Monday, February 28, 2011

Oh, the Oscars . . .

Every year, I settle in to watch the Academy Awards show, and every year, I come away disappointed. Last night’s show promised something a little different—young co-hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco were supposed to bring verve and energy to a show that continually runs out of steam well before the finish line. If it’s not going to be distinguished and elegant, amidst jokes at industry-insiders’ expense (which a short clip shown last night of Bob Hope hosting, decades ago, evinced), then it should at least move quickly through the night’s requisites, handing out the awards with a minimum of fuss and bother.

Neither elegant nor bother-free, the 2011 awards ceremony telecast seemed instead particularly forced and wooden. Franco and Hathaway are terrific actors (he was nominated this year as Best Actor for 127 Hours); the opening gambit filmed the two moving Inception-style through Alec Baldwin’s dreams as a way to introduce the 10 films nominated for Best Picture awards. Franco and Hathaway rose to the occasion of this minor comedy, gamely playing for laughs.

But once they appeared live at the Kodak Theatre, their patter seemed unusually dull and plastic. Franco stood with his hands crossed below his waist for most of the night, his brow frowning, and his eyes squinted, as though, looking out at the over-dressed audience, he wondered what in the world he’d gotten himself into.

Hathaway was adorable and earnest, but worked almost too hard to maintain the youthful energy the show’s producers desperately courted. Her sycophantic hosannas to various colleagues—her personal “moment” introducing Sandra Bullock, her infatuated announcement of Stephen Spielberg’s appearance—seemed to brook the unspoken decorum of the event, in which only the audience at home is supposed to be impressed by celebrity. Everyone on stage is meant to take stardom in stride. Something about Hathaway’s fawning—or the writers’ and producers’ choice to have her do so—seemed pushed, false, and wrong.

Trotting 90+-year-old Kirk Douglas out to announce the Best Supporting Actress award first thing in the evening proved a torturous exercise for the nominated performers and for the audience. The once-glamorous movie star now uses a cane, and a stroke distorted his face and his speech. But the guy still loves the limelight. He milked lousy jokes that had him flirting shamelessly with the five women nominees like an old satyric goat.

Even once he opened the envelope to announce the winner, Douglas interrupted himself twice to extend the suspense and his own moment in the spotlight. An Oscar handler finally had to pull the guy from view. When Melissa Leo won the award (for The Fighter), their cringe-worthy mugging provoked only embarrassment. As they walked off together, she took his cane and pretended to hobble along beside him.

Leo’s fabricated surprise and wonder at her win was as unseemly as Douglas’s lecherous antics, given that everyone watching knew that she had taken out “for your consideration” ads on her own behalf in the trade press. For an actor who does smart work in film (Frozen River, as well as The Fighter) and television (Homicide: Life on the Streets), Leo’s silly acceptance speech proved disappointing. The post-ceremony press makes much of her “dropping the F-bomb,” a curse that was instantly censored by the broadcast’s five-second delay. But aside from the indecorous swear word, she said nothing of substance and appeared lightweight and insincere.

In fact, most of the acceptance speeches fell short of an already low standard. I wondered as I do most years by midnight of the awards ceremony telecast why in the world I continue watching. It occurred to me that seeing people accept their awards on live tv offers the possibility for spontaneity and insight. I always hope someone will use their momentary platform to say something important to the millions of people watching and listening. That so few of these powerful stars take advantage of their time on stage seems shameful.

Only Charles Ferguson, who won the Best Documentary award for Inside Job, a film about the Wall Street scandal, used his speech incisively. He castigated the government for bringing to justice not one of the corporate executives who perpetrated the financial fraud. A few award winners referred obliquely to their support for the industry’s unions, gesturing to the current anti-union government activism in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

But even the politically-minded screenwriter Aaron Sorkin restrained himself when he accepted his award for adapting The Social Network. A few winners nodded to same-sex partners. The one female and two male sound editors who jointly won for their work on Inception thanked their “three wives,” and one of the producers of The King’s Speech thanked his boyfriend.

