The Master Builder synopsis: John Turturro plays a once-great architect torn with professional hubris and personal guilt in Henrik Ibsen's masterful 1892 exploration of late-career anxiety. The production is helmed by Andrei Belgrader, who also directed Turturro at BAM in 2008's Endgame.
The Master Builder. BAM Harvey Theater (see Off Broadway). By Henrik Ibsen. Translated by David Edgar. Dir. Andrei Belgrader. With John Turturro, Wrenn Schmidt, Katherine Borowitz. 2hrs. One intermission.
Theater review by David Cote
In theory, there’s a way to stage The Master Builder that doesn’t lead to giggles or snores. The play dates from Ibsen’s late, death-haunted period, and it’s considered one of the author’s most naked self-portraits. It dramatizes the restless ego and hubristic fall of Halvard Solness, self-made architect, unsettled by younger rivals, even as he succumbs to nubile Hilde, a flirty fan who goads him to greater achievements. Ripe for camp parody or high-tech deconstruction, the text’s pompous, load-bearing symbols buckle under too much phallocentric bathos. (You can easily picture a version that dwells on the title hero’s towering erections.)
Even loyal Ibsenites were irritated and baffled when the play premiered in 1893, so director Andrei Belgrader and his cast are in good company, but they fail by playing it safe. The staging concept—period dress, stylized set, expressionist sound cues—never gets beyond polite and proper. John Turturro, so primal as Lopakhin in Belgrader’s fine staging of The Cherry Orchard at Classic Stage Company, struggles to balance the tangled pettiness and nobility in Solness. As Hilde, strawberry nymph Wrenn Schmidt is a porcelain beauty, but her line readings eventually blur into one jejune chirp. You stop listening to David Edgar’s translation—a pity, because it’s trim and refreshingly unstuffy.
Static and stiff though the production is, the design is handsome. Santo Loquasto’s set is dominated by a steel architectural skeleton, cleverly angled as if ready to topple. And a final tableau of Solness placing a wreath at the summit of his latest spire is dreamy and magical. Still, even a play about awe-inspiring structures ought to have more than just eye candy.—Theater review by David Cote
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