The Master Builder

Written by Henrik Ibsen
Blake Montgomery, Artistic Director

At the Building Stage in Chicago
A review of the performance on May 17, 2008

The Building Stage seems to understand how minimalist theatre can challenge an audience. In their new adaptation of Ibsen's The Master Builder, the paucity, and sometimes absence, of visual aids and visual distractions forces attention squarely on the author's dialogue, the actors' characterizations, and the play's symbolism.

And minimalist it is. Four actors play the seven parts. The performance space is bare and unadorned, but graceful and clean, with strongly parallel and perpendicular lines. The design of the space has geometrical effects, whether inadvertent or purposeful. There's a strong sense of the rectangular throughout, from the stage itself to its two flanking tiers of seats, to the overhead lighting pipes. The resulting feeling of symmetry brings about a calmness and predictability that italicize any emotion the characters display, any irregularity in their behavior. Furthermore, the black-and-white ambience of the space allows colors in the costumes, whether bright or mild, to blaze.

Halvard Solness is a middle-aged architect whose ambitious climb to the top of his profession has turned him into a frosty man, one who now has a singular drive to maintain his reputation. Because he fears being cast aside by the next generation of architects, Solness refuses to grant independence to his young draughtsman Ragnar. Blake Montgomery's portrayal of Solness was rather sympathetic in tone, not imperious or magisterial. He transformed Solness' compulsion to dominate everyone into an almost rueful attempt to maintain his fragile self-image and to keep from confronting his transparent illusions.

The desperation of Montgomery's Solness didn't manifest as malevolence toward those under his dominion, as it might have done had the builder's narcissism been painted with sharper edges. He wasn't at all tyrannical. Rather, he was somewhat tentative in word and gesture; he was nervous and his confidence was clearly shaky. In short, Montgomery played Solness as an overgrown adolescent who has the psychological skill to manipulate those around him, and just enough maturity to know that his actions have consequences, even if he sometimes ignores them.

For some reason, Solness' fatal fall at the end of the story lacked the jolt of an unexpected tragedy. Actually, I was indifferent. The problem may have lain in Montgomery's portrayal or in the group-approach to direction. Or perhaps indifference is what Ibsen wanted. After all, why should we care about a man who worked so hard to maneuver the people in his life just to continue deceiving himself?

Meghan Raham gave us an icy Aline, Solness' wife, who was trapped with him in a loveless marriage. Raham's Aline was outwardly stoic but inwardly fervid, a believable long-term result of connubial disinterest. Her self-possession and proud posture almost belied the years of disappointment. Despite her small role -- and her dourness -- I found Raham's acting to be the most interesting in the play.

David Amaral portrayed Ragnar, whom Solness resents for his self-assured youthfulness and for his new ideas. Amaral's Ragnar was cautiously confrontational, trembling -- quite appropriate to an enthusiastic but frustrated apprentice who seeks some professional freedom, and who must petition for it from his intimidating, highly respected mentor.

Daiva Bhandari played Kaja, Ragnar's fiancée who's enamored of the older Solness. In fact, Solness may have nurtured her affections just to keep Ragnar in his employ. Unfortunately, Bhandari played Kaja as a frothy teenybopper with stars in her eyes, making the character too silly to be taken seriously in this play.

By contrast, Bhandari's portrayal of Hilde, who claims to be the former schoolgirl awed by Solness' exceptional talent, was in line with the spirit of the piece. She buoys the mystery of Hilde's literal or symbolic identity by superimposing a bubbly cheerfulness on a lethal sycophancy.

The play is ultimately a dialogue between Solness and Hilde, an exchange that brings him face-to-face with his Faustian compromise while giving him a little hope for redemption. Although it's not unreasonable to treat Hilde as a deus ex machina, her character is altogether plausible as a devotée of Solness and an accidental counselor to both husband and wife. Nevertheless, the absence of third-party direction in this production became obvious in these later scenes: tension failed to build, cohesiveness was lacking, and tempos were unsteady.

I enjoyed the freshness that the minimalism brought to this heavy 19th-century play, but it didn't balance the shortcomings of the collective direction. The neutralizing effect of democracy may be desirable in government, but in the theatre it invites mediocrity.