Reviewed by Judy Richter
Written in 1892 when he was 64, Henrik Ibsen's "The Master Builder" is said to have autobiographical elements. It also has Freudian elements. Aurora Theatre Company skillfully reveals both in its production, directed by Barbara Oliver. Using a literate, accessible new translation from the Norwegian by Paul Walsh, former dramaturg of American Conservatory Theater, this production features strong acting in ATC's intimate setting.
The plot focuses on Halvard Solness (James Carpenter), a successful but aging architect/builder in an unhappy marriage. His energies and inspiration are rekindled when 23-year-old Hilda Wangel (Lauren Grace) arrives at his door and says she's staying. She reminds him that he had promised her a castle when he happened to meet her 10 years ago at the dedication of a church he had built. She now wants her castle. She also wants him to climb to the tower of a house he has just built and to place a wreath on it even though he's afraid of heights.
She clearly is manipulating him, just as he manipulates Kaja Fosli (Zehra Berkman), his young bookkeeper, into staying in his office by making her believe he loves her. In reality, he's using her to hold onto her fiance, Ragnar Brovik (Brian Herndon), a talented young architect whom he is training. Part of the reason why he manipulates the young couple is that he wants to control them and keep them under his thumb. He feels that change is coming from the young and that it will usurp his power and leave him behind, just as he usurped the power of his mentor, the dying Knut Brovik (Julian Lˆ¾pez-Morillas), Ragnar's father.
Other recurrent motifs in the play are worries that Halvard is crazy. Halvard himself has those worries, as does his dour, long-suffering wife, Aline (Anne Darragh), who often speaks of doing her duty, whether by acceding to Halvard's wishes or by playing hostess to the attractive young Hilda. Trolls also are frequently mentioned. Program notes by dramaturg Joanna Perry-Folino include this citation: "According to scholar Peter Watts, trolls 'have a lot in common with the id of the Freudians -- an embodiment of the primitive urges of mankind.' Ibsen, an early Freudian, understood that humankind has dark and anti-social urges propelling men and women to be destructive and selfish. The inner conflict between the desire of the selfish, creative person (troll) to self-realize and his obligations and duties to society (man) is at the heart of 'The Master Builder.'"
One might go so far as to see Hilda as a creation of Halvard's imagination or perhaps his wishful thinking as he tries to rekindle his youthful spirit and sense of romance. Of course such thinking is foolish, and it leads to tragedy, as it must in this case.
Carpenter is brilliant as Halvard, showing his faults and weaknesses, parrying with Grace's determined Hilda and trying to protect and humor Darragh's emotionally fragile Aline. Completing the cast is Richard Rossi as Doctor Herdal, a physician and family friend. The set is by John Iacovelli, lighting by York Kennedy, costumes by Jocelyn Leiser and sound by Chris Houston. All are well done, especially the sound.
This is a play that resonates on several levels, and this production plays into them all.