The plays of Henrik Ibsen do not leave much room for fantasy. The “father of realism” had more pressing concerns on his mind, like female agency, death, divorce, syphilis, fraud and political corruption, amongst the many social questions he dramatized. So if director Andrei Belgrader’s new production of The Master Builder, now at BAM, reminds you, like me, rather more of a Brothers Grimm fairytale than A Doll’s House, don’t fight the impression. This is one production of Ibsen that kids, several of whom were in the audience the night I attended, might step into more easily than adults.
To be sure, there are precedents for such flights of fancy. Ibsen himself famously used the Norwegian adventure story “Per Gynt” for his similarly-titled play, and The Master Builder is constructed around a supernatural conceit: that the architect Solness of the play’s title, has the power to make his wishes come true. Still, the authenticity of those claims is left perfectly ambiguous in the play, and it is possible to dismiss Solness’s belief in his übermensch status by the same logic his wife does, as merely the “delusions” of a hugely successful business man in his waning years. Belgrader, however, has loaded the deck in favor of a surrealist reading of the play’s events, from casting to set design. The choice is not unwelcome for this most mystical of Ibsen’s texts, but the results prove detrimental to the production’s integrity.
The show’s star is John Turturro, himself no stranger to unusual stories as an actor in the films of Joel and Ethan Coen. He delivers a virile, cocksure Solness at the height of his career and the play’s narrative center. He is upstaged, however, or rather overwhelmed, by his co-star Wrenn Schmidt (familiar to fans of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire), in the role of the mysterious Hilde Wangel.
When Hilde knocks unexpectedly at Solness’s door, he is the greatest architect of his generation but also the failed husband of Aline, who lives in detached mourning from him ever since the long-ago deaths of their infant sons. Hilde has come looking for the famed Master Builder because, she claims, she has never stopped thinking about him since he stole a kiss from her some ten years previously, when she was an impressionable pre-teen and Solness had come to her village to oversee the construction of a church. That’s about all that can be known of Hilde with any reliability, because not even Solness can say whether her story is true or false.
Ibsen’s Hilde is a mystery for sure, and certainly a brazen girl for her day, leaving home and throwing herself upon Solness with only the most thinly veiled intentions. But Schmidt, with her porcelain skin, blooming cheeks, and cascades of strawberry blonde hair, brings a fresh-picked physicality — and under Belgrader’s direction, a frank and irresistible sexuality — to the young temptress. These qualities take on an other-worldy aura as her influence over Solness grows. To the older man’s marital desperation and fears for his legacy, Schmidt is a slutty Rumpelstiltskin, using her considerable feminine charms and sibylline talk of “castles in the sky” to turn his straw musings into all the gold he could ever imagine.
Next to Hilde’s half-savage, bounding impetuousness, Aline (Katherine Borowtiz) glides icily through the action: a levitating snow queen dressed in ivory Victorian regalia with her white hair piled high on her head like a crown. Solness’s wife may turn a blind eye on her husband’s past infidelities with his office clerk Kaja (played with a clutzy naiveté by Kelly Hutchinson), but, in this production especially, she occupies an inaccessible moral high ground that makes Turturro’s Solness all the more easy prey when Hilde comes hunting for him. Other characters, too, appear to have stepped out of a storybook, or, in the case of Max Gordon Moore’s Ragnar (Solness’s sorely abused assistant), an Edward Gorey drawing. The revolving set evokes turning pages, but perhaps I’m getting carried away with the metaphor.
I was thinking this until the play’s final scene, and wondering how, up until this point, Turturro’s Solness hadn’t taken Schmidt’s almost intolerably lascivious and impetuous Hilde right on the wood planks of the stage, and more than once. But rather than indulge their passion, Belgrader and set designer Santo Loquasto indulge themselves with a giant phallus of a spire: a bright red cardboard steeple cocked at an 85-degree angle, swirled in mists and watched over by a cold , cut-out moon — the whole thing reminiscent of a Maurice Sendak night scene. Solness’s fatal climb appears unmistakably cartoonish as a result, and effectively deflates the play’s accumulated tension. The final moment is reserved for Hilde, now a kind of banshee witnessing the death she heralded with all her childish demands and foot-stomping. And so perishes this Master Builder, in the Crayola palette of a comic strip and with all the profundity of a Disney animated film.
Paradoxically, despite the text’s occult premise, the play is assumed to be Ibsen’s most autobiographical work and offers plenty of real-life drama to explore about infidelity, desire, ambition, aging, and more. Turturro and Schmidt make an intriguing pair most of the time, albeit a fairly implausible one, and the supporting cast maintains the illusion. However, Katherine Borowitz received much warmer applause than Wrenn Schmidt from my fellow audience members: proof, perhaps, that youth, its aesthetic and its codes, are not crowd pleasers for all, and that psychological suffering and moral distress — when confronted by adults who can see things for what they are — are among Ibsen’s greatest lessons.