These were welcome alternatives, given the night-long litany of people thanking opposite-sex husbands, wives, and children. Why in the world do we need to hear these personal acknowledgements? Or even, for that matter, the long lists of “teams” who promote these people to their colleagues and peers? Those moments reek of personal and professional self-congratulatory normativity.

Colin Firth (Best Actor for The King’s Speech) and Natalie Portman (Best Actress for The Black Swan) came away with more of their dignity intact, simply because they seem more innately intelligent than some of their fellow celebrities, and offered more circumspect and apparently heart-felt (even humble) remarks.

No surprises pumped adrenaline into the evening. In fact, the show moved sluggishly and became boring only a few commercial breaks into the night. Even the visuals were cheesy. The stage was dressed like some sort of space capsule, with the presenters on its wide outer edges and film clips projected far upstage in its nose. The downstage apron where stars presented and accepted the awards looked like the floor of a pinball machine, bedecked in meaningless, distracting silver patterns.

Lighting in a strangely red, yellow, and orange color palette flattered no one, which only underlined how uncomfortable everyone onstage looked. The weird camera angles the producers chose during the acceptance speeches presented the winners in profile and sometimes from behind, which did nothing to add visual pizazz or appeal to the screen.

Perhaps most outrageous was the near total absence of people of color presenting and accepting awards. Halle Berry offered a special memorial to Lena Horne, and Jennifer Hudson, looking svelte but inexplicably startled, presented the Best Song award. Morgan Freeman appeared in the Franco-Hathaway opening film number. But that was pretty much it for people of color throughout the evening.

The evening’s representation of gender wasn’t much better. Douglas was allowed to cavort unimpeded while the frustrated Best Supporting Actress nominees were supposed to act charmed by his narcissism. Instead, the moment diminished the importance of their work. Annette Bening, a woman in her 50s who’s made a career of terrific, thoughtfully crafted character parts, lost to a woman who’s not yet 30. Portman is also a wonderful actress, but the histrionics of her role in The Black Swan were in a different register than Bening’s careful, nuanced, mutable reactions as a lesbian cuckolded when her long-term partner has sex with their children’s sperm donor.

Portman’s intensive dance training and her resulting loss of body fat, coupled with a role that required her character to mutilate herself and go insane insured that the young woman was directed to be and to play spectacle. Bening played heart, mind, and soul. But when it comes to women, spectacle always seems to win.

At the evening’s end, after the predictable Best Picture win for The King’s Speech, a chorus of fifth graders from a public school in Staten Island swarmed the stage to sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The multi-racial kids were cute and lively, and even as they over-acted out the song’s words, they struck a sincere, happy note in the telecast’s final moments. Maybe they should do the whole show next year.

The Feminist Spectator

Friday, February 18, 2011

Three Sisters

Austin Pendleton directs Paul Schmidt’s translation of Chekhov’s play with verve and surprising wit, giving the play a hint of contemporary relevance while maintaining a light touch over the production’s pace and tone. Schmidt’s translation is breezy and colloquial, sometimes awkwardly balancing the lyricism of Chekhov’s poetry with a vernacular style that sounds a lot like the way upper-middle class American young people speak in 2011.

The language makes the production at once a pleasure, tilting it on balance more toward the comedy than the tragedy in Chekhov’s “tragicomic” genre, but also makes it just a little difficult to determine what exactly the production wants to say to contemporary audiences.

The three sisters stand out in an extremely talented cast. Jessica Hecht’s Ólga (accents over the characters’ names come from the production program) is tired but empathetic, the first to sound the alarm about the encroaching Natásha’s excesses. Maggie Gyllenhaal brings Másha more than a little sultry sexuality and sly wisdom, which makes her abandonment by Lieutenant Vershínin at the play’s end that much more affecting. Juliet Rylance captures all of Irína’s ambivalent yearning for a way to be a better, more effective person, even as her suitor, the doomed Baron Tuzenbach (Ebon Moss-Bachrach, wonderful as the foolish, love-lorn solider) fails to capture her romantic imagination.

