The sparsely decorated set, designed by John Iacovelli at The Aurora, says something of the fin-de-siecle Norway in which Henrik Ibsen wrote The Master Builder—simple, functional wood furniture with little adornment. In the parlor, a nosegay of deep red carnations seems almost startling.
The Master Builder’s office has a ledger on an upright desk, drafting tools laid out on a table, where, later, architectural renderings will be spread. In the back wall—with windows sketched in on blue wallpaper like drafting paper—are French doors, the only visible link to the gardens and vista of other dwellings outside.
This is the cockpit for the battle of nerves the Master Builder wages like a war with his colleagues, clients, his doctor, his wife—the world, outside and in. James Carpenter’s demeanor in the lead role also says something of exterior and interior worlds—spare, perfectly appointed (Jocelyn Leiser the costumer), but abrupt in mood and movement, with occasional extravagant gestures. He dominates all around him, who seem to do his will with a mixture of awe and resentment. He’s also battling himself, in episodes of exaltation followed by self-doubt, fantastic confidence in his own powers followed by paranoid delusions.
And through the French doors at the back, his angel or demon strides in, midway through the first act, in the form of a vivacious madcap making her way down from the mountains and into the world, Hilda Wangel (Lauren Grace).
Hilda is banking on a vague invitation from the Builder’s wife, Aline (Anne Darragh), a woman who seems in perpetual mourning, resigned to “do her duty.”
But she also wants to cash in on what she takes to be an old promise from Solness, the Master Builder, who at first doesn’t remember her and maybe never really does. Ten years before, inaugurating a church tower he built in her home town, Solness complimented the 13-year-old, telling her she was a princess who deserved a palace, a kingdom. Now Hilda has come to demand her due.
Solness finds he can talk to Hilda; he doesn’t feel misunderstood by her, as he does by the others. He tells her his view of things we’ve already seen or heard of—how he’s feigned affection for the young woman who works in his office (Kaja, played by Zehra Berkman) in order to keep her fiancé, his assistant Ragnar (Brian Herndon) from leaving his employ and becoming a competitor. He has forebodings of being brushed aside by “the young.” He’s browbeat Ragnar and Ragnar’s father, Knut (Julian Lopez-Morillas), trying to destroy any confidence in the young man’s chance of independence.
Hilda admiringly says that no one should be allowed to build but Solness—but shows distain when he tells her he secretly agrees. The two revel in their seeming ability to read each other’s thoughts, anticipate each other’s statements.
Solness further reveals to her his great fear: that his success cannibalized his own and his wife’s disasters (the burning of her family home they’d inherited, the deaths of their twin infant sons). Everybody thinks him lucky and, he thinks, mad. Even his doctor (Richard Rossi), very much the diplomat and counselor, who jokes about what he assumes to be Solness’ affairs with young women, thinks him unhinged.
Urged by all who see her hold on the Master Builder to restrain his extravagance, Hilda pushes him on to greater heights, to find her “castle in the air.”
The program notes for the production emphasize the psychological drama of an older creative man driven on recklessly by an infatuation with a younger woman. That is most apparent in the plot, but the excellent performances by the cast, so well directed by Aurora founder Barbara Oliver, and the spartan clarity of the the translation (a world premiere, by past ACTdramaturg Paul Walsh), show the bald contradictions and ambiguities of every statement and action, offering a critique of the middle-class society of the 19th century. The Master Builder was Freud’s favorite play for more than clinical reasons.
“To be a poet is to see,” said Ibsen. In The Master Builder he shows his ability to see deep into the contradictory matter of modern existence. After an absence of three decades from Norway, his courage in sublimating his own experiences into the character of a provincial enfant terrible grown long in the tooth and afraid of the up-and-coming young, shows the greatest artistic freedom.
Something the Aurora production doesn’t quite grasp, which seems implicit in the translation, is the precise social tone of the conversation, the constant mention of duty to cover resentment, Hilda’s coquettish demands for an imaginary kingdom, Solness’ thoughtless yet domineering flatteries and condemnations.
Kierkegaard, whose writings Ibsen knew, waged a campaign against what he called “drivel,” the irresponsible, careless, hypocritical chatter of bourgeois society and press, which tossed off chimeras of the mind as if silly parlor talk, exactly the doubles-entendres Freud found so indicative of true duplicity and neurosis, and which R. D. Laing would later characterize as “double binds,” Catch-22s. The dialogue of the play is, like the character of Solness, wound tight with these, spring-loaded like the stychomythia of Greek Tragedy, where the meaning is what’s ironically missed, not said outright, in the exchange.
This show has plenty of irony, but maybe not enough of the falsely light touch, both knowing and frivolous, whereby a young lady could demand blood from an older man, yet just sound like a silly, coquettish girl.
The Master Builder plays at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and at 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays through March 5 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St. For more information, call 843-4822 or see www.auroratheatre.org.