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The Master Builder

The Irish Rep presents a somewhat stodgy production of Henrik Ibsen's problematic 19th-century drama. logo
James Naughton and Charlotte Parry
in The Master Builder
(© Carol Rosegg)
The famous curmudgeon H. L. Mencken was in an uncharacteristically mellow mood when he once straightforwardly suggested that Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen "depicted the life of his time, and he made use of the ideas of his time." That accurate statement does bring into serious question the sustained value of a play like Ibsen's 1892 drama, The Master Builder, which is getting a somewhat stodgy airing at the Irish Repertory Theatre, under the direction of Ciaran O'Reilly.

Granted, in one regard The Master Builder -- which is being presented in a new adaptation by the Dublin-based playwright Frank McGuinness -- is prescient. Its title character, Halvard Solness (James Naughton), is an architect-developer who foreshadows all the architect-developers that have shown up in recent decades as corrupt and villainous protagonists.

But the prime credulity-strainer here is the relationship between Solness -- who's at the same time confident of his building mastery and fearful he's going mad -- and the adulatory Hilde Wangel (Charlotte Parry), who appears unexpectedly at Solness' door one day, and damages his marriage to the suspicious, barely tolerant Aline (Kristin Griffith), with whom he's still suffering over the loss of their infant twin sons.

Pushy and oxygen-hogging, Hilde has two wishes. One is to be a "princess" in Solness' eyes; the other is to see the acrophobic man triumphantly atop one of his signature towers. At play's end, she gets more of the latter wish than she bargained for. It could be said Hilde is another of Ibsen's clairvoyant touches. While she's reluctantly welcomed into the household, she has all the hallmarks of today's ubiquitous stalkers.

Solness' apparent need to be adored by young women -- such as worshipful staffer Kaja (Letitia Lange) -- may not be totally unbelievable, but the shared attachment unmistakably comes across as overly hysterical. Indeed, the other characters who frequent Solness' premises -- which include employees Knut Brovik (Herb Foster) and Letitia's put-upon fiancé Ragnar Brovik (Daniel Talbott) -- can't do much to countermand the weird romance confronting them.

Given the tentative grasp this Ibsen opus has on the contemporary imagination, O'Reilly's often awkwardly staged production does not help matters. Nor does the usually reliable Eugene Lee's third-act set in which chairs and tables are stacked upstage as if in a storage facility. (His realistic architect's atelier for the play's first act is mostly right, except that Hilde makes her entrance through a section of upstage wall as if she's a figment of Solness' turbulent fantasizing.)

Moreover, although Naughton has that famed deep and resonant voice, he fumbled his lines repeatedly -- which may be one reason why the other actors' rhythms seem thrown off. On the other hand, Parry and Griffith slip into their roles as if donning fashionable gloves -- even if the play they're in is no longer in fashion.

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