Instead of the isolation and stately loneliness some productions bring to the sisters’ relationship, Hecht, Gyllenhaal, and Rylance are girlish together, touching one another constantly, speaking directly into each other’s faces, always in proximity, and feeding one another’s illusions about how they’ll escape their country lives and leave for Moscow (or anywhere, by the play’s end).

Yet their girlishness doesn’t denigrate or diminish them, so much as it gives them a way to perform their hope for a different future and their faith in one another. Ólga, Irína, and Másha cling together in what the actors play as a well-worn pattern of mutual support and affection, as well as a physical strategy for keeping the real world at bay.

The strength of the women’s performances clarifies that the sisters rule their fading aristocratic home, but the end of their class privilege is signaled when Natásha instantly begins running the household after she marries their brother, Andréy (a soulful, befuddled, and finally furious Josh Hamilton). Chekhov invests in Natásha all the uncouth flailing of what he saw as the ascending middle-class. Her terrible French accent horrifies the sisters, who palpably dislike her, even before she begins reassigning their bedrooms so that her baby can have the house’s best air and light.

She moves Ólga and Irína farther into the house’s lower regions, dismantling their power and their right to their own property. And, of course, one of Natásha’s last stated intentions is to cut down the trees that line the family estate which, as always in Chekhov, represent stability, history, and the privilege of nobility.

The beginning of Natásha’s reign ends an era for Chekhov, with the aristocrats’ fall aided and abetted by an indolent military, represented in Three Sisters by the company of soldiers billeted with the family. The soldiers sit among the women, drinking, playing the piano, eating, and commenting with nonsensical self-importance on the non-events of the day.

Vershínin’s arrival, and his subsequent affair with Másha, propels the slender plot, and his departure, with the rest of the company of soldiers, marks its end. Peter Sarsgaard has a grand time with the pompous lieutenant, bringing to the static household a galvanizing charisma that re-enlivens the sisters’ hope for an elsewhere that never materializes.

Often, watching productions of Chekhov, I get lost in the too-similar Russian names and the indistinguishable, interchangeable characters, whose roles seem only metaphorical. But Pendleton and his superb actors make them all lively and distinct, so that even the minor soldiers and the townspeople become vivid and meaningful.

Each character’s trajectory is clearly plotted and fully delivered, so that what begins, for instance, as Andréy’s romantic, absent-minded artistry ends as his brooding, resentful parenthood, as he miserably pushes the baby’s carriage around the stage while his wife openly carries on an affair.

Natásha, inhabited beautifully by Marin Ireland, begins as an insecure, flibbertigibbet of a schoolgirl, and ends as an imperious, thoughtlessly cruel, impatient harpy, whose dismissal of the sisters’ old maid, Anfísa (Roberta Maxwell), is particularly horrific because it’s so casually heartless.

Pendleton crafts a series of fully interconnected but completely distinct moments of complex emotional and political interaction among the characters. Their delusions accumulate, one upon the other, so that the weight of their collective self-sabotage becomes at once heartbreaking and infuriating. Paul Lazar is particularly good as Kulýgin, the schoolteacher married to Másha, whose puffed up pride keeps him from seeing the extent of Másha’s betrayal.

Pendleton and his designers—Walt Spangler (sets), Keith Parham (lights), and Marco Piemontese (costumes)—use the Classic Stage Company’s modified thrust, with the audience seated very close to the stage floor action on three sides, to enhance the play’s claustrophobia. In the first two acts, he blocks the action around a dining table so large it takes up two-thirds of the space. The sisters and Anfísa lay the table with elaborate silver and stemware, as if preparing for holiday feast instead of a regular repast, and the dinner guests take their seats with the familiarity of those participating in a well-grooved ritual.

