Ibsen’s The Master Builder at Yale Rep -- A Well-Constructed Production

By Amy J. Barry

While walking to our car in the parking garage and on the ride back home following opening night performance of Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder at Yale Rep, my friend and I found many points to continue to explore and debate about the play, the playwright’s intention, and the performance itself.
I think perhaps Ibsen was smiling somewhere, thinking that’s exactly what I hope people will do after seeing this play, translated by Paul Walsh and directed by Evan Yionoulis. Part of a cycle Ibsen wrote at the end of the 19th century, the symbolist play delves the depths of the subconscious and therefore purposefully leaves many stones unturned, turned, and ambiguously placed.
Halvard Solness is The Master Builder, a self-taught architect, who made it to the top of his profession with a combination of talent, confidence, good luck, and arrogance.
“What I’ve learned, I’ve learned on my own,” he says.
David Chandler authentically portrays the middle-aged architect with the bravura of a powerful man afraid of the future and of being replaced by the next generation, doing the best to conceal his darkest fears and painful secrets.
“It’s retribution, you see,” he says of the young. “They’re the forerunners of change.”
The Master Builder is encircled by three dramatically different women.
Solness keeps his timid bookkeeper Kaja (Irene Sofia Lucio) who is in love with him, but engaged to Ragnar Brovik (Slate Holmgren) from leaving the office, in order to keep Ragnar under his thumb, denying the talented young architect’s elderly father’s wish to see something his son has built before he dies.
Felicity Jones plays Aline, the architect’s perpetually grieving wife, with such appropriate frailness; one could imagine a breeze blowing her right off the stage.
Following a fire that destroyed their home and indirectly the death of their twin toddlers, Solness is building a new home for them with three nurseries just like the home that burned down. Is it to represent hope for the future or simply denial of reality? But the doomful Aline, who constantly speak of her duty, cannot move on and tells her husband, “You can build as much as you like, Halvard, but you’ll never build a real home for me…it will be just as empty and desolate.”
A desperately needed shot of optimism, the spunky Hilda Wangel (Susan Heyward) appears just in time in a bright red skirt and crisp white blouse—in contrast to the black shrouded Aline—to hold The Master Builder, as she repeatedly refers to him, accountable for a promise that he made her a decade ago, when she was just 13, to make her a princess and build her a kingdom.
Heyward is delightful as the passionate young crazy-eyed free spirit, who literally challenges The Master Builder to achieve new heights and not only build a palace in the sky, but face his fears and climb a scaffold to the very top. She becomes his muse—an exciting new woman to adore and worship him in a way his wife no longer does.
The Master Builder’s fall—foreshadowed in a dramatic opening, so I’m not giving it away—is laden with ambiguity. Does is represent a fall from grace? Does is prove life is meaningless? Or is it a lesson that despite the outcome, without risk nothing worthwhile can be achieved?
The Yale Rep production is nothing short of visually stunning and perfectly complements the script. Surrealistic sets by Timothy Brown, in which lopsided sections of a house are upside down and sideways and swirling clouds are richly illuminated by Paul Whitaker’s gorgeous lighting design enhance the psychological symbolism of the play.
At times the dialogue is repetitive and rambling, the characters too metaphorical to seem real. But the themes in the play, written over a century ago, are broad enough and so much at the core of what drives and defines human beings—ambition, love, loss, hope, faith, power, and powerlessness—that combined with the freshness of the direction and staging, the overall production feels current and relevant. And it continues to raise interesting questions and engage us in conversations long after the curtains close.
The Master Builder is at Yale Repertory University Theatre, 222 York St., New Haven, through Oct. 10. For tickets and info, call 203-432-1234 or online www.yalerep.org <http://www.yalerep.org> .
This review was published in the Living section of Shore Publishing Community Newspapers on Oct. 15, 2009.

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