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A CurtainUp Review
The Master Builder
by Macey Levin

After altering dramatic literature with A Doll's House in 1879 and writing several more social issue plays including Ghosts and Enemy of the People, Henrik Ibsen delved into works that explored human motivations and the soul. Hedda Gabler was followed several years later by The Master Builder, a work rife with irony and a strong message from the 65-year-old Ibsen and the latest in thronological retrospective of all of Ibsen's plays at the Century Center for the Performing Arts.

The play relates the story of Halvard Solness and his obsessive fear of the young. There is constant reference to ". . .youth is the spearhead of change," something Solness fears lest it mean the end of his station in the community. Through this apprehension, he has intentionally limited the artistic development of his assistant, Ragnar Brovik, the son of the man whose business Solness acquired through legal but unseemly manipulations.

Solness's loveless marriage to Aline is due to the death of their twin sons when she nursed the children while ill, following a fire that destroyed their home. His work is now his singular medium of comfort and he only builds "homes for human beings" since the fire. A young woman, Hilda Wangle, enters his life and demands he create the kingdom he promised her ten years ago when she was a child. She recalls the time he scaled a church steeple, despite his fear of heights, to hang a symbolic wreath commemorating completion of the structure. He looks at her as a new found inspiration who inspires him to reach greater glories.

The play contains an insightful examination of the drive for power and self identity. This should be a moving experience that engenders provocative discussions and reflection. The current production, however, does not possess the dramatic drive to make the offering anything more than a feeble melodrama.

Part of the problem is the translation by Rolf Fjelde. If the words are not right, an actor can have a difficult time giving it body and meaning. Fjelde has used the structure and syntax of the late 19th century but includes current American expressions. The language, despite the use of the vernacular, is quite stilted.

Difficulties start in the opening scenes of the play when actors fail to pick up their cues quickly enough, leaving huge gaps when nothing is happening other than an artificial gesture or verbalized silence. If the pace of production is slow in the expository phase, it takes a gargantuan effort to create or restore the impetus a play needs to involve an audience. Another consistent problem is that the performers are not listening to each other and are delivering their lines without reasoned or logical motivation. What we are offered is a slow-moving play that meanders through its structure leaving the climactic and concluding scenes without a moment of drama.

J.C. Compton, the director and artistic director of the company, has not given attention to the basic elements of the work; pace, subtext and motivations do not seem to be utilized. Ibsen, as the father of modern drama, created characters who acted as logically illogical human beings. The people on this stage are simply mouthing words and adopting Victorian style postures.

Dennis Parlato's Solness is distinguished looking, but the actor portrays him with a one-note smarmy attitude. In a role that should command the stage, Parlato simply appears. Hilda is an independent young woman who has left her father's home and is seeking her place in the world. Tami Dixon's Hilda twitters rather than acts the part of the vital and strong muse. Wendy Barrie-Wilson provides the play's strongest performance as Aline. She has given this unhappy, dark woman textures that could elicit sympathy from the audience if her fellow performers worked at her level. The rest of the cast is undone by a lack of control or understanding of their characters.

The playing space is a converted room in a former men's club. It lends a fitting atmosphere to Ibsen's middle class social order that dominate his prose works. The set pieces from the furniture to the rolls of architectural plans define this as the house of Solness. The lighting by Graham Kindred complements the realistic tone of the work except for one contradictory moment toward the latter part of the 2nd act. Pam Snyder's costumes of muted colors help to create the time period, though Hilda's tyrolean garb seems out of place.

The Century Center has undertaken a creditable task in their Ibsen series. As a play that is seldom performed, The Master Builder should be seen as representative of the writer's style and thematic ideas. These performances should grow in depth and understanding as the run continues and the actors attune themselves to the playwright's rhythms and clarify his intentions.

Ibsen at The Century Center
Hedda Gabler
Other Ibsen Productions
Little Eyeolf Hedda Gabler (Broadway)
A Doll's House (Broadway)
John Gabriel Borkman
Peer Gynt (London)
Peer Gynt (DC)
The Wild Duck
Speed Hedda
The Ibsen Museum: A Postcard from Norway (feature)

Playwright: Henrik Ibsen
Directed by J.C. Compton
Cast: Wendy Barrie-Wilson, George Cavey, Tami Dixon, Parden Fallis, David Jones, Dennis Parlato, Harmony Schuttler
Lighting Design: Graham Kindred
Costume Design: Pam Snyder
Sound Design: Jared Coseglia
Set Design: Not credited
Century Center for the Performing Arts,111 East 15th St. 212/279-4200. Previews from 3/5; opens 3/10; closes 3/24
Running time: 2 hours with one 10 minute intermission
Review by Macey Levin based on 3/10 performance
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