When the play opens, live flowers deck the domestic scene with fresh and colorful loveliness, which proceeds to pale as the production moves forward. In the second act, the flowers are gone and the table is bare, and the evening’s debauchery feels more desperate and less refined as the sisters and the soldiers sing and play drinking games with their glasses of vodka while Natásha scolds them for waking up her precious baby.

The claustrophobia of the interior scenes gives way in the final act to the outdoors, where old Chebutýkin (Louis Zorich) rattles his newspaper and sputters about how nothing matters, even after the poor Baron is killed in a duel with his moody, jealous colleague Solyóny (the dark, dashing Anson Mount). Chebutýkin’s tuneless humming, and his sneering insistence that marrying one man is the same as marrying another, becomes the play’s hopeless benediction.

The contemporary resonances sound most clearly in the second act, when Másha and her soldier friends play their senseless games, down their vodka, and declare that they’re bored. The assembled adults seem child-like when they whine, and their plaints ring with the rank privilege of those too wealthy and coddled to know how to amuse themselves.

Their moral vacuity contrasts sharply with Irína’s frantic desire to work, to contribute to the world in order to find it meaningful. But she, too, reveals her shallowness when she comes home tired and irritated that the work she’s found is only physical, not the spiritual uplift she expected from her engagement with a wider society.

Perhaps because the production itself is star-studded, I came away feeling that the contemporary allegory of Three Sisters had something to do with the wages of American celebrity, where bored rich kids like poor Lindsay Lohan and all the other too thin, hyper-sexualized, vapid young women and pretty, silly young men parade themselves for the world’s amusement while nothing on earth of substance happens to them.

The insipidness of their visibility recalls the static, empty privilege of the dying aristocracy Chekhov sentences to a kind of house arrest on the Prózorov family estate. It’s difficult to feel sorry for these young people, now or then. Pendleton’s production makes the characters compelling, their stasis sad, but it’s difficult not to say to them or to young privileged celebrities now, Please, just get a grip and do something.

The Feminist Spectator

Three Sisters, The Class Stage Company, through March 6th. I saw the performance on February 5th, 2011.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Merchant of Venice

I missed the Public’s production of Merchant in the Park last summer, and so was happy for an unexpected chance to see it last weekend on Broadway. I’d heard various responses to Al Pacino as Shylock, and to how director Daniel Sullivan handled the play’s notorious anti-Semitism. But I was surprised by how powerful and moving I found the production, and how much it spoke to the “othering” of Jews in ways that have uneasy contemporary resonances.

I’m not a Shakespeare scholar, but I’ve seen various productions of the play over the years that use different tactics to handle the representation of Shylock and the pound of flesh he intends to exact from Antonio, the Italian merchant whose fortunes have taken a temporary turn for the worst, when he can’t repay his loan.

Sullivan’s production sets the action in an Edwardian-era Italy designed to appear stark and rather foreboding, with the men costumed in mostly dark costumes, and only Portia, back home in Belmont, dressed in flashes of light or vivid color. Fences provide the dominating stage image, as concentric circles of railings and slatted iron enclosures are wheeled in various loops around the stage to create shifting scene locales.

The production’s striking opening image uses these boundaries to establish visually the exclusion of Jews from Venice’s financial center. A buzzing hive of men work the floor of the stock market, using long sticks to push beads across the rails of black abacuses set above their heads like the board of a modern-day financial center. A wrought-iron black fence encircles their activity, outside of which sits a young Jewish boy, watching wistfully, his inexorable exclusion palpable.

“Jewish,” in Sullivan’s production, means Orthodox. The young boy wears payot, the earlocks that indicate religious observance, and so do most of the older Jewish men who work with Shylock and haunt the Venice scene. The fringe of the tzitzis that the Torah commands men to wear peaks out from under their suit coats, and in a later scene, when Shylock visits Antonio in jail, he and a comrade both wear tallit, the blue and white fringed prayer shawl, over their jackets.

