Deconstructing the Builder 

Aurora stages a magnetic, stunning Ibsen.

A gem of elegant interpersonal warfare, Henrik Ibsen's The Master Builder also is an unusually personal and poetic example of the Norwegian playwright's later work. Blending a classically Greek examination of hubris with the Norwegian notion of trolls who live inside people and control their actions, Ibsen used this late-career work to explore both the price of success and his interest in abnormal psychology. Although just as emotionally sharp as anything else in his quiver, The Master Builder also is very accessible and at times darkly humorous, especially in a new translation from ex-Bay Area dramaturg Paul Walsh at the Aurora. And Ibsen could have written the architect Halvard Solness for the subtly regal James Carpenter, who heads up a solid cast under the direction of Barbara Oliver.

At the height of his career, Halvard fears that his run of luck is ending, and that he is to be consumed by the younger generation. It's a fear made more real by the news that his young draftsman Ragnar would like to start designing some buildings himself. Incapable of allowing such a thing, Halvard schemes to keep the younger man quiet by manipulating Ragnar's fiancée, Kaja. Just as things are coming to a head, with Ragnar's dying father Brovik begging the master builder to relent and Halvard's wife becoming openly suspicious of his relationship with Kaja, a strange and unattached young woman bursts onto the scene and imposes a new order. Halvard is forced to face his own past and conscience, leading to a typically Ibsenian end.

Is Halvard crazy or not? He confides in Hilda that he believes himself possessed of the demonic power to attract Mephistic "helpers and servants" through sheer force of will. Conveniently enough, she has a similar view of herself, so they get along famously. But Hilda isn't just a pretty young thing; she is Halvard's nemesis, in the mythical sense of the word, a goddess who punishes transgressions arising from human arrogance. We learn that Halvard's sense of his own importance may have led directly to the tragedies that have befallen his family, a story that unfolds only because Hilda is there to hear and judge it.

Hilda had a real-life precursor. Ibsen attracted a flock of young women from whom he drew artistic inspiration. "All these ladies," Ibsen's friend Dr. Julius Elias wrote in 1906, "demanded something of him -- some cure for their agonies of soul, or for the incomprehension from which they suffered; some solution of the riddle of their nature. Almost every one of them regarded herself as a problem to which Ibsen could not but have the time and the interest to apply himself."

Ibsen met Emilie Bardach while vacationing in Austria. She was seventeen to his 61, and they shared a brief and breathless correspondence. Ibsen told Elias that Bardach claimed to delight in separating men from their wives, but that he would not fall prey to her blandishments, merely observing her so that he might use her in his work. "She did not get hold of me, but I got hold of her -- for my play. Then I fancy she consoled herself with someone else." In his letters to her, Ibsen called Bardach "my princess," foreshadowing the Hilda character, who has come to see Halvard so that he might make her his princess as he joked he would in a chance meeting ten years before.

Yet the Ibsen letters also bespeak a true affection, and it's possible that he felt more strongly about Bardach than he let on to his friends. Ibsen built this contradiction into Halvard -- it's hard to tell whether the man actually cares about Kaja or is simply keeping her close to achieve some private end.

The supporting roles are well cast. Anne Darragh's brittle, clipped Aline has been engineered for maximum frumpiness, in her terribly shapeless mourning clothes and prim hair. Her strangled delivery of the speech about the fire that destroyed her family's home totally captures what happens when one is saying things buried for too long. Darragh becomes more interesting as the play progresses, especially when she starts trusting Hilda, making herself childishly, tragically open to the younger woman.

Usually cast as jovial and confident, Julian López-Morillas plays against type as frail and quavery Brovik, the aged architect who trained and then was eclipsed by Halvard. Here he is a shambling, wounded bear next to Carpenter's springy, leggy predator; the point where he cries is one of the play's most rending. Would that Ibsen had given Brovik more to do -- even though the story doesn't need it -- because we don't often see these two actors together, and they really spark off each other. Likewise Carpenter and Lauren Grace as Hilda, who personifies the sort of young woman who believes her beauty and wit put her outside the stultifying norms of acceptable behavior. Even if the chemistry between them is more stylized than visceral, it's still fascinating to watch Hilda's artlessness as she flirts with Halvard in front of his dustbinned wife, and the way the two actors play with the physical space between them. Some of the moments that ring particularly true could stand a little more space around them, but Grace holds her own.

The Master Builder marked a departure from the unsparing realism of Ibsen's earlier works, which often reflected some social, political, or ethical question of the day. Here he experimented with a more expressionistic style, looser, more abstract, and more poetic. Which is not to say that The Master Builder is any less sad or penetrating than his other works, but it does have a little more whimsy to it, and focuses much more on individuals and less on society. For audiences who were used to the melodramas and flat characters that preceded Ibsen's realism, this work was especially personal and intimate. For modern audiences, the play is a tense and beautifully crafted story of a powerful man's downfall, and this production a stunning, magnetic interpretation.

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