The Master Builder is not one of Ibsen’s easy plays, though like Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House, in the second act it rises to a crescendo of power and carries us to an inevitable conclusion that is foreshadowed, yet which still manages to shock. So follows the production of The Master Builder at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn which closes its run on June 9 after mixed reviews for Andrei Belgrader’s maverick direction and the modernized translation of Ibsen’s work by David Edgar, acutely delivered by the cast and headed by the seminal actor John Turturro.
Turturro’s portrayal of angst-driven, fearful, manipulative and ambitiously overweening architect Halvard Solness is laced with subtltey and fraught with complexity. He’s nuanced, dynamic. Turturro reveals with precision the irony of Solness’ “master building.” Though he has built the greatest of careers as an architect, Solness has lost every ounce of his honorable integrity to do it, falling into a desperate, miserable inertia of hollowness.
Almost immediately, Turturro intimates Solness’ duplicity. He carefully unfolds the truth that Solness’ masquerade of greatness is a blind for a meaningless life layered in empty lies. We discover the extent of Solness’ dissimulation and inner, haunting shadows when 23-year-old Hilde Wangel (the talented Wrenn Schmidt), whom he knew from his past, abruptly and ominously comes to visit, interrupting Solness’ destiny while searching for the fulfillment of her own.
Schmidt’s Hilde is playfully seductive, penetrating, disingenuous and forthright. She is the embodiment of what Solness fears and is compelled by. Hilde insinuates herself into Solness’ long-dormant heart, pries open his secret self and with the allurement of an indefinable power, and unbinds Solness from his wooden, cruel pomposity, reigniting his passion and hope for accomplishment with the joy of human feeling. Hilde penetrate his soul and allows him to express his bottomless despair, the extent of which even he is perplexed to discover. But in his expression comes the release and the potential to love.
As the action crescendos, we realize that Hilde is Solness’ muse, sprite, “Bell Dame Sans Merci,” witch or fairy-child of enchantment, and she is setting him on a life course from which there is no turning back. She is the ultimate tormentor/heroine who, in fulfilling her own dreams, capstones Solness’ own, helping him put closure on his hellish soul sacrifice and rebellion against God.
Aline (the marvelous Katherine Borowitz), his tragic, dutiful, stoic wife, who has been alienated from him for most of their marriage, can only witness Solness’ transfiguration at the clever, agile hands of Hilde, the soul artist cocooning the Master Builder in illusions and fairy stories. Aline lacks the power, the gifts to extricate her husband from Hilde’s sticky webs. Like the others who look up at him as he climbs the tower to place the celebratory wreath of completion, Aline in dumb paralysis can only watch in horror as the great man plummets to a rising death.
The ending is awash with irony. Solness has finally finished the home he thought would please his wife, but it is an empty, mournful house she will go to that is full of shadows and death, a dark vacuum, not a home. Solness’ future exploits of material castle-building with Hilde have been dashed to pieces, broken like his body. He must now build a new kingdom facing either a loving or a wrathful God whom only he can know.
All who watched him climb and fall to his destruction mourn him, all except Hilde who is in near elegiac glory, proclaiming, “My master builder.” She has what she desires: he is hers; he has given her the kingdom of himself, his soul. It is forever hers and she savors her victory with consuming joy. She is a demon-witch and a savior, haunting our sensibilities.
This magnificent production, certainly its unique cage-like set design by Santo Loquasto, has drawn both positive and negative reactions. Belgrader and the cast are to be credited for their innovative, risk-taking choices and novel, extraordinary portrayals. This production’s elusive power launches fresh insight into the master-building Ibsen’s work.
WITH: Ken Cheeseman (Dr. Herda), Julian Gamble (Knut Brovik), Kelly Hutchinson (Kaja Fosli), Max Gordon Moore (Ragnar Brovik),