Judaism, then, is presented from the outset as a religious and ethnic identity that marks these men as outsiders, different from and othered by the culture that so emphatically excludes them. These images underscore that Shylock, though a usurer—a kind of loan shark—isn’t part of Venetian commerce or finance, but works on a shadow market to which Antonio is forced to appeal to secure the 3,000 ducats he wants to give his friend Bassanio to woo Portia.

Shylock’s ire, which Pacino plays so well in this production, stems from his resentment at being placed so squarely outside the dominant law. His stubborn insistence that he exact his pound of flesh as payment when Antonio is unable to fulfill the terms of his loan here reads as fueled by Shylock’s anger at the anti-Semitism that refuses him access to the law for his own defense. He’s righteous in his demand to be included as a full human being. He attracts audience sympathy because Sullivan and the other actors seem to underline every moment Jews are called “dog” or “cur” and by the way Antonio and other characters spit “Jew” as a kind of curse throughout the production. Shylock’s bitterness at being so othered, and his determination to avenge himself and his tribe, seems only rational in the hateful environment the production depicts.

Although a bit of the Borscht Belt haunts Pacino’s performance, he also brings depth and nuance to Shylock’s plight. He plays him as intelligent and strong, full of irony and reason, determined to exact his revenge against not just Antonio (Byron Jennings) but the injustices of a racist system whose exclusions he can no longer bear. Pacino empowers the stereotype of the avaricious Jew, filling it out, historicizing it, and making it empathetic and realistic. He brings a bit of what I read as modern-day New York Jewishness to his bearing and his inflections. That is, even in the Edwardian moment in which Sullivan sets his production, I doubt that Jews spoke with the Tevye-like upward inflections and fake-humble shrugs to which Pacino sometimes resorts to signal Shylock’s ethnic predilections. But the performance never crosses the line into broad caricature, and Pacino’s version of Shylock’s righteous rage keeps him human and sympathetic, even as he sharpens his knife and approaches Antonio’s bared breast to cut his pound of flesh.

The trial scene manages to heighten the moment’s suspense, even as most spectators will know how it ends. Antonio’s arms are strapped to a large wooden chair, and Shylock circles him with his knife, debating where to make his incision. But Pacino and Sullivan hint at Shylock’s hesitation, as he, along with the disguised Portia, who comes to Antonio and Bassanio’s rescue to argue their case, seems to search for a way out even as he purposefully poises his knife. Pacino plays Shylock as determined to make his point, rather than actually to take the pound of useless flesh, but the scene is chilling in its urgency and implicit violence. The cut Shylock would make against Antonio’s flesh comes to embody the violence done to him as a Jew by the anti-Semitism Antonio represents.

The disguised Portia (played beautifully by Lily Rabe, with a strength and composure that makes her a worthy adversary for Pacino’s Shylock) deviously twists the letter of the law under which Shylock would see himself included and to which he must finally bow. Though he’s owed a pound of Antonio’s flesh, in her legalist reading of the bond, he can draw no blood, which makes it impossible for Shylock to exact his revenge. Instead, the law is turned once more against him, as Portia-as-lawyer heaps on punishments, taking away Shylock’s wealth, giving half to the state and the other half to his daughter, Jessica (Heather Lind), who’s converted to Christianity to marry Lorenzo (Thomas Michael Hammond).

Shylock, too, is forced to convert as part of his sentence and Sullivan stages a wordless, wrenching baptism scene that represents the man’s ultimate humiliation. Shylock is dragged to the baptismal font—a small pool of water uncovered upstage right—where a priest presides over his conversion. A henchman dunks Shylock three times, drenching his payot and his white shirt, before tossing him out of the water. Shaking himself off, Pacino defiantly retrieves Shylock’s yarmulke, which his brute handlers had coldly tossed aside. Standing center stage, he holds the kippah over his head with both hands, like a crown, and then places it firmly back in place. Though forced to bow to laws that can only enslave and never serve him, Pacino broadcasts Shylock’s angry resistance.

