The Master Builder
Why does “The Master Builder” prove to be one of Ibsen’s lesser plays, even as the current production at Yale Rep proves to be one of the company’s lesser efforts?
Difficulties with “The Master Builder” do not lie with its relevant, provocative themes. Here, as he often does, Ibsen deals with a critical social problem. How does an older man come to grips with his waning power? How do the elderly give way to the next generation? This theme is as meaningful as those of “A Doll’s House” (women’s equality) or “Ghosts” (devastating legacies to the next generation).
But Ibsen has not structured the piece with an arc, allowing it to build steadily in intensity. Despite its dramatic closing, the prior dialogue leading to that denouement is tiresome, as his characters babble on and repeat themselves endlessly. (Watching the players dancing in place, killing time, this reviewer tended to glance surreptitiously at her watch.)
In short, “The Master Builder” does not do justice to its worthy theme, as it might have done. It is the tale of one Halvard Solness, an architect at the height of his success. But Solness is wracked by guilt (the death of his infant boys) and fear that his assistant Ragnar Brovik is more gifted than he. In his desperation Solness treats his staff, both Brovik and Brovik’s fiancé Kaja Fosli, ruthlessly.
Director Evan Yiaonoulis has chosen to have her actors play out their roles with exaggerated gestures. One almost expects prat falls and pies in the face. The results are comic rather than semi-tragic, with the audiences laughing nervously in response. Surely Ibsen did not have comedy in mind! There is something amiss here.
Yet this is a cast of seasoned, competent actors. What would Robert Hogan, Irene Sofia Lucio, Slate Holmgren, David Chandler, Felicity Jones, Bill Buell, and Susan Heyward have done with more subtle portrayals? Only Felicity Jones, as the architect’s wife, managed to resist, giving a sensitive, moving performance.
Yet there are positive aspects to this production. Yionoulis has recognized and milked the other-worldly aspects of the play, an element which sometimes appears in Ibsen’s work. Dreams enter into the characters’ approach to life, as do Solness’s idea that he can make others bend to his will, by mere thought. Yionoulis has opted for a stage set (courtesy of set designer Tmothy Brown) which embodies this surrealism. The action plays out on a stark stage, with few sticks of furniture. Overhead is a book shelf, hanging from the ceiling. And pieces of the house’s roof are viewed in the background. The young Hilda (Solvess’s new love) suddenly appears as in a dream.
Interesting ideas, but, all told, this is not the finest hour for Yale Rep, for Yionoulis and her cast, and for Ibsen himself.
This review also appears shortly in the Connecticut Post and on the web site nytheaterscene.com