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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Master Builder

INTENSIFY THE SCRUTINY of the sexual undertones that inform Ibsen’s “The Master Builder” and you further complicate an already complicated story. What at first seems a hyper (for its time) realistic, soap-operatic tale soon reveals mythic undercurrents, all of it rolling together in the unexpected entrance of a young woman who will conclusively change the Master Builder’s life. The story moves slowly and is shot through with gloom, to the point where even its more ecstatic moments convey a sense of peril. It’s not a crowd-pleaser. It’s not often performed. It’s a risky endeavor. In other words, it’s perfect for BAM.

Wrenn Schmidt, Max Gordon Moore, and
John Turturro. Photo by Stephanie Berger.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s production reunites John Turturro with director Andrei Belgrader, whose Endgame in 2008 won acclaim, but who go back to Turturro’s years as a student of Belgrader at Yale. Keeping it further in the family, the play co-stars Katherine Borowitz (Turturro’s wife) as Turturro’s wife.

You know Turturro from any of a number of antic, unpredictable characters in films by the Coen brothers and Spike Lee. As Halvard Solness, Ibsen’s title character, he brings careful complexity to the role. He needs to have a commanding presence, but Turturro’s Solness is a man not easily able to control his choices. We see this in the beginning, in his conversation with Knut Brovik (Julian Gamble), whose career Solness eclipsed to the point where Brovik now is in his employ; we see it in his response to the adoration firehosed upon him by Kaja (Kelly Hutchinson), his secretary, whose is engaged to marry Brovik’s son, Ragnar (Max Gordon Moore), also in Solness’s employ.

But we only learn what gives Solness his arrogant-seeming self-possession when young, lovely Hilde appears, stepping out of an earlier Ibsen play (“The Lady from the Sea”), but realized here as the character who most acutely straddles the worlds of symbolism and the realistic – as well as sometimes straddling Solness in her complicated pursuit of him. Which is to say that Ibsen essentially kicked off the Manic Pixie Dream Girl long before Hollywood got hold of the concept.

Wrenn Schmidt plays Hilde with an abandon that would seem caricatured if the actress weren’t so relentlessly attractive, once again proving how much good looks allow you to get away. As she writhes and pouts and postures through David Edgar’s over-slangy translation, we are challenged to wonder what on earth led her – a woman whose beauty and self-determination could net her anyone – to seek out the reluctant Solness after so long a time. But their initial intimacy is conducted through dialogue, easing us into the more mythic (and therefore puzzling) aspects of the play.

It’s an uneasy balance. Edgar’s language lacks the poetry to enliven the play’s mysticism, while Hilde is pushed to extremes of suggestive behavior, eventually growing repetitious. The sexual undertones are in Ibsen’s dialogue, but Edgar brought them out too obviously to allow them power of simmering.

Still, Belgrader’s direction acknowledges that the relationships here are dances, whether it’s Hilde and Solness circling each other or Aline, Solness’s wife, making her dignified way around Santo Loquasto’s stylized set. The movement is often played against a turntable that dominates the stage, which redefines the already casually defined playing areas but mostly serves to re-angle the already-tilted open frame that rises above the stage like a Forrest Myers sculpture.

Hilde’s spirited enthusiasm inspires the play’s tragic revelations, as we learn of Solness’s belief that his will alone has been enough to provoke significant events. We figure out pretty quickly that the deaths of his two children were caused by a house fire he knew would occur; we marvel as his revelations deepen with more detail at how singularly misguided his perceptions are, even as he can’t see it himself but has to deal with the marriage-shattering consequences.

Sound designer Ryan Rumery also wrote and performs the show’s music with Christian Frederickson, with the latter’s moody viola droning along with Rumery’s variety of minimalist-inspired keyboard and percussion sounds. The costumed duo provides between-the-scenes music and very effectively underscores key moments as well.

In Turturro’s characterization, Solness is on the verge of an internal breakdown from the start, effectively mirroring what he sees in the elder Brovik. By the end of the piece, when an incautiously revivified Solness is prepared, Icarus-like, to pursue an unattainable dream, we’re readily but unhappily willing to accept the consequences to which the master builder has blinded himself. That’s the power of a terrific performance, especially one as laced with subtlety as Turturro offers, a powerful performer leading an equally powerful ensemble.

That this won’t be to everyone’s taste is a given. That’s long been the fate of this play, and never more so than in this, the age of cellphone-shattered attention spans. But this production well rewards the patient explorer with its rare chance to see a troublesome work. It plays through June 9, 2013.

The Master Builder
By Henrik Ibsen, translated by David Edgar
Directed by Andrei Belgrader
BAM Harvey Theater.

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