The day I saw the production (February 5, 2011), much of the audience applauded as Pacino settled the yarmulke back on his head. I had the sense that this New York-based production was playing to the New York Jewish community, signaled from the stage by Pacino’s inflections and bearing and from the audience by its audible approval of Shylock’s disregard for his enforced religious conversion. The moment was one of those jolts out of time that sometimes happen in the theatre, when you know spectators are responding from their own historical location to an action placed in a fictional past that resonates strongly into the present.

Likewise, Portia’s legal machinations to force Shylock to forego his bond also reverberated with current events. When Portia interdicts Shylock from extracting Antonio’s blood, the historical allegation of “blood libel” against the Jews resonates inescapably. This accusation falsely claims that Jews murder Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals. Those two words were tossed back into public discourse last January by Sarah Palin, when she said “journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn” after congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (who happens to be Jewish) was shot in the head in Tucson, allegedly by Jared Loughner. Palin’s own rhetoric of violence–her talk of “reloading” and the map she drew of various US districts with targets circled as if within a rifle sight—seemed to encourage the kind of vigilantism Loughner enacted, but her use of the term “blood libel” had distinct anti-Semitic overtones that commentators noted with dismay.

I saw Merchant after Giffords’ tragic shooting and the Palin debacle. When Portia foils the execution of Shylock’s bond by prohibiting the spilling of Christian blood by a Jew, the resonance with the myth of blood libel and how it continues to insinuate itself into contemporary political discourse felt unavoidable and chilling.

Merchant of Venice is an oddly hybrid Shakespeare play, a comedy at Shylock’s expense which, translated into a contemporary idiom, has to play as a tragedy of anti-Semitism and not just as a play “about” a Jew. But once Shylock is vanquished, he and the other Jews disappear from the story. In Sullivan’s production, too, after the horrific and effective baptism scene, we don’t see Pacino again until the curtain call, when he appears wearing a short robe that replaces his drenched costume.

And so, after Shylock’s rebellious exit, the play proceeds as usual. Antonio and Bassanio (David Harbour) return to Belmont and Portia’s estate, where they finish out the mistaken identity plot, as Bassanio and Gratiano (David Aaron Baker) realize that Portia and her maid Nerissa (Marsha Stephanie Blake) had come to court disguised as the lawyer and his clerk. The two romantic couples play out the commotion over the abandonment of their respective wedding rings. The tonal dissonance—all of the flirtatious heterosexual banter after the violence and ugliness of the baptism scene—is difficult to stomach.

But that seems part of the production’s argument. Under the veneer of Venetian (and contemporary European and US) propriety, Sullivan suggests, courses a vein of racism that’s yet to be fully addressed or staunched. That the production breaks so sharply in two—the rigors of the city’s financial maneuverings and its anti-Semitism versus the superficial comedy of the country’s domestic plots—seems part of Sullivan’s design. The trivialities of the contest for Portia’s hand and of Portia’s and Nerissa’s anger over Bassanio and Gratiano giving up their wedding rings so quickly, sit uneasily alongside the darkness of Shylock’s devastation. After the baptism, when the production returns to Portia’s court, it seems intentionally difficult to take the lovers’ quarrels seriously.

Still, because Rabe is terrific as Portia, those moments take on weight and import. She consistently plays Portia’s strength and intelligence. Various silly suitors come to try to correctly choose the casket that contains her picture, which according to her dead father’s will, then bestows the right to marry her. As she watches the hapless would-be husbands make their mistakes, Rabe plays Portia with a wry knowingness, a contemporary feminist gilding of the character that matches how Pacino signals Shylock’s ongoing resonances by adopting hints of modern performances of Jewishness. Although Portia is already one of Shakespeare’s most interesting female characters, Rabe is exceptionally good in the role, cutting a striking, sharply drawn figure of a woman who’s strong and nimble, despite the ridiculous contest for her hand in marriage.

