Theater: Ibsen’s “Borkman” Stark and Poignant

The barren winter landscape that sets the stage for the Pomona College Department of Theater and Dance’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman establishes an icy tone that pervades the entire production. Against a stark background and a stage sprinkled with white snow, the players deftly explore themes of power, love, and opportunity gained and lost.

Most of the members of the Borkman family are stagnating, frozen in a fantasy of days gone by. Along with the characters, we spend the first few acts trapped in the past as they discuss the family’s catastrophic history.

The play opens on Gunhild Borkman (Kaitlyn Casimo PO ’13) anxiously waiting for her adult son, Erhart (Gabriel Pea PO ’11), to return home for the night. When her estranged twin sister, Ella Renthaim (Chelsea Thompson SC ’14) shows up first, emotions flare and a charged conversation begins.

We learn about the family’s fall from grace after father and husband John Gabriel (Sam Gold PO ’11) was catastrophically convicted of staging a grand Ponzi scheme while acting as managing director of a bank, and his subsequence sentencing to eight years in prison. The event devastated the family and led to the young Erhart’s unofficial adoption by Ella.

Now, each of the older members of the family are struggling—and usually failing—to cope with the events of their collective past. Casimo gives a disturbing performance as a mother obsessed with controlling her son’s actions, trying to force him into a life of compensation for her husband’s disgrace of the family. Thompson is wily and steady as the ex-foster mother back to claim her “son” for herself, for what limited time she has left.

John Gabriel himself, who Gold nimbly and believably portrays as a pompous yet depressed and unstable man, cannot face the obvious truth of his decline. He still hopes for the day the world realizes its need for him and comes begging at his feet. Gold’s performance, while dryly humorous, evokes a portrait of a deeply flawed and doomed individual.

These characters’ inability to progress past the crucial ruinous event is contrasted with the more flexible and optimistic outlook maintained by the rest. John Gabriel’s inability to confront reality challenges his friendship with subordinate Government clerk Vilhelm Foldal (Ian Gallogly PO ’13). Gallogly provides an ideal foil to Gold’s John Gabriel, bumbling unpretentiously through the play and sustaining a positive outlook even when confronted with John Gabriel’s reprimands.

Pea provides a confident Erhart, mollifying his mother but working to maintain his independence as well. His lady friend Fanny Wilton (Rosemary Kulp PI ’12) injects life and laughter into the play, while housemaid Malene (Anna Bax PO ’13) provides genial support throughout.

The play is divided between those trying to regain a place in the past and those striving to make a new future for themselves. The past-oriented characters do little but stand around and talk about the past; when those who are future-oriented do enter into the picture from time to time, they give the play its much-needed impetus toward action and progression. The climactic moment comes when a sudden break between the two aspects finally occurs, and the final moments of the play leaves us with a cold reminder: those who fail to move on are inevitably doomed. John Gabriel Borkman will run through this Sunday, Oct. 10 at Pomona College’s Seaver Theatre.

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