If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

YALE OPENS WITH IBSEN’S “MASTER BUILDER”

The Yale Repertory Theatre’s current season-opener production of Henric Ibsen’s “The Master Builder” reminds us all too clearly why the play is not regarded as one of this classic playwright’s best works.  Lacking the great social and ethical issues of his masterpieces “A Doll’s House”, “The Wild Duck”, “Hedda Gabler”, “Enemy of the People” and “Ghosts”, Ibsen’s penchant for melodrama and overuse of symbolism ultimately drowns much of “The Master Builder”. At Yale, the problems are compounded by Paul Walsh’s jarring modern translation and an uneven presentation from director Evan Yionoulis.

“The Master Builder” concerns Solness, an aging, much-acclaimed architect who, fearing time has passed him by and jealous of the young upstarts around him, comes under the spell of a much younger muse.  The drama has built-in problems from the start since its hero is an insufferable egotist.  It’s hard to identify with or care for a man so self-absorbed and David Chandler’s arch performance in the title role does little to compensate the character’s flaws. 
There are better performances to be found at Yale, however.   Spunky Susan Heyward conveys a nice touch of madness behind her eyes as Solness’ youthful muse while Felicity Jones is moving and memorable as his stern, unloved and profoundly unhappy wife.  Ms. Jones may also be the only actor in the company who seems to understand the time period and locale, historically Norway, 1892.

Several translations of Ibsen’s work are available, of course, but at Yale they have opted to go with Mr. Walsh’s more contemporary text which tends to work against the period.  Much of the script has also become somewhat jokey provoking inappropriate laughter which undercuts the play’s tragic core.  

Behind the scenes at Yale, Timothy Brown’s glorious abstract scenic design with its raked stage, tilted house frame and soaring vistas gives expanse and depth to the work and Paul Whitaker incorporates some striking shadows within his lighting design.  While Katherien Akiko Day’s costuming hasn’t really decided on a consistent period for all the characters, she does provide Ms. Jones with a gorgeous black lace dress that perfectly captures the mourning aspects of the character.  The moody, off-beat sound design is by composer Scott L. Nielsen.
“The Master Builder” remains a problem play in the Ibsen canon and, all told, this current production at Yale may be difficult for most audiences to fully embrace.

“The Master Builder” continues at Yale Rep through October 10th.  For further information and ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at 203.432.1234 or visit: www.yalerep.org

Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company.  He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com.  His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

This review appeared in Elm City Newspapers beginning September 30, 2009


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