I went to the Aurora Theater’s recent production of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman (in a new version by David Eldridge), because how many chances am I going to get to see that – though having said that, I suspect that this play will be making the regional rounds, since it can be sold as an up-to-the-minute expose of financial misdeeds. Borkman is a bank manager who arrogantly and illegally speculates with client funds, and you can draw the comparison to whichever recent Wall Street gangster you like (Bernie Madoff is referenced in the program).
The problem with describing the play this way, though, is that it really isn’t about the financial chicanery. When we see Borkman (the reliably excellent James Carpenter), he has been out of prison for a while, and though his reputation has suffered, his family didn't lose enough money to cause them difficulty, nor is there much exploration of the masses who did lose money, or much guilt expressed about them. Instead money just represents part of the shame and the will to power among the family (some other type of scandal might have had the same effect, only not as fully and, let me say, economically).
The center of tension is the tight triangle among Borkman, his bitter wife Gunhild Borkman (Karen Grassle), and her unmarried sister Ella Rentheim (Karen Lewis), who lost Borkman to Gunhild years before. John Gabriel had not speculated with Ella’s money, so she is still quite wealthy and owns the house the Borkmans live in. The Borkmans have a grown son, Erhart (Aaron Wilton), on whom all three project their plans: Borkman wants Erhart’s youth and vigor to join him in working again towards Borkman’s great plans of economic development and power; Gunhild wants him to restore the family’s name and reputation to respectability (in effect, to achieve what his father set out to do, only honestly); Ella, the dying Ella, wants him to be the son she never had.
Borkman is one of those Ibsenite master spirits (like Halvard Solness the Master Builder, or like Hedda Gabler, or Nora in A Doll’s House) who struggle to force reality to conform to their idealistic sense of their own superiority. The financial crimes are just a way of getting at the real subject, which is the struggle among Borkman and the two women for dominance (even if it comes in the guise of love), and their struggle to achieve their goals as their time runs out. This is another of Ibsen’s plays which look as if (and are described as if) they are realistic works about pressing social issues when they are actually weird expressionist psychodramas on poetic, epic themes. (Same with August Wilson, which is why he strikes me as the American Ibsen.)
Erhart beautifully evades every choking, conflicting demand of the older generation with the simple answer, “I want to live.” Usually what people mean by this is they want to have lots of sex in a warm climate. And that’s exactly what Erhart means, as he’s heading off to Italy in what is pretty clearly a ménage-a-trois with a shady divorcee, Fanny Wilton (Pamela Gaye Walker) and the young Frida Foldal (Lizzie Calogero, who also plays the maid Malene), a musician who is the daughter of a somewhat silly, naïve and idealistic, poet, Vilhelm Foldal (Jack Powell), who has stuck by Borkman in his troubles. Erhart's ability to pick up and flee is what convinced me that the financial shenanigans are not really what the play is about – whatever its effects on unseen others, the money loss isn't crimping the freedom of any of the Borkmans. The restrictions on their freedom are mostly internal – mostly, because with all their grand schemes, they simply run out of time – they run into the fact of Death, which cuts short their hopes and ambitions.
I give full credit to Aaron Wilton for being able to carry off a potentially dangerous line like “I want to live” with simplicity, conviction, and truth. (There is no camp echo of Susan Hayward here.) His escape, which might have seemed cowardly or evasive, instead seems right and even sensible. One of my many, many problems with August: Osage County was the way it denied this truth: sometimes running away is the only way.
And the last time I saw James Carpenter, he was Frankenstein’s Monster in The Creature, Trevor Allen’s adaptation of Frankenstein. Carpenter was astonishing, hunching his body in ways both ape-like and noble, threatening and supplicating. Here he was a completely different type of monster – a visionary, upright and strict, who considers himself unbound by the rules that bind the multitude. This was a cast where the men were definitely stronger performers than the women, which I guess makes up for all those evenings (this often happens at the opera) when the women outshone the men. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the women; I just felt they (particularly the two sisters, Gunhild and Ella) could have gone deeper, been more nuanced and intense. Possibly on other nights they were. But moments like the climax of the first half, when Gunhild for the first time enters Borkman’s part of the house, bursting in on him and Ella, just fell kind of flat.