The Master Builder

  • Date:
    October 1, 2008
    Review by:
    Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus.

    A Review by Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus.

    Maybe it's the cold that made Chekhov and Ibsen write dour dramas about melancholy artists, and maybe that's just the nature of the creative soul. But it's impossible to watch the new production of Ibsen's "The Master Builder" without thinking of "The Seagull."

    In Chekhov's play, the aspiring young playwright Konstantin laments that "new forms are wanted and if they aren�t available, we might as well have nothing at all." In "Master Builder," Halvard Solness, at the peak of his success, has nightmares that the young with their new ideas and new forms are gathering to pull him down.

    Both give up on life -- Konstantin ends his deliberately, and Solness, well, maybe he does and maybe it was an accident.

    Solness, a successful but aging architect in a small Norwegian town dominates his staff and his wife Aline with lies, deceit, and insincere professions of love, all in the name of achieving greatness. An abusive man who built his business on the backs of others, he uses women and men alike to achieve his ends.

    His young apprentice, Ragnar, was commissioned to draw up blueprints for a new house, but Solness refuses to review them, declaring he�s not building anything new. The truth is, Solness could no more approve those plans than Arkadina could applaud Konstantin�s new play. To do so would be acknowledging his dreaded demon: that he was past his prime and no longer the Master.

    Solness, however, meets the personification of that demon when Hilde, a vivacious young woman, bursts into his life entering through a wall unannounced and unexplained. Ten years earlier, at the height of his career, she witnessed this Master Builder's climb to the top of a steeple he built in her hometown to celebrate its dedication. An impressionable young girl, she took literally his promise that in ten years he would "build her a kingdom."

    "Master Builder" begins on that day, but much has happened to Soness and Aline in those ten years. Fire destroyed their house, and all the possessions that make a home. Their twin sons died from an infection, and Aline continues to suffer from depression. Solness is building them a new house now but it's an exercise in futility as neither he nor his wife can recoup their losses. Aline remains a dutiful, if unresponsive wife, always a constant reminder of what he could not fix or accomplish.

    The passionate Hilde, playing good angel-bad angel, urges him, first, to approve Ragnar's plans and take pride that he learned from the Master, and then recreate the feat he performed ten years ago that still enthralls her. She wants him climb to the top of the tower on the new house and place a wreath, declaring to all his undiminished dominance as a Master Builder. Hilde, Ragnar and Aline together witness Solness's climb to an extraordinary height -- and his failure.

    Though each of the characters in "Master Builder" are fairly one-dimensional, with the exception of Solness, their personal journeys show brutal honesty and searing self-examination. Kristin Griffith plays Aline with a tautness that could snap her corsets -- the only time we get a peek at the real woman is in a beautifully directed scene with Hilde that strips her inhibitions away before she notices she's losing control.

    Charlotte Parry gives Hilde a wide-eyed innocence and a demonic impishness capable of enticing the hardest man to embrace his own demons and see what he could become. Parry's performance is as uninhibited as Hilde herself, and a perfect foil for Solness's doubts and despair.

    Tony-winning actor, James Naughton, gives a masterful performance as the complex Master Builder. The mask of inscrutability his Solness wears in front of his wife and subordinates becomes a mirror into his soul after Hilde turns him inside-out. The younger generation is indeed closing in on him and Hilde is the embodiment of all his hopes and fears. Unfortunately for Solness, as he tragically realizes, after one reaches the top, there's only one place to go.

    Frank McGuiness's adaptation of "Master Builder" fully anticipates the angst that the playwright must have felt at the end of his career. Ibsen was, indeed, the Master Playwright, and his last play, expertly directed by Ciaran O'Reilly, is his crowning achievement.

    Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus

    What the press had to say.....

    "Sadly, the woodwork doesn�t stop at the (stage) furnishings in this stiff production of Ibsen�s complex play, directed by Ciaran O�Reilly and employing a starchy new adaptation by the Irish playwright Frank McGuinness."
    Charles Isherwood
    New York Times

    ""The Master Builder" may be Ibsen's greatest play; it is to the Norwegian master playwright what "King Lear" is to the Bard of Avon. It requires, however, a supreme actor and actress in the leads, which it does not get at the Irish Repertory Theatre.
    John Simon

    "Fails to ignite despite yeoman work by its hard-working though loose-fitting cast."
    David A. Rosenberg
    Back Stage

    "James Naughton is solid and believable as Halvard Solness" & "Ciaran O'Reilly's accomplished direction creates a dynamic version of this sometimes-staid Ibsen work, breathing life into these complex characters who are ensnared by societal restrictions and their own illusions."
    Jennifer Farrar
    Associated Press

    "Naughton receives top billing, but the two-time Tony winner (both for musical roles) is somewhat out of his depth... Parry, with whom Naughton shares the stage most often, is in similar shape. What pleasures there are to be had come from the supporting cast, especially Griffith as the dutiful wife. It's a production with no shortage of well-observed individual moments, but no real guiding hand to provide some much-needed urgency."
    Sam Thielman