There’s a lot of talk about towers in the Yale Repertory Theater’s new production of Henrik Ibsen’s “Master Builder” at the University Theater. Even the stage itself, which is constructed to look like a building tipped on its side, conjures up an image of a tower as it seems to recede upstage into the sky backdrop. Despite its palpable artistic ambition, however, the production as a whole never really gets off the ground.
I hate to say it, but the fundamental problems may arise from the foundation. Ibsen, the writer of such masterworks and required high school English readings as “Hedda Gabler” and “A Doll’s House,” is a virtuoso at energizing interior space and drawing out the anxieties and quandaries of the modern bourgeoisie in startlingly realistic domestic dramas. “Master Builder,” although a clear reflection of the issues that drive the rest of Ibsen’s oeuvre, is not his most accessible work. The metaphors of construction are complex and drawn out to exhaustion, at times becoming muddled and frustratingly cerebral rather than moving or illuminating, and the female characters that Ibsen typically fleshes out are left somewhat two-dimensional. It’s definitely Ibsen; it’s surely not his best work. And although the actors attempt valiantly to overcome the challenges of the source text, they are ill matched against the play’s plodding frame.
The show focuses around Halvard Solness (David Chandler), an aging architect who has done well for himself largely through luck and manipulation. He fears the next generation, represented by a young member of his firm, Ragnar Brovik (Slate Holmgren DRA ’10), and is thoroughly unwilling to pass the torch to the terrifying youth that threaten to overthrow his hegemony. The consequences of his paranoia and megalomania extend to the domestic sphere; his relationship with his wife, Aline (Felicity Jones), has been strained ever since they lost their young sons in a house fire, and the return of Hilda (Susan Heyward), a potentially seductive young disciple from his heyday, threatens to cleave their union even more.
Heyward is primarily the one to watch. She, more so than any of the other cast members, is able to harness the contradictions and flaws inherent in the text to build the zealous, often hysterical energy that drives her character forward. While Chandler’s performance starts off strong, his energies, like many of the other actors’, seem to plateau as the second act begins. The entire ordeal has too much head and not enough heart despite the actor’s best efforts to breathe life into the play’s second act. The performers try to stay strong as the play degenerates into tiresome discussions of motifs and philosophies, but in the end, the whole damn thing is too exhausting for actor and audience alike.
There are some good moments here, especially in the first act as the actors construct their characters and the dynamics that guide the rest of the play, but on the whole, “Builder” is too much about the blueprints and not enough about the building. Regrettably imbalanced and often dry, this may be one play that only the hardcore Ibsenite could love.