Ibsen’s The Master Builder is a masterful play. It is a psychologically dense masterpiece about a builder who has it all but in truth has nothing. Fresh Look Theatre Company produced an intelligent, captivating revival with an invigorating cast in a tiny little studio that had been converted into a theater.
The plot concerns a master builder, Halvard Solness (Douglas Treem), who has some divine gift to create masterful buildings. He has been keeping his protégée, Ragnar (Trevor Davis), and Ragnar’s dying father (Peter Judd) under him by lying about their impressive work and flirting with Ragnar’s fiancée, Kaja (Jenne Vath) so that she won’t want them all to quit working for him either. He is paranoid and full of himself while aloof towards his wife, Aline (Carol Holmes), who thinks he is insane. She brings in a doctor (Frank Guerrasio) to access the situation.
Then, Hilde (Henriette Christie Ertsas) walks into his life. She remembers Halvard from a church he built in her hometown 10 years ago, when she was 12. He promised as he kissed her that she would be his princess and that he would build a castle in the sky for her. Hilde held onto that pedophilic memory and became obsessed and infatuated with the master builder. She arrives exactly 10 years later and claims the promise -- she expects a castle in the sky.
What follows is an intense drama. As things come to light, it is apparent that Hilde has come to set Halvard free. Many things from the past are revealed: Halvard gave up having a home for himself by using his power -- he sacrificed his own home. Aline lost all her belongings in the fire that allowed Halvard to rebuild his first home. They also lost their twin sons, because Aline got the flu but refused to forego nursing them. This tragedy was the price Halvard had to pay for greatness.
Ibsen is considered one of the greatest playwrights for a reason. It is very evident in this dark play -- the structure, the intricate idiosyncrasies of each character, the emotional epiphanies, the deep paradoxes….
David Greenwood’s adaptation serves the themes well. His direction brought out passionate, poignant performances from his actors. Furthermore, Greenwood staged the play in a tiny little space, but it never felt tiny. Additionally, the pace was so engaging that even though the show ran three hours, it barely felt like two.
At the beginning, the show dragged a bit. However, as soon as Henriette Christie Ertsas came on stage, the show found its focus. Ertsas took command with fiery determination. Her Hilde was both inspiring and scary. Additionally, Frank Guerrasio and Peter Judd excelled in their small character roles, making the most of their short bits.
The lighting was admirable, given the limited means. Harlan Penn’s set was minimal and transformative. Their occasional awkwardness as stagehands was forgotten in the quality of their performances.
One of the major highlights of the production was the incidental background music by Ron Hackel. The dissonant harmonies and eerie repetitions created by synthesizers heightened the melodrama of a few scenes as well as amplified the overall emotional ambience.
This was a brilliant production of a complex, stimulating play, which transformed a tiny studio into a full theater.
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Copyright 2005 Seth Bisen-Hersh