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REVIEW: ‘John Gabriel Borkman’ seems a stranger at BAM

borkman011311_optAlan Rickman, Fiona Shaw and Lindsay Duncan share a bleak night in Brooklyn

BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW

The vicious furies that erupt in Henrik Ibsen's next to last drama "John Gabriel Borkman" suggests the frosty Norwegian sage was snake-bitten by August Strindberg, his Swedish neighbor whose poisonous battle of the sexes bouts this 1896 play resembles.

Making Ibsen's compelling work seem all the more timely today, the title figure is a bank manager whose manipulation of funds ended infamously in his ruin and imprisonment.

Having exiled himself in a country retreat for the last eight years, Borkman now dreams about making his comeback. Meanwhile his bitter wife Gunhild and her estranged, kindly twin sister Ella, who once was Borkman's sweetheart and is now a dying woman, fight for control over Borkman's only son. No good comes from any of these struggles.

Ibsen's play still resonates but the Abbey Theatre's production now on view at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater is a somewhat hammy endeavor hampered by echoing sound reinforcement and visuals that don't quite realize the drama's elevated conclusion.

Ultimately your greater enjoyment probably depends on your fondness for Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw and Lindsay Duncan, three excellent actors who did not seem all that comfortable in projecting their respective characters as Borkman, Gunhild and Ella during Wednesday's opening night.

They were not performing at their considerable finest, that's for certain. Borkman's brooding nature is a perfect match for Rickman's melancholy powers but the actor mostly played him as sleepwalker. In mad contrast, Shaw vehemently acted up a shrieking storm as Gunhild. Drifting somewhere between those two extremes, Duncan quietly registered best as a haunted yet always heartfelt Ella.

In spite of the generally miscalculated quality of Wednesday night's show, the scenes between Rickman and Duncan still managed to evoke that special spark that exists between these award-winning co-stars of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" and "Private Lives."

The Harvey has always been a beautiful but very tricky theater space and director James Macdonald's import production of Frank McGuinness' new adaptation, which premiered at the Abbey in Dublin last October, does not sit especially well within it.

Let's hope the performances as well as the show's finer points — especially that nasty sound reproduction — can be better tuned for the remainder of the Abbey's visit.

But there's not much to be done for designer Tom Pye's disappointing looks for the drama. Dirty snowdrifts and a few pieces of Victorian furniture set on a dark mirrored floor against a black void don't convey the claustrophobia of the play's interior scenes while a raging blizzard simply serves to mask the lack of a defining image to conclude Ibsen's story of a man undone by his ambitions.

"John Gabriel Borkman" continues through Feb. 6 at BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn. Call (718) 636-4100 or visit www.bam.org.

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