The Master Builder
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
September 29, 2005
I can’t pinpoint exactly when I began to feel sympathy for Halvard Solness, Henrik Ibsen’s Master Builder. He fears he is about to be ousted by the younger generation, his greatness forgotten, leaving him to the grim reality of a frigid, frightened wife, two dead infant sons, and the stinking trail of trampled dreams (his, his wife’s, and those of so many others) that he blazed to get to where he is at this moment.
Indeed, The Master Builder begins with an old and infirm architect, Knut Brovik (once Solness’s mentor, unseated by him and rehired as a staff member), whose dying wish is for Solness to evaluate his son Ragnar’s renderings—is he gifted enough to take off on his own, or would he do better to stay with Solness’s firm as a decently-paid underling? As if it were company policy, the Master Builder says he cannot honor the request; he pushes the drawings to the side and states that Ragnar should stay put.
Solness later muses on the fire that destroyed his wife’s family home, which incidentally (if indirectly) resulted in their son’s deaths. He had even observed a fault in the craftsmanship that would make the house particularly vulnerable to flame. Yet he correctly intuited that that particular disaster would be his big break: he was then able to convert the grounds into a set of villas.
His selfishness is so astounding that my capacity for indignation is shut down—the wind is taken out of my critical sails and I have to float, rather unheroically, in the calmer waters of curiosity. This is, I’m sorry to report, not a new sensation for me: I am finding it more and more difficult to read about the actions of our president—his heartless-but-holy opportunistic ruthlessness—and still sustain a rage at him. Not unlike our protagonist, our president seems to view national and international tragedies as alternately nuisances and vanity projects.
Thusly, Ibsen’s The Master Builder could not be more relevant than it is today. And I applaud the Pearl Theatre Company both for tackling the piece and resisting the urge to tie it to this morning’s newspaper. Director Shepard Sobel’s approach is, I guess, conservative: the play as the playwright wrote it. But this “traditional” approach is hardly traditional anymore. It is, in fact, brave to assume that contemporary audiences will be able to see the urgency in the play, will freely associate to people and dynamics on a personal and global level.
Sobel is served by an ensemble of actors who have a similar commitment to illuminating the play from within. Notably: Dan Daily’s earnest take on Halvard Solness is that of a man who has plopped his butt down where he expects is the center of the universe; despite growing discomfort, he holds his ground, resolute and wary. As Aline, Solness’s damaged wife, Robin Leslie Brown has something unknown inside which she can just barely control; even as she sits relaxing in the sun, her eyes dart, her hands tremble, her voice breaks. Michele Vazquez’s Hilde, on the other hand, could not seem more at home. She is a young woman whom Solness met ten years ago when he built a church in her mountain village; he basked in the girl’s sunny admiration and, during a moment of passionate indiscretion, promised that in ten years they would meet and he would build her a “castle in the sky.” Right on time, she has come to collect, ultimately inspiring in him the hubristic act that results in his downfall.
That last relationship—Solness and Hilde—is central to The Master Builder. Her awe inspires in him a certain vainglorious poetry of Ambition which, after a good bit of indignant incredulity, is what softened me to him (this is indeed a credit to Daily’s performance). He is deluded yet retains a certain dignity; a man who goes to sleep with blood on his hands, assuming his bedding to be white with red polka dots.