JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN by Henrik Ibsen, directed by Leah Cherniak (Theatre Columbus/Soulpepper). At the Young Centre (55 Mill). To April 21. $40-$59, stu $28, some rush $20/youth $5. 416-866-8666. See Continuing, page 82. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
We've recently seen a Henrik Ibsen play set in a children's playroom, but it's even more surprising to watch his intense, emotionally twisted characters communicate through dolls.
Dolls are the central image in Theatre Columbus 's adaptation of the rarely performed John Gabriel Borkman , presented in association with Soulpepper .
The title figure is a disgraced bank chairman, out of jail five years but unable to forget his crimes or the pride that caused them.
Weave in his vengeful wife and her sister, who years before were rivals for Borkman's affections, and his son, who yearns to be free of family control, and you have the stuff of stark melodrama, maybe even tragedy.
Director Leah Cherniak transposes the work into a piece of storytelling by a trio of siblings, two sisters ( Nancy Palk and Martha Ross ) and the brother ( Michael Simpson ) whose attention they fight for. Playing multiple roles, the three relate the Borkman story by animating their pet dolls, splendidly realized by Veronica Verkley . The lifeless figures reveal the sibs' strong emotions while simultaneously masking those feelings.
It's a world we've all indulged in, moving dolls about and making them talk to each other; here one actor can easily alternate between two characters. The idea is that what's discussed is only make-believe, so there's no real threat.
In a few fascinating moments, the children hold up the dolls as shields, hiding behind them to cover deep feelings.
At other times the dolls are thoughtlessly tossed aside when those feelings well up uncontrollably and the children confront each other directly. The concept grows in strength during the production's second act.
The script, whose subtext deals with male and female roles, is sometimes long-winded, heavy with imagery, and its characters can pontificate too much. Still, the cast creates a series of fascinating figures, including a comic rag doll of an optimistic clerk and a seductive older woman.
Victoria Wallace 's costumes and set - we move from claustrophobic house to open mountain landscape, psychologically and physically telling - and Lorenzo Savoini 's nuanced lighting contribute to the striking production, whose heart is true even when the dolls are centre stage.