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Daphne Gaines and Richard Toth
in Dead Tech
(Photo: Richard Termine)
Set in the dilapidated architecture of a former iron smelting factory, complete with scaffolding, pulleys, steel drums, and other refuse of the industrial age, Dead Tech is Kristin Marting and Celise Kalke's adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's The Master Builder. Produced in Brooklyn's Dumbo neighborhood, this site-specific production interweaves various texts related to architecture and technology into Ibsen's play.

The result is uneven. The cuts made to Ibsen's text are judicious, helping to clarify the action and relationships between characters; but the external texts, narrated by two figures representing Home (Holly Twining) and Tower (Dmetrius Conley-Williams), seem tacked on and unnecessary. "Towers give us location," says Conley-Williams at one point. "Memory always occurs behind our backs," intones Twining. These statements soon become white noise that can be filtered out in order to concentrate on what's far more interesting: the human dynamics of the play.

Richard Toth is captivating in the central role of Solness, an aging architect frightened by new ideas and the demands of youth. A charismatic performer, Toth is a lot younger than the character in Ibsen's play; Marting, who also directed the production, has said that she cast an actor in his 30s to show how much faster things become obsolete in this day and age.

Two different faces of youth are represented in the play: there's Solness's ambitious assistant, Ragnar (Trey Lyford), and then there's the mysterious Hilda (Daphne Gaines). Ragnar feels he's being held back by Solness, who won't allow him to do his own design work. Hilda, meanwhile, believes in the power of the master builder to the point of folly; she breathes new life into Solness's world but is ultimately responsible for his downfall. Toth and Gaines have a palpable on-stage chemistry, infusing the production with energy and sexual tension.

The production utilizes a vocabulary of stylized gestures, repeated over and over in slightly different contexts. Sometimes these movements appear to literally correspond to the spoken word, as if they were a form of sign language. At other times, they seem to have no relation whatsoever to what is being spoken. Toth and Gaines are the most adept at incorporating the movements into their speeches; Gaines, in particular, has a fluid grace that makes even the oddest motions seem natural. Unfortunately, some of the other actors do not adapt as well to this gestural system. Zishan Ugurlu as Solness's wife, Alina, seems particularly lost. Director Marting might have considered that stillness is also a movement choice and that there is no point in having actors perform abstract motions with which they are uncomfortable.

The original music composed by Todd Griffin is one of the most delightful aspects of this production. The underscoring, played by two on-stage musicians dressed in white (Griffin and Catherine McRae), has an otherworldly jazz texture that sets the mood and often seems to set the pace of the scenes. Christien Methot's evocative lighting design also complements the stage action. The only design element I would question is the costuming, by Nancy Brous: Home and Tower are clad in awful, orange see-through outfits; Ragnar wears a strange, harness-like contraption on his head; and Aline sports a black leather dress with luggage handles on it. This mish-mash of styles is apparently meant to visually remove the play from Ibsen's time period without quite setting it in our own but, surely, there are better ways to accomplish that objective.

Dead Tech is an interesting example of experimental theater that gets a bit too caught up in its own innovations. The production neither fully accepts Ibsen's script as written nor completely deconstructs it. Some moments resonate with a powerful theatricality, yet the overall effect is slightly pretentious.

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