Posted by: strugglesome | March 28, 2011

My Architect: People’s Light and Theatre Company’s The Master Builder

When people think about the work of Henrik Ibsen, the only Norwegian playwright anyone has ever heard of, they think of A Doll’s House. And, if they are slightly nerdier or better at crossword puzzles, they think of Hedda Gabler as well. And people who attempt the New York Times crossword puzzle in pen on Sundays will delve into the recesses of their memories and remember Ghosts . And that, frankly, is a tragic way to consider a playwright who is one of the three fathers of modern drama and has produced over the course of his lifetime a cannon of plays that chronicle and comment on the entire spectrum of human existence. Which is ironic, because Ibsen is, at his best, insanely funny. And while students now scoff at Ibsen’s legacy as being staid and stuffy, if they delved a little deeper they might find plays like The Master Builder, currently being produced by People’s Light and Theatre Company, and realize that if you want to investigate the crazy, you need to start with Ibsen, because underneath the corsets and conventions lies an insanity and an inventiveness that is as innovative as it is timeless.

The Master Builder is a work that was written fairly late in Ibsen’s career. Unlike his eccentric Swedish younger frenemy, Strindberg, Ibsen spent much of his life far from his native Norway in sunny Italy, avoiding agitated critics and furious audiences who found his themes of syphilis and social responsibility absolutely appalling. However, by the time he came to The Master Builder, Ibsen was back in his homeland, bathed once again in the culture and customs of the north. Ibsen is one of the writers who espoused the theory that a playwright only really writes one play in their lives, they simple try to write it better each time. After The Master Builder, Ibsen would write three more plays before his death in 1906, and each of these would become more and more surreal, gently bizarre pieces that both echo his first works and move towards but never reach a completely metaphorical landscape. The Master Builder exists in a liminal place, both real and unreal, both naturalistic and magical. The title refers to Halvard Solness (Stephen Novelli), a master craftsman (who is conspicuously insecure about his lack of training as a “real architect”) who can build homes for other people,  but nothing for himself. Solness commands a small firm and is considered wildly successful in his field, but he carries with him an inescapable guilt on account of his success; he is obsessed with the idea that his triumphs have come with terrible consequences. His anxiously depressed wife, Aline (Susan McKey) floats around the house in all black, accusing Halvard of the tragedies of their lives with every glance, staring out the window as the house he is building from the ruins of her burnt family home like a wrath. Aline is ministered by the friendly neighborhood doctor Herdal (Mark Lazar) and deeply threatened by the overly adoring assistant Kaja (Jessica Bedford) who, despite her long-standing engagement to junior architect Ragnar Brovik (Ross Beschler), is madly in love with her employer Solness. And while Ragnar’s father, (Lou Lippa) may be desperate to see his son set up with his own firm, Solness is determined to remain the only master builder in his universe, crushing the dreams of his eager assistant in order to advance his own agenda. Into this labyrinth of ambition and desire stomps Hilda Wangel (Kim Carson), a wild-eyed and breathless creature, half girl half spirit. You see, Solness made this young lady a promise some ten years ago, he has a debt he needs to pay, and now she has come to collect. What follows is a fascinating examination of guilt and desire, and the war they create in the human heart, causing us to climb mountains and causing us to fall off cliffs.

Part of what makes this work so compelling is that it can’t help but strike so close to home for all but the most repressed audience member. Halvard Solness is a man whose life has been touched by great tragedy and huge success, an individual who is terrified of being forgotten and made obscure by the eager grasping youths rising up through the ranks, but equally guilty about the price he has paid for his abilities and luck. Solness’ anxiety about youth and about his ability to will things into being  is made all the more layered and terrifying when you consider the deaths of his infant sons, and the fact that youth means death to Solness, those living embodiments of the future have literally perished, emptying his life of new growth. The direction Solness’ life has taken has given him the idea that he has a secret power, an ability to will things into being, to call forth the trolls and demons of the world and have them at his bidding. Some might interpret this as Ibsen’s whimsy or the deluding effect of the Scandinavian winter, but what this is underlining is the darkest desires of human nature, our innate insatiable need for more, and the ramifications that has on our lives. Ibsen’s trolls don’t live under bridges and scare goats, they live inside of us and push us to the extremes of our selves, to the point where we are all Hildas, running wildly through life and building the tallest towers in the world, demanding our castles in the sky, demanding everything we can get. The sexual elements of Solness and Hilda’s relationship incorporate this fully, how could we not be attracted to the troll inside? It’s dangerous and scary, yes, but it promises everything we could ever want. It just takes everything you have to get it.

One of the remarkable things about this production, and there are many, is how relevant and close it feels. The translation by Paul Walsh is achingly fluid, it trips off the actors tongues simply and easily and naturally, but it also refuses to rob the text of its poetry as so many new translations do, giving us lines like “To build houses for others I had to renounce the opportunity to build a home for myself” and “It’s the small loses in life that slice into our hearts”. You don’t have to sacrifice everything for the sake of modernity, and Walsh’s work makes the piece feel accurate both in terms of the setting of the play, 1893, and the era of the audience. Director Ken Marini has paced the piece beautifully, allowing a work that is over two hours long feel exactly the right length, so quickly and well does it move. Played in the Steinbright Stage of People’s Light and Theatre Company, the intimacy of the smaller space works excellently to lull us into the comfort of being so close and confront us with the action of the play. Yoshi Tanokura’s elegantly spare set design in cool shades of cloudy blue with fluted glass lamps and 19th century drafting tables frames the story wonderfully, while Gregory Miller’s lighting design is so natural you barely feel it happening and Marla Jurglanis costumes are just the right mix of period appropriate and artistic liberty (especially when it comes to Carson’s lovely Victorian Vixen attire).

Because the design is so good and the material so rich, the cast of this well crafted production has the difficult task of measuring up to this amazing piece of theater, and for the most part they succeed beautifully. Novelli’s Solness is wonderful, beginning the play as smoothly as a snake, manipulating Bedford’s appropriately doe eyed Kaja with the skill of a master con man, defeating Lippa’s accurately drawn Knut Brovik and Beschler’s decent if boring Ragnar Brovik without turning a hair, dismissing the suspicions of his wife, Mckey’s quietly powerful Aline, and indulging in a man to man chat with Lazar’s hilariously dry Dr. Herdal all before dinnertime. And when Carson’s fantastic Hilda bounds on stage, her bodice heaving and her eyes bright, Novelli begins his beautifully gradated descent (or ascension, depending on your perspective) towards his final actions, which I wont describe here so as not to ruin the surprise. Carson is fantastic as Hilda, a role that is as challenging as it is exciting for a young actress to play. Hilda has so much power in this narrative, she owns the action for the majority of the story and yet the character is so opaque and full of mystery that it requires a constant through line of strong choices, and clear decisions, something Carson is giving us in spades. That classic Ibsen subtext is having itself a ball with this play, and Carson and Novelli’s excellent back and forth and clear communication lends clarity to what could have been a murky undefined relationship. Everyone is thinking but no one is working and that is as rare as it is amazing.

If you don’t know Ibsen, then you should make your way out to the wilds of Malvern and see this fantastic production. And if you do know Ibsen, you should start driving right now. People’s Light and Theatre Company’s The Master Builder runs from now until April 17th. Tickets are available here.

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