Monday, April 17, 2017

Reviewed in Brief: The Master Builder

Ibsen's dark id is on full display at the Southern Theater

Photo courtesy of Theatre Novi Most.

Feeling a little glum at the advent of our early spring?

If so no worries, because you can find a chilly winter vibe at Theatre Novi Most's staging of The Master Builder at the Southern Theater. Although this is one of Ibsen's better known stories, Theatre Novi Most has provided it with a stark, modern staging that strips it down to bare bones and weaves Ibsen's dark id throughout.

The Master Builder is about Halvard Solness, a master architect renowned throughout Norway for his work. Halvard is married to Aline, a quiet, serious woman who has not been able to provide him with a family. Halvard employs Knut Brovik, his son Ragnar, and Ragnar's fiancee Kaia, with whom Halvard is sexually involved. Halvard is a master manipulator pulling the strings of all those around him in an abusive manner that he clearly enjoys, with little thought or care to how his actions might negatively impact them. All of this changes with the arrival of Hilda Wangel, a woman many years Halvard's junior who has tracked him from their initial encounter in her childhood. Hilda exploits Halvard's manipulative tendencies as he becomes more and more obsessed with her, and manages to convince him to build his largest tower yet, although he is afraid of heights. I won't spoil the ending by revealing how this fear is molded by Hilda, but suffice it to say, Halvard receives his just reward for his deviousness.

Theatre Novi Most makes the most of the macabre story with their sparse cast, which includes Barbra Berloitz as Aline; Pearce Bunting as Halvard; Shelby Richardson as Hilda; and Alex Berreto Hathaway, who switches between the remaining characters and Halvard/Ibsen's dark id, Troll. Each actor plumbs their psyches to find the twisted, menacing delight of their characters. Like many Scandinavian stories there are no real heroes (or honestly, even likeable characters) in The Master Builder, and the company clearly enjoys their walk on the dark side. Hathaway in particular is adept at switching between his characters, providing unique voices and staging for each one to delineate.

I have to be honest: overall I struggled a little with this show. The lines between characters became a little muddy in this compact staging, and it felt like much of the preamble to the story didn't lend itself to helping provide clarity for the overall narrative. It may be that translating the setting of the original play into the modern era lost some helpful context. It's also true that this isn't the sort of play you're inclined to be predisposed to enjoy, simply because the characters aren't really likeable. Much of the genius in Ibsen lies in his ability to totally resist the impulse to soften his characters and instead keep them in (an unfortunately more realistic) dark places. This darkness is where Theatre Novi Most shines. The company is totally unafraid to "go there," and you are destined to feel uncomfortable watching some of the physical, troubling actions that Halvard releases on those around him. Halvard eventually gets what is coming to his deranged soul, and Bunting will lead you to his fall with aplomb.

Put a little chill in your spring by seeing The Master Builder, which runs at the Southern Theater through April 22. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

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