John Gabriel Borkman. JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN! That name was yelled, cursed, hissed, and curled over the lips of actors in my general direction Sunday night at the Quantum Theatre where I attended a showing of Ibsen’s (you guessed it) “John Gabriel Borkman.” I am not exactly a theatre person. I love “The Arts.” I have a creative career, and never hesitate to take in a new artistic experience. However, there is also a practical mid-Westerner buried inside me. And an innate bullshit monitor that starts sounding the alarm when someone shows me a “progressive new artist” who only paints solid color canvases. Theatre in particular seems to set off this alarm. I’ve struggled to find a production I appreciated since ending my own acting career after what was considered by many (Mom) to be a breakout performance as the Tin Man in a sixth grade revision of The Wizard of Oz. So when asked if I’d attend the Sunday night showing I hesitated, albeit briefly. Then, as I’m prone to do, jumped in headfirst in hopes of finding artistic inspiration not on the big or small screens, but on the stage.
Getting ready for the show Wife asked if I knew the appropriate dress code. I had no idea. I’ve never heard of the play nor been to a Quantum Theatre performance before this. I looked up the ticket prices online and said, “Dressy.” She put on her fancy boots, and I even put on a blazer. The show was held in the Hart Building in East Liberty in what I would call a non-traditional space, and Wife would call an oversized warehouse basement. We were a bit overdressed, but not uncomfortably so. The entry space was under some remodeling but was still pretty bare bones. A concrete floor, old brick walls and a chill in the air. There was a concession stand with the basics: $3 sodas, waters, candy bars and homemade cookies. The theatre itself was small.
Front row seats were essentially on stage, and wooden risers about 7 rows high held the rest of the audience in metal folding chairs. It was almost full when we got settled. The folding chairs had some padding, but scored about a zero on the comfort scale. I adjusted and heard a large creaking noise. “Oh shit,” I thought. I’m going to be That Guy. The guy who moves and distracts the audience or even the actors. I frantically looked around for two seats together but it was too late. I was stuck. Unable, I feared, to move for the next hour until intermission. Fortunately, and unfortunately my fear was unwarranted. Turns out that the wooden risers made EVERYONE “That Guy.” Any time someone shifted, adjusted, or breathed-in deeply the risers would moan and groan. It was distracting at first, but… no, it was distracting the whole time.
And then there was the play. It began with two sisters who have been without contact over a dispute for years, and what looked like a mentally unstable man pacing, pacing, pacing in the upstairs attic. The sisters set the groundwork by relaying the backstory through their bickering. No real spoilers here, but it is safe to say the story was about a formerly uber-wealthy family who was socially down on their luck after a public scandal, but still living off the charity of one of the wealthy sisters. Both sisters loved the same man who turned out to be a scoundrel. Both loved the same child (son to one of them), and hated each other’s guts. Basically, everyone involved seemed bat-shit crazy. The play examined the roles of men and women in society. The differences between the love of each other vs. the love of power and money, and finally the need to inject a little fun into a life otherwise not worth living. Ultimately, all the characters were a bit repulsive, presumably by intent. Characters who were lesser on the social scale were presented as pawns in the game of life, and by their own actions naive and unworthy of success. Often they were the jesters in a fairly dark production.
The actors were good. The interaction between the characters, the long dialogues and the little physical interplays between them seemed natural, comfortable and well rehearsed. The conversations given in the formal tone of 19th century high society flowed well and were easy to follow. In particular, the gentleman playing the title character had a commanding voice, that seemed to boom from inside his barrel chest as his character alternated between insulting the intelligence of those around him. However, the story itself wasn’t very entertaining. Often if felt as if the audience was being prepared for a joke by an overwhelming yet absurd proclamation but the punchline never arrived. As if we’ve all been enlightened by the Will Ferrell-esque buffoon teaching us a lesson in the end, but here there was no lesson. Just the sad self-involvement of a few characters whose lives seem so unlike those of the most recent century. There was a lightening in the second act and a few laughs were had, but it never felt like we were laughing with the actors only at them. Often, I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would care about this family. Our current economic concerns, the uprising of random violence and growing divide between the classes made their concerns seem petty and insignificant. The production, instead of transporting me into their world, only seemed to glaringly point out the problems in ours which would by comparison seem more distressing. In that way it was difficult to feel anything but disdain and pity for the arrogance of the characters in Ibsen’s “John Gabriel Borkman.”
I don’t think either of us would hesitate to see a play put on by the Quantum Theatre again, as long as it was in a different setting. The show was professionally presented despite the seating situation, and the actors seemed well trained. We would want to have our choice of production story line vetted a bit more the next time around. Ultimately, we left disappointed. Our experience someone of else’s creative vision was lacking. When asked what her reaction to the spectacle was Wife responded, “Not as much fun as sitting on the couch with the dog and knitting,” and I replied, “Not as entertaining as old Law & Order re-runs.”
When is the show?
January 31 – February 24, 2013
Wednesdays – Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm
Where is it?
Hart Building in East Liberty
6022 Broad Street (map)
Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday: $35
Friday: $40 / Saturday: $45