There is much to appreciate in the version of THE MASTER BUILDER now playing at BAM. John Turturro’s sheer onstage presence as Ibsen’s feckless protagonist can scarcely be gainsaid, nor can the charm and playfulness of Wrenn Schmidt as Hilde, the young woman who changes everything by walking into – BACK into – the master builder’s life. Santo Loquasto’s set is an efficient piece of architecture in its own right, a cube-shaped armature that suggests a hidden structure of thought and unfulfilled possibility. Andrei Belgrader’s direction has gotten the rhythm of play about right; a life that feels stuck which is suddenly animated by the special energy of Hilde’s arrival, then slows again as the realization sets in that her presence alone is not enough, there is still a wish to be realized, and work to be achieved. That shape is there, like a musical score fulfilled by a capable orchestra, enough so that one listens to it with a certain pleasure and sense of admiration.
And yet, there is something vital missing in this MASTER BUILDER. Partly under the sway of David Edgar’s translation, and partly due to the tenor of Turturro’s acting, that part of Ibsen’s tale that is magical and mysterious, with trolls somewhere in the Norwegian mountains, and the implicit recollection of LADY FROM THE SEA, the strange tale that is this play’s prequel, is all but gone. The original is mythic as well as psychological; in this version the archetypes seem purely Freudian; the towers that Solness erects are not just towers, as cigars can just be cigars, which is fair enough, but there is no fancy in how they are talked about; they are phallic and little else.
Turturro plays the mid-life crisis, and Solness’s appalling self-justifications for his infidelities, more than well; but he is no Icarus flying too close to the sun that is his namesake; he lacks a sense of wonder, in short, of myth. Schmidt’s Hilde is delightful; it is clear how someone like her could shake up an older man’s life; but she is more flirtatious and gamine than she is muse to a master, or, it might be better to say, caster of spells or weaver of dreams. Her attraction to Solness is pure father complex stuff, all from her id and nothing from the universe. I do not fault Schmidt for this; the translator doesn’t preserve much of the play’s fantastical tenor and in Turturro – the one whom Schmidt would have to enchant – she faces pure male psychology, susceptible to the sex urge but not to becoming a figure in a tale.
All that said, the whole thing is pretty interesting to watch, and has its stunning moments. There is something in it to be learned about the hubris of architecture, the naiveté of infatuation, and the self-delusions of a certain kind of man.
For information on performances at BAM, click here.