"The Master Builder" at Yale Rep

By Tom Nissley

 Ibsen’s “The Master Builder” is a complex play about the frustrations of a prima-donna architect named Halvard Solness (David Chandler) who has been less than kind to his fellow man as he scratched his way to the top of the hill, and knows it. He knows it with the paranoia that goes with cheating a little here and there: a fear that it’s (he’s) something of a sham, who could be dethroned by a new young talent. And the fear is possibly his excuse for the kind of poor choices that do, in fact, lead to his collapse. “Lead us not into temptation” seems to have bypassed his thought process.

In a brash new translation by Yale Professor Paul Walsh, Evan Yionoulis has directed a disparate cast in Yale Rep’s production of the play. Or maybe it’s a carefully chosen cast in a disparate production. Anyway disparate (as in not appearing to belong in the same arena) figures in there somehow.

There are the classic figures - the stolidly dutiful wife, Aline, played by Felicity Jones in stunning costumes; the trampled young carpenter, Ragnar, yearning to do his own designs, Slate Holmgren, who earns a best-in-show for his portrayal; the family doctor, Bill Buell, pleasantly intimate and professional; the old draftsman, Knut, Robert Hogan, a former hero in the trade, knocked from his post by Solness’ rise.  And two young women, each distrusted by Aline: Solness’ assistant, Kaja, Irene Sofia Lucio;  and an upstart adolescent, Hilda, Susan Heyward, in a red costume who remembers Solness’ one and only climb to the top of a tower when she was only 11, and how she saw him there as king of the world.

Hold tight. Halvard Solness thinks often of himself as king of the world - yes, she has seen him as he really is. But, pride, as promised, goes before a fall.  And that’s the plot. Keep in mind, however, his deeper paranoia. In one of the dialogues Solness confides that he believes he may have been controlling events by just thinking about them - including the fire that destroyed his wife’s ancestral home and all of its contents - which in turn allowed him to develop the family estate and become the master builder.

The over-arching power of Ibsen’s works, whether or not “The Master Builder” is the equal of other better known plays, is beautifully psychological, hinting at the inside story of his characters and how it influences their interaction and their fate. Its certainly so in “The Master Builder.” Solness wants the admiration of young women and all men, believing that he has earned what in fact he has in some ways stolen. Old Knut wants success for his son, Ragnar, before he dies. Ragnar wants to design. I know many young architects who can identify with him. Aline is stuck with her duty to an insensitive husband and a rigid faith in an unjust God. The young women are easy marks for the old man. And the old man is an easy mark for Hilda’s admiration.

As you watch the carefully orchestrated production, you may think that either Chandler’s antic and frantic approach, or Heyward’s school girl wide eyes, or Jones’ formality, don’t sync. Or you may think that Timothy Brown’s every-Realtor’s-dream of a set, beautifully lighted by Paul Whitaker, is too challenging, even while you’re captivated by Scott Nielsen’s sounds. The buck stops with Evan Yionoulis, the director, who has certainly thought beyond the box and may have not taken us completely along  for the ride. But you will definitely realize with vigor what can happen when a master anything climbs too hard and too high for his own good. There it is.

Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre  October 1, 2009

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