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Shows Worth Seeing:


John Gabriel Borkman
By Henrik Ibsen
BAM Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton St., Brooklyn
Box office: 718-636-4100


The British actor Alan Rickman is looking like the white knight of serious theater in New York these days. The Donmar Warehouse production of Strindberg’s Creditors he brought to BAM last year crackled with such emotional intensity and actorly honesty that it ended up as the season’s high point for many theatergoers. Now an Abbey Theatre production of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman starring Rickman has arrived that is scarcely less meaty and satisfying. Borkman (1896), Ibsen’s penultimate play, is a masterpiece with a small following. Seldom produced because of its grim chilliness, it is an extraordinary creation that pushes the boundaries of what most people think of as Ibsen’s realistic métier. Some consider it a modern tragedy. It is certainly the closest any author has come to demonstrating that tragedy (or something like it) is possible with complexly unattractive and ambivalent modern characters.

The story is equally timely and timeless. The character of Borkman is part Bernie Madoff and part frustrated Billy Elliott. A former bank manager who went to prison for illegally appropriating other people’s money, he is also the son of a miner who clawed his way into middle-class respectability by denying his impulses toward poetry and his obligations toward love. Renouncing his beloved Ella for the sake of a man who he thought could help him in business, Borkman married Ella’s sister Gunhild instead, and as the play begins eight years after his release from jail, Gunhild is a figure of such icy, implacable determination that she seems drawn from Greek tragedy. Much of the action consists of these three "shadows" bickering and deluding themselves that they might achieve worldly redemption through Erhart, John and Gunhild’s son. Erhart, for his part, is a bright-eyed young man who understandably wants nothing more than to escape with his girlfriend and enjoy life.

The acting is pitch-perfect. Rickman's famous command of haughty surliness is just the right skill for breathing life into Borkman’s grotesque flights of arrogant self-justification. More impressive, he has figured out how to make the character’s numerous, sudden shifts into mystical poetry believable and moving. Fiona Shaw is just as believable as vindictive Gunhild—no small accomplishment considering that character’s monolithic grimace. Shaw finds more variation, subtlety and depth in one-note bitterness than I would have imagined possible. And Lindsay Duncan completes the triangle with a precise and penetrating Ella, a role with more emotional range than Gunhild but dangerous for an actress for that reason. Ella must appear more poised and balanced at first but then reveal later that her poise was completely a mask. Duncan understands this task thoroughly, hiding all hint of her delusory mania until the third act and then releasing it to stunning effect.

This production, directed by James Macdonald, is also visually stunning, as set designer Tom Pye has cleverly solved the play’s formidable challenges. Like When We Dead Awaken (the play that came after it), Borkman plays mostly in a bourgeois interior and then opens out into an epic and violent landscape in its final scenes. This means that the bourgeois setting must entirely disappear so that the action can expand beyond the specific and explode the foregoing realism. Pye’s efficient solution was to place Victorian furniture pieces amid snow mounds and drifts on a highly polished black stage, with white flakes on the floor catching the hems of dresses and the soles of shoes. Then near the end, that furniture is quickly removed, and powerful snow machines generate a gorgeous blizzard against a black void. It’s a marvelous, uncomplicated effect that brings beautiful unity and closure to the play’s complex of themes and heartbreaking emotions.



By William Shakespeare
New Victory Theatre
209 W. 42nd St.
Box office: 646-223-3010

is a ridiculously complicated play. Generations of very smart commentators have expatiated on its “imbecilic” (Samuel Johnson), “trashy” (G.B Shaw), and “monstrous” (Frank Kermode) plot. Kermode went on to speculate that Shakespeare probably wrote it late in life just to show “he could do pretty well anything.” I happen to love this particular monster, though I recognize how hard it is to stage well. A tale of war, foiled love and troubled succession set in ancient Britain and Rome, replete with dozens of intricate and absurd digressions, it can’t be done with a wholly straight face (which only calls undue attention to its improbability) or wholly tongue-in-cheek (which only makes people wonder why you’re doing it). The modest and scrappy Fiasco Theatre Company has come up with an ingenious solution to this conundrum. Six actors play the thirty-odd roles, using only a sheet, a trunk and a few boxes for a setting. Although they have made some textual adjustments and collapsed a few sequences to accommodate the multiple casting, they basically do the play, in all its glorious sprawl. Their constant role-shifts and set transformations create a delightfully whimsical atmosphere, but they also inhabit the characters precisely and intelligently enough to allow serious contemplation of the action, which is often troubling despite its comic profile. This means that whatever the production may lack in sustained depth it more than makes up in fidelity to the play’s moral craziness, which is as significant as its practical craziness in the end. Fiasco’s madcap staging of Shakespeare’s head-spinning final act, in which all the far-flung plot strands must be resolved in absurdly quick succession, will long stick in my mind as a model of purposeful insanity in the theater. Not everything works as well: I couldn’t buy the translation of the old mountain-man and soldier Belarius into a woman (Belaria) capable of fighting the invading Romans, for instance. The charm and energy of the show are immense, however, making such small objections seem decidedly unimportant.


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