Late Ibsen Done Right at BAM: John Turturro, Katherine Borowitz, and Wrenn Schmidt in Andrei Belgrader’s Production of The Master Builder
The Master Builder
by Henrik Ibsen
Translated by David Edgar
Directed by Andrei Belgrader
Produced by BAM
Katherine Borowitz (Aline Solness)
Ken Cheeseman (Dr. Herdal)
Julian Gamble (Knut Brovik)
Kelly Hutchinson (Kaja Fosli)
Max Gordon Moore (Ragnar Brovik)
Wrenn Schmidt (Hilde Wangel)
John Turturro (Halvard Solness)
Set design by Santo Loquasto
Costume design by Marco Piemontese
Lighting design by James F. Ingalls
Sound design by Ryan Rumery
Assistant costume design by Luana Busetti
Associate set design by Antje Ellermann
While I sought tickets for this production with alacrity, I approached my seat at BAM’s Harvey Theater with some misgiving, and it had nothing to do with Santo Loquasto’s elegant, perceptive, and functional set, which was in plain view on stage. It was rather the recurrent suspicion that a prominent Hollywood actor’s visitations of the stage so often turn out to be indulgences more nourishing for the actor’s ego than for the audience. Perhaps Kevin Spacey’s Richard III haunted the stage like the king’s murdered relatives. But, if you consider Turturro’s career, his experience on stage is extensive, and he is hardly a mainstream Hollywood actor. As the play began and especially once Mr. Turturro appeared, I couldn’t help watching closely for some weakness or affectation that might undermine the role. What a terrible attitude to see a play, I admit! (Call it an aesthetic immune system disorder.) Happily there was nothing of the sort, unless it was Turturro’s tendency to overuse gravelly vowels produced at the epiglottis—a device to convey Halvard Solness’s ferocious concentration on his own desires and ends, and also to counteract a certain whiteness in his own voice. I did in fact feel a compulsion to clear my throat at times. But beyond this, Turturro’s Solness—in mid-middle age, sexy, not too much of a father-figure to younger women—was coherent and convincing from beginning to end, not to mention even somewhat terrifying in the madness his Solness nurtures in himself and those around him—not an easy task in Ibsen’s much-criticized late venture into symbolic theater. Mr. Tuturro and all the others showed nothing but full respect for the best theatrical values.
The translation is credited to David Edgar, the prolific and versatile English playwright. Presumably it is more an adaptation than an real translation by someone versed in the peculiarities of the transitional Norwegian Ibsen wrote in. (I wish publishers and theater companies would be more precise about that sort of thing.) Edgar made this version for a Chichester Festival production, which, as far as the production photographs tell us, was nothing like the present one. Solness, played by Michael Pennington, was elderly, as he most often is. Hilde, played by Naomi Frederick, seems to refract her sexual powers through the shell of an English girl from a “proper” school. It seems little beyond Edgar’s English made it to these shores. It is purposefully colloquial, perhaps occasionally in a labored way. A few un-American expressions stayed with it, and overall the language seemed caught somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, not that the American actors had any trouble bringing it off.
If one considers the problems surrounding the interpretation and production of the play, Andrei Belgrader’s production may well deserve celebration as an historical event—a thoroughly coherent and convincing staging of a notoriously difficult work, one which accepts and makes the most of what Ibsen wrote without apologies or “adjustments.” In order to accomplish this, Belgrader and his brilliant cast have chosen the most daring approach—which is to follow Ibsen’s text directly into the symbolic, mythical inner territory he intended to explore, and to allow his realistic infrastructure to function as merely that—a vestigial remnant of the nineteenth century theatrical conventions he followed in his “mainstream” plays, that is, a linear narrative and a bourgeois workplace and residence. In Belgrader’s treatment past events become more potent than the present: the play’s tragic conclusion grows out of them rather than the immediate circumstances of the event. The spaces so vividly and specifically evoked by Loquasto’s virtually wall-less set proceed seamlessly into the expressionistically rendered symbolic scene of the church steeple, which is actually shown on stage in a more direct and literal manifestation than what Ibsen indicated in his stage directions—another daring solution to a difficult problem. Both the original and the BAM visualization could so easily have resulted in unintentional comedy, but in fact the latter produced exactly the requisite tragic pity and terror.
