Ibsen’s The Master Builder at Yale Repertory Theatre

David Begelman

Paul Walsh, the translator of Yale Repertory’s revival of Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder (Bygmester Solness in Norwegian) was right on the mark when he claimed the playwright needs to be revisited—or maybe reinvented—every 10 years. Perhaps, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reworking Ibsen prevents this most austere of modern dramatists from becoming the deadest ever. As one critic observed, Ibsen has suffered the fate of an author more honored in anthologies than he has been on the living stage. Audiences will have to judge whether director Evan Yionoulis’s current effort salvages what remains of a play that received mixed reviews after its opening in 1892.

The Master Builder is about many things: creative inspiration, its fancied loss, recriminations over the price one pays for fame, attempts at rejuvenation of declining powers, and the struggle to come to terms with the demons that drive life decisions, goals, and expectations.

The play, a turgid mixture of realism and expressionism, marks the beginning of the third phase of the playwright’s works. During his first period, poetical plays like Brand and Peer Gynt predominated; during the second, the preference was for social dramas, like Pillars of Society and A Doll’s House. The third phase commemorated more symbolic works, like The Wild Duck and The Lady from the Sea, in which symbolism was used to underscore life themes.
  
The central character of The Master Builder is an architect, a profession typically viewed as producing geniuses of individualism like Frank Lloyd Wright or the irritatingly polemical hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Howard Roark.Ibsen’s Halvard Solness is the dark underbelly of the same profession. He is a master builder who senses his waning creative powers, fears the advance of younger professionals who would make his work outdated, and who is engulfed by the guilt of an empty marriage and the death of his two sons in a fire.

Underneath the godlike image he strikes in the imagination of others—especially young girls—Solness clings to the hope that his soul can be rejuvenated. He plays a seductive game with Kaja Fosli, a young assistant who falls in love with him, although engaged to his apprentice, Ragnar Brovik. Ragnar is the son of the architect whose career was overshadowed by Solness.

The master builder is also idolized by Hilda Wangel, who returns to his home after ten years in order that he fulfill a promise he made to her as a young girl. This was to make her a princess and build for her a castle with a tall spire. The character of Hilda was based upon an actual 17-year old, Emilie Bardach. Ibsen was smitten by her at the ripe age of 61, and despaired over losing contact with her.

Goaded on by Hilda to achieve the promised creative act, Solness climbs his newly constructed spire, only to meet with catastrophe. His carefully guarded secret, that he is afraid of heights, haunts the final moments of The Master Builder.

Director Evan Yionoulis’ production has its problems. Only Felicity Jones as Aline, Solness’s wife, seemed to radiate an emotional subtext that comports well with an Ibsen character. Unlike the others, she also seemed appropriately attired by designer Katherine Akiko Day for the 19th century era in which the play is set.

David Chandler’s Halvard Solness lacked the one element that seems necessary for the master builder, whatever else his shortcomings: stature and gravitas. Mr. Chandler’s Solness tended to be peevish and manneristic, as if he were a small town shopkeeper given to snits, rather than a person of substance encumbered by personal conflicts.

Susan Heyward’s Hilda Wangel, far from communicating the aspect of a dreamy-eyed idealist, was too much on the frivolous, bouncy, and exasperatingly adolescent side of sensibility for this reviewer.

Other performers included Robert Hogan as Knut Brovik, Irene Sofia Lucio as Kaja Fosli, Slate Holmgren as Ragnar Brovik, and Bill Buell as Doctor Herdal. They acquitted their roles competently, although in performances that were nothing to write home about.

A centerpiece of the drama was Timothy Brown’s imaginative stage set. It mirrored the vertiginous quality of Solness’s world, with its enormous expanses, raked levels, and askew perspectives. Bookcases and flower pots were suspended in midair, as were the work lamps which hung down from a seemingly impossible height. Doors to the architect’s home were set in the ground, rather than at stage right, and characters seemed dwarfed in the space that represented the master builder’s studio.

This reviewer attended the “talk back” session with the cast of The Master Builder after the performance. No reflection on those attractive performers, but their comments about individual approaches to interpretation, scaling as they did some pretty lofty personal discourse, had for this reviewer only a dim relationship to what was seen on stage in their roles. The disconnect characterizes virtually all such discussion groups in area theaters. Come to think of it, the same is true in art galleries, where the literary excursions into an artist’s imagination in guided tours (or flowery descriptions of same posted on walls) seem to describe creative mind-sets that are not only far from what is being eyeballed visually, but strain to become exalted levels of science fiction.

The Master Builder opened at the Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel Street, New Haven, CT on September 18, and closes on October 10, 2009. Tickets range from $35 to $67, and may be purchased by calling the box office at 203. 432. 1234, or online www.yalerep.org.           

 

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