Amber Gross developed a well-rounded minor character, as did Kate Suber as Fanny Wilton, the vixen who may well lead Borkman’s son to his own disrepute. As Borkman’s only friend, Vilhelm, Erik Frandsen was gifted with the play’s driest, funniest lines, and he didn’t waste a single one. Vilhelm, an exasperation to the others in the play, was a joy for the audience.
Although Montel wisely deleted the superfluous role of a maid who appears in the beginning, the first scene still seemed a bit long, and a bit too full of exposition. Yet the remaining three scenes, particularly the second, which features Borkman and Vilhelm, were superb, and fully displayed Montel’s directing skills -- anger and resignation, as well as humor and satisfaction, were all successfully balanced throughout the rest of the two-hour, two-act play.
Don’t bother reading the Wall Street Journal for tales of shady business dealings. With John Gabriel Borkman the Century Center has provided more than just a chronicle of a fallen corporate titan -- they’ve brought forth a behind-the-headlines, human story that’s as timely today as the year it was written.
(Also featuring: Ellen Barry, Charlotte Hampden, and Robert Thompson, as well as
Graham Kindred’s first-rate lighting and Pam Snyder’s fine costumes.)
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Copyright 2002 Ken Jaworowski