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A CurtainUp Review
The Master Builder

It was wonderful to stand down there and gaze up at you. So exciting. Think. . . if he should fall now. The Great Master Builder himself. .— Miss Hilda Wangel
Eric Parness certainly meant well, but his musty revival of Henrik Ibsen's The Master Builder at the Clurman Theatre doesn't capture the spiritual audacity of the masterpiece. Parness, who is the artistic director of Resonance Ensemble, treats the work as a museum piece that must be admired but not embraced. The drama, performed in repertory with June Finfer's The Glass House, continues the company's commitment to pair a classic with a thematically-linked new play.

In The Master Builder, we meet an aging architect Halvard Solness (Chris Ceraso) who encounters a young woman, Hilda Wangel (Sarah Stockton), from his past. Having supposedly met Hilda at the peak of his professional career 10 years ago, and playfully promising her that he would one day build her a "kingdom," Solness foolishly invites the mysterious mountain girl into his home when she arrives at his door. Their subsequent relationship leads them down a self-destructive road, largely because they possess similar demons and towering ambitions.

Written in 1892 when the author was over age 50, The Master Builder is often viewed as a kind of critical self-portrait. Much of the story deals with the constant struggle for integrity and the conflict between duty to oneself and duty to others. Though it lacks the sharp clarity of Hedda Gabler or A Doll's House, this symbolic drama is a penetrating portrayal of a graying artist who must reconcile his painful past with his present, his personal with his professional life.

The best moments in this production are in the first act when Hilda enters and curtly demands her "kingdom" from Solness and the late scene when Solness, confiding in Hilda about his troubled personal life, recognizes that they have one blood in their vein ("From now on we shall build together, Hilda. The two of us.") At such times, you can feel your pulse quicken and the magic of Ibsen's story take over the stage.

Though Chris Ceraso lacks the needed pathological intensity, he acquits himself well in the titular role. Sarah Stockton's ,Hilda Wangel possesses the right blending of coyness, passionate abandon, and the lashing bite of a scorpion. The other actors are competent but don't quite match Ceraso's or Stockton's sustained dramatic energy.

Unfortunately, Parness doesn't invest the production with any fresh form or bold inventiveness. While Jo Winiarski's rustic-looking set and Sidney Shannon's period costumes are adequate, they don't really enhance this psychologically-nuanced drama. Nick Moore's sound design rescues the show from total blandness, punctuating pivotal scenes with delicate tinkling sounds that evoke otherworldly melodies. While one doesn't need to hear eerie music when Hilda arrives out of nowhere in the first act and radically changes the play's mood and atmosphere, Moore's aural effects do add an effective touch here and at other high points.

The play is a bit of an endurance test. It clocks in at almost 3 hours, including 2 intermissions so you might find yourself shifting uneasily in your seat for the last hour even though you don't want to miss any of Ibsen's poetry or subtle shifts in the complex plot. It does seem to me that Parness might have cut a scene or 2 to tighten up this marathon-like event.

For all that's right with Parness's idea of pairing 2 theatrical works that resonate across time and culture, it's easy to fumble the project in its execution. His latest coupling of The Glass House and The Master Builder, each work putting an architect at center stage, is theoretically sound and interesting to contemplate. However, Ibsen's classic, in particular, might have come off with all its plumage intact if it wasn't intentionally shoehorned into a program with a resonating play. One must admire Parness for his shared commitment to the classics and new related works. But sometimes a warhorse just needs to stand alone.

To read our review of The Glass House go here.
The Master Builder
Written by Henrik Ibsen
Directed by Eric Parness
Cast: Chris Ceraso (Halvard Solness), Susan Ferrara (Aline Solness), Brian D. Coats (Doctor Herdal), Peter Judd (Knut Brovik), Pun Bandhu (Ragnar Brovik), Jennifer Gawlik (Kaia Fosli), Sarah Stockton (Miss Hilda Wangel).
Sets: Jo Winiarski
Costumes: Sidney Shannon
Sound: Nick Moore
Lighting: Pamela Kupper
Stage Manager: Sean McCain
Resonance Ensemble at Theater Row's Clurman Theatre at 410 West 42nd Street From 5/09/10; opening 5/16/10; closing 6/05/10.
Tickets: $18; Phone (212) 279-4200 or visit
See website for performance schedule
In repertory with June Finfer's The Glass House directed byEvan Bergman and a cast featuring Harris Yulin, David Bishins, Janet Zarish, Gina Nagy Burns, Joie Bauer, James Patterson, and Chris Skeries
Running time: 2 hours; 45 minutes including 2 intermissions
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on May 21st press performance
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