Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Aurora Theatre’s “John Gabriel Borkman,” mixes powerful performances with melodrama

By Stephanie Wright Hession
Arts and Culture Writer

Although Henrik Ibsen wrote “John Gabriel Borkman” in 1896, its story of Borkman (James Carpenter), a greedy, power hungry banker suffering from delusions of grandeur still resonates today given what happened with Bernie Madoff and the recent upheaval in the U.S. banking industry. Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre presents a fresh version of this Victorian era drama written by David Eldridge and a taunt production wonderfully directed by Barbara Oliver.

In the opening scene, we see Borkman’s wife Gunhild (Karen Grassle) living in the downstairs of a dark and thoroughly depressing home, while her husband Borkman lives upstairs in his bedroom. After serving time in prison for embezzling funds from his customers to build his own personal empire, this disgraced bank manager still isn’t free. He refuses to go outside, instead choosing to spend each day of the last eight years pacing back and forth, recounting his mistakes and plotting his comeback.

Meanwhile, the embittered Gunhild, who declines any contact with her husband, has turned her energies toward destructive means and placing all of her ambitions with their son Erhart (Aaron Wilton). She works diligently to persuade him to reject his father and take up her cause to restore the Borkman name to the respectable standing it once held in local society. Extremely possessive of her son and intent on punishing her husband for causing her to live such a horrible, meager existence, Gunhild doesn’t consider that perhaps Erhart may have other plans.

Enter Ella Rentheim(Karen Lewis), Gunhild’s estranged twin sister, whom she despises because Erhart looks upon her as a beloved aunt and because Gunhild’s sudden poverty forced Erhart to be raised by Ella, whose wealth remained untouched by Borkman. Now Ella is demanding to take Erhart to live with her for reasons we have yet to learn.

James Carpenter's commanding portrayal of Borkman makes for an engrossing and chilling performance, bringing this delusional, biting and power obsessed villain wonderfully to life. Karen Grassle gives an intense, emotional performance as the harsh, embittered Gunhild. Karen Lewis portrays Ella with tenderness and vulnerability.

Jack Powell gives a sweet portrayal of Vilhelm Foldal, an aspiring poet and the only loyal friend Borkman has left. Aaron Wilton plays the carefree, young Erhart with the perfect level of joie de vivre. Pamela Gaye Walker gives a delightful performance as the effervescent Mrs. Wilton, the woman helping Erhart plan his escape from the tight clutches of his mother and aunt. When she enters the theater, it’s as if someone opened a window, allowing fresh air into the staid atmosphere of the Borkman’s dreadful abode.

While Eldridge’s script contains some absorbing scenes, at times it drags and the melodrama reaches such levels that it elicits unintended laughter from the audience.

“John Gabriel Borkman,” plays through May 9 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. For tickets call (510) 843-4822 or visit Photo by David Allen.