Building on Sand

By Geary Danihy

The art used for the cover of the program for the Yale Repertory production of Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder shows a magisterial, frock-coated man standing on a metal beam clutching blueprints and gazing off in god-like fashion at some sun-dappled vision of architectural perfection only he can see. Seated at his feet and looking up adoringly is a young, dark-haired woman in a white dress. The artwork feeds expectations that, alas, this bi-polar production does not meet, for there is nothing magisterial in the Rep’s Master Builder.

Under the direction of Evan Yionoulis, this is Ibsen often played for laughs, with a shambling, loose-jointed Halvard Solness (David Chandler), the master builder of the title, grimacing and gesticulating as if he is channeling Bill Murray at his most manic, and a cast-against-type Hilda Wangel (Susan Heyward) playing the young, adoring woman as a character out of a Toni Morrison novel. Add the Daliesque set created by Timothy Brown, with its building facades rising up from and dangling down over the stage, and window frames thrusting up from the stage floor, and you have a somewhat schizophrenic milieu that bears little relationship to late nineteenth century Norway, where the play is ostensibly set.

Some might argue that, well, that’s the point. Yionoulis and her production team have universalized Ibsen’s play, translated by Paul Walsh, by emphasizing its Freudian elements. We are not in Victorian Norway but in the mind of a bedeviled artist. Perhaps, but set against Chandler’s and Heyward’s idiosyncratic performances is that of Felicity Jones, who plays the master builder’s wife Aline. Wearing various high-collared dresses, her blonde hair arranged in a tight coif, she is the personification of an Ibsen heroine, high-strung and haunted.

Her presence, along with that of Doctor Herdel (Bill Buell), ruined architect Knut Brovik (Robert Hogan), smitten secretary Kaja Fosli (Irene Sofia Lucio), and apprentice architect Ragnar Brovik (Slate Holmgren), creates a very Ibsen-like world that clashes with both the set and the stylized, affected portrayals offered by Chandler and Heyward. It seems Yionoulis wants to have it both ways, and it simply doesn’t work.

The controlling irony of the play is that the master builder, who has reached the pinnacle of his profession, suffers from acrophobia. His plight, and both literal and figurative downfalls, is foreshadowed in the opening moments of the play, when from behind a scrim a figure tumbles down from the sky to dangle helplessly on a rope. It’s a fleeting image that is supposed to be shocking, but what came to mind was the Dilbert cartoon character as he is once again entangled in corporate insanity. It’s a mannered, contrived moment that signals how this production will be handled.

At the heart of said productions is the relationship between Halvard and Hilda, the young lady who, years before in her provincial village, watched Halvard, overcoming his inherent fears, ascend to the steeple of a church he had built to hang a commemorative wreath. On that day he had apparently taken notice of the young girl, called her a princess and promised that he would one day build her a castle. Years later, Hilda appears on the scene to force Halvard to make good on his promise.

Yes, the plot opens itself up to a lot of psycho-sexual interpretations, but in essence we have a vibrant, insouciant country girl appearing on the doorstep of a middle-aged man whose wife has become a glacier after a cataclysmic event that, in a bit of muddy irony, opened up the path to Halvard’s eventual success. As written by Ibsen it is all understandable if not very believable, but as staged by Yionoulis, it borders on the inconceivable.

Halvard, with his twitching mannerisms, and Hilda, with her snippy, snappy, eye-rolling posturing, are creatures of our century and our society; the rest of the cast is decidedly immured in the nineteenth century. Hence, unity flies out the window. Where, exactly, is the audience supposed to be? What social criteria is it supposed to use to judge the characters’ actions? How is it to react to the dialogue? What, exactly, is going on here? Well, since the production is exceedingly self-referential and self-indulgent, it really doesn’t matter. Apparently, the operative philosophy was, “We’re going to do whatever we want to do, and the audience be damned.”

There’s nothing wrong with updating a play, but if you’re going to do it you had best go all the way. Elsewise, you end up being half-pregnant and your progeny enters the world either as a stillborn or a grotesque. I will leave it to those of you who opt to attend a performance to decide which The Yale Rep has given birth to.

The Master Builder runs through Saturday, Oct. 10. For tickets or more information call 432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org.

This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.

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