The beautiful production, with a minimalist, evocative set designed by Mark Wendland, retains a compelling visual appeal throughout. Those concentric, ever-circling fences create swirling images of both movement and confinement as they roll back and forth to open up and then contain stage space and to suggest the market, the court, and Shylock’s offices. Sullivan moves a wrought-iron spiral staircase fluidly around the stage to bring his pictures height and depth. He often poses Portia on its stairs, to show off her colorful costumes (beautifully designed by Jess Goldstein and elegantly worn by Rabe) and to highlight her rather supercilious distance from her ineffectual suitors. The back stage wall is bare and visible throughout, offering a canvas on which light (designed by Kenneth Posner) plays to change the scene and the mood.

The well of water that opens later in the play, in which Jessica and Lorenzo wade and in which Shylock is baptized, effectively reminds us of these characters’ palpable humanness. Using something as elemental as water on stage calls attention to the presence of the actors underneath their characters. When Jessica walks barefoot out of the water, she leaves puddles behind as she moves off. Shylock’s wet shirt clings to Pacino’s chest as he wrenches himself from his unwanted baptism, revealing his vulnerability and his strength. When the young Jewish boy rushes to his aid, he slips and falls in the water collecting around the older man.

The water’s presence and its unpredictable effects provide a nice companion to the production’s ever-changing yet inflexible metal fences. It rushes in where the Jews can’t go, but doesn’t, finally, bend those bars far enough to let them through.

The Feminist Spectator

Merchant of Venice, Broadhurst Theatre, closes February 20, 2011.

Monday, February 07, 2011

John Gabriel Borkman

This production, by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, of one of Ibsen’s last plays, is beautiful from top to bottom, but the set and the performances far outweigh the text itself. The play is a pot-boiler that touches on most of Ibsen’s major themes without offering any new insights into his well-established views on bourgeois corruption and stultification. Because the Abbey’s production doesn’t reimagine the text—in what the program calls a “literal translation” by Charlotte Barslund, although the credits indicate Frank McGuinness provided this “new version”—the play seems an anachronistic chestnut, even as the lead performances by Fiona Shaw, Alan Rickman, and Lindsay Duncan make it a vivid, compelling evening of theatre.

The title character (Rickman) is a bank manager of raving ambition, who was caught embezzling and sent to jail for five years. As the play opens, he’s eight years into his subsequent freedom, but has traded his prison cell for a domestic incarceration that’s in some ways even worse. He and his wife, Gunhild (Shaw), occupy separate floors of the family home. Borkman’s incessant pacing across his study floor above her drawing room drives Gunhild mad, and her fury with her husband for sullying their family’s name keeps her stewing in her own resentments and regret.

Gunhild pins her hopes for a resurrected social standing on her son, Erhart (Marty Rea), a flighty young man who can’t bear the weight of his mother’s mission. Erhart is in love with the wealthy divorcée, Mrs. Fanny Wilton (Cathy Belton), who plans to spirit him away from his family’s estate for her own amusement. Into an already fraught domestic scene “descends” (as the others describe her unexpected and undesired arrival) Ella Rentheim (Duncan), Gunhild’s twin sister and Borkman’s once lover, whose own wealth has saved the family from certain ruin during and after Borkman’s imprisonment.

Ella arrives with her own designs on Erhart, whom she looked after during Borkman’s trial and conviction, when Gunhild was in no shape to be the smothering mother she’s now become. For her own apparently good reasons, Ella wants Erhart to live with her again, and to take her name, so that the Rentheim line won’t die out at her own (imminent) demise.