The idea of pity in this case requires some thought, since Solness is such an intensely unsympathetic character, no matter who is playing the part. Ibsen pointedly invented a character of a sort who elicits the admiration of many—a person who has risen to the top from poor origins without the advantage of an elite professional qualification. Of course we have all met such people, admired them, and learned that they are often not the most sympathetic companions. Often their families suffer from their single-mindedness, self-absorption, and long working hours, and they tend to harbor resentments which go beyond what the ambitious parent or spouse deserves. In Solness’ obsessive climb these qualities have reached the level of delusion, and he himself knows that he cannot trust his own sense of reality. He knows that he has been poisoned by his own skewed consciousness and that it is toxic to others. In this production his wife Aline is even more patently crazed than he is—as much by Halvard’s presence as by the tragic loss of their infant children in a fire. Katherine Borowitz (Mrs. Turturro) as Aline proves even more disturbing than John’s Halvard. Her wifely acceptance of the reality her husband has created, her deft avoidance of compromising situations, as Halvard pursues his amours with Kaja and Hilde, and the twisted fervor of her devotion to him not only conditions the way we perceive her husband, but create an oppressive atmosphere of malaise which hangs over the whole performance.
Borowitz’s Aline has another powerful effect on the production as a whole in that she undercuts whatever aura of focused energy and ability Halvard still projects, although much of his attention goes into the petty suppression of his assistant Ragnar and his erotic dominance of his more than devoted administrator, Kaja, who is engaged to Ragnar, imaginatively and intensely played by Kelly Hutchinson. Kaja is one of the first characters we meet in the play, in a scene which moves from prosaic exposition to surreal symbolism, as she kneels before her master, her face inches from his thighs. Ms. Hutchinson deserves admiration for successfully bringing off this opening scene which goes so far beyond the limits of realism and ran the risk of raising laughter in the hall. (In fact all concerned deserve admiration for their risk-taking.) After this preparation, many of the interactions with Aline seem weirdly mundane.
The bravest performance of all was Wrenn Schmidt’s as Hilde Wangel—and the most far-reaching in terms of her characterization of the young woman and what she reflects of Solness’ character. Still not past the girlishness of adolescence, but steeped in a tide of irresistible sexuality, she affects the viewer as encompassingly as she enchants Solness. This Hilde could emerge from the clouds of our own erotic fantasies as much as Solness’, and the possibility that her appearance is a sexual figment of the aging architect remains in the air. Her sinuous, sexually charged movements of her limbs seemed not of this earth, or, if earthly, subterranean, like a snake emerging from its hole, bringing the human id and subconscious with her. Marco Piemontese’s costume suggests as much a night shift as the plain white dress of a country girl. After having been kissed passionately by Halvard, when she was a pre-adolescent, Hilde has, after a decade, travelled from her provincial town to his, in order to find him. Her boots are muddied from travel and remain so throughout the performance, like Halvard’s, which bear the mud from his building site. This detail hints at their identity, or at the past transgression they share. It is as hard to imagine she was an innocent victim as a child, as it is to imagine Halvard as a victim, as he eagerly accepts Hilde’s dare to crown the spire of his new building with a wreath in the traditional manner, although his acrophobia is notorious. Wrenn Schmidt’s performance was as dangerous as anything her character manifested in the action. For me it was fascinating in both the etymological and the current sense of the word, and a powerful success, but I can imagine some members of the audience balking, tittering, or cramped with outrage.
Ken Cheeseman proved a great favorite with the audience as a bluff, occasionally gauche Dr. Herdal. I thought his performance a little obvious and shallow in comparison with the others.
As for the production as a whole, the insight of Belgrader, Turturro, Schmidt, Borowitz above all freed The Master Builder from expectations based on Ibsen’s classic middle plays, as well as from his classic reputation, giving us a clearer view of his intentions than I’ve ever seen, more than I might have imagined possible, given the limitations of interpretation in the contemporary theater. It was powerful, moving, and revelatory.