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San Francisco by Richard Connema

An Interesting and Unyielding World Premiere version of Henrik Ibsen's
Master Builder

Also see Richard's reviews of Around the World in 80 Days and In On It

Master Builder
Lauren Grace and James Carpenter
Aurora Theatre Company is presenting a new production of Henrik Ibsen's autobiographical drama The Master Builder through March 5th at their theatre in Berkeley. The new shorter and smarter translation is by Paul Walsh, former A.C.T. Dramaturg and Director of Humanities. The originally three-act drama has been shortened considerably into a solid two-act play running two hours and ten minutes. The first act establishes the master builder Halvard Solness as a monomaniacal person who is the foremost builder of churches and houses in all of Norway. The second act concentrates on a long discussion between 60-ish Halvard and the 18-year-old free-spirited Hilda. Much of the rhetoric between the two is about the "troll" inside him that has made him an unsavory character. This conversation becomes a cumbersome mix of the naturalism and imagery that involves the Norwegian troll spirit prevalent in the builder's soul.

Henrik Ibsen, after a 29-year period of not writing, wrote this play in his 64th year in 1892. Many were puzzled by the play when it first appeared. Some critics of the day said it was full of monotonous dialogue and heightened dementia on the part of Halvard. It was not discovered until after his death that the Ibsen had this kind of obsession with a young Viennese girl of 18 years just one year before he wrote the play.

Halvard (James Carpenter) is an unpleasant character who wastes no time in coldly dismissing the appeals of his loyal young apprentice Ragnar (Brian Herndon); the young architect's ailing father Brovik (Julian Lopez-Morillas), whom the builder had edged out earlier in his career; and the nave young office manager Kaja (Zehra Berkman), who is love sick since womanizer Halvard has made amorous advances toward her. There is the long boiling marital hostility between him and his wife Aline (Anna Darragh) who has been gloomy ever since her original home was accidentally destroyed by fire. Halvard has built his reputation on that fire and he now suffers from some sort of paranoia. The master builder is afraid that his success is doomed and that the younger architect will steal his place in the world just as he stole from his original mentor Brovik.

Hilda, a young liberal mountaineer, arrives suddenly in the builder's life and she sees a sort of troll or devil in herself as she gives confidence to Halvard to build a "castle in the sky" for her. The architect is so infatuated with her that he is willing to do anything so they can be together. This includes the 60-year-old builder who is scared of heights climbing to the top of a tower to lay a wreath on a newly constructed home. The results are tragic.

James Carpenter (many Bay Area productions including the recent Nicholas Nickleby) brings Halvard to life. He portrays the builder as a beleaguered, mercurial, controlling and unsavory character who still has a guilt complex. It is a powerhouse performance. Lauren Grace (Emma, The Voysey Inheritance) gives a sprightly performance as Hilda, who borders on being a brat. Even with the cuts that were made by Paul Walsh in the second act, the long conversation between Hilda and Halvard tends to wander as they discuss the builder's limitations.

Anne Darragh (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Charlie Cox Runs with Scissors), always dressed in black and radiating dreariness because her original home and their only child has been snuffed out, is excellent in the role of the suffering wife Aline Solness. Zehra Berkman (Owners, Smell of the Kill) gives an affecting performance as the bewildered and meek Kaja. Richard Rossi (many productions at Berkeley Rep) is first rate as Doctor Herdal while Julian Lopez-Morillas makes the most of his brief role as the ailing Brovik. Brian Herndon (Translations) as the young architect Ragnar who represents the spirit of youth gives a touching performance.

Director Barbara Oliver has smoothly blended Ibsen's style of naturalism and emotionalism on the part of Halvard and Hilda. John Iacovelli's set is an elegant blend of pragmatic and symbolic elements with late 19th century period furnishings set against an enlarged architectural blueprint on the floor and the rear wall. Jocelyn Leiser's costumes are authentic 1890s apparel, and York Kennedy's lighting effects are very realistic.

Henrik Ibsen's The Master Builder has been extended through March 12th at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets please call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.com. The Aurora's next production will be the West Coast premiere of Craig Lucas's Obie award winning play Small Tragedy opening on April 7th.


Photo: David Allen


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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