Ibsen’s creaky plot grinds into gear, laying the seeds of its ultimate, unsurprising conclusion. Characters reveal few secrets to overturn the audience’s expectations and little suspense propels the plot. Borkman’s characters confront one another, digging deep into the psychology of their immorality and enmity. But ultimately, they don’t tell us anything we don’t already know or can’t surmise, given the genre and the author.

The actors play Ibsen’s histrionics admirably, and director James Macdonald keeps them all on the same heightened plane. Shaw modulates Gunhild’s resentful fluttering with moments of real strength, when the actor’s comic physicality almost seems to comment on her character’s simpering. Duncan holds Ella erect with calculated effort, carefully maintaining her superior façade. When Ella confronts Borkman in his study, we learn that he ended their relationship in a cold-hearted deal that won him his position. Ella accuses him of murdering love; he doesn’t disagree, but nor does he care.

The characters’ wanton, calculated inhumanity to one another makes it difficult to empathize with any of them. As if anticipating this response, Macdonald encourages the actors to play up the worst in these people, reassuring us that we don’t, in fact, have to like any of them. If they become a bit caricatured, as a result, the heightened style allows spectators to forget about a deeper emotional response and to simply enjoy the artifice of the plot and, especially, the setting.

Designer Tom Pye keeps the bare back walls of BAM’s Harvey Theatre in view (if in shadow), and director Macdonald calls our attention to the flies very high above the stage floor action. Because Gunhild and Ella continually look up, haunted by the persistent sound of Borkman’s footsteps as they ring above (thanks to Ian Dickinson’s terrific, ominous sound design), spectators are repeatedly encouraged to note the high black void into which they peer. The heaviness of that empty space—infrequently punctuated with lighting designed by Jean Kalman—bespeaks a hollow heaven to which no one can appeal for forgiveness or assistance.

The drawing room in which Gunhild and Ella stage their initial showdown (which, played by Shaw and Duncan, is probably the juiciest scene in the production), is set with furniture pieces that seem to float in undefined space. The interior scenes are surrounded on three sides by mounds of glistening white snow, which seems to sparkle off the polished, black stage floor. The cold outside encroaching inside is a fine analogy to the essentially frozen void in these characters hearts’.

The play’s penultimate scene takes place, in fact, outdoors, as Erhart and Mrs. Wilton escape by sleigh, and Borkman leaves the house to breathe fresh air for the first time in eight years. He refuses to return to his captivity, even as a fierce blizzard blows in to freeze him, Ella, and Gunhild. The stage-hands create a storm of blowing wind and snow that covers the stage floor and the actors’ costumes and rains down through most of the final scene. The spectacle is as heightened as the acting, but in many ways more subtle, beautiful, and effecting than any of evening’s dialogue.

Giving in to the story’s extremes makes John Gabriel Borkman most pleasurable. Ibsen starkly draws the characters’ struggles: Borkman’s raw ambition requires power, money, and influence, and he’ll sell his soul to achieve it; Gunhild requires social approbation, and will sell her son’s soul to get it back; Ella yearns for the love Borkman extended and withdrew, and will steal her nephew’s affections to retrieve it; and Erhart himself desires only the satisfaction of his own pleasure, provided by the willing and able, slightly older and more sophisticated Mrs. Wilton. Only Erhart gets what he wants, and in her exit speech, Mrs. Wilton suggests that even she understands their hedonistic arrangement won’t last forever.

The play ends with a rapprochement of sorts between the sisters, over the body of the man whose fortunes kept them separate for most of their lives. But Borkman isn’t one of Ibsen’s feminist plays. Shaw and Duncan play Gunhild and Ella with wily passion and strength. But women are regularly betrayed and belittled here, often with lines that provoke unintentional laughter from the audience. Presented with the spectacle of a grim, misogynist modern drama, unadorned and unredeemed by a good rethinking, laughter might be the best response.

The Feminist Spectator

John Gabriel Borkman, BAM’s Harvey Theatre, through February 6, 2011.