Monday, May 20, 2013

The Master Builder at BAM

If you didn’t know Ibsen’s The Master Builder you might at first think that the character played by John Turturro in the current production at BAM was someone who had an exaggerated sense of his self-importance. In fact, Turturro’s Solness bears an unpleasant resemblance to another architect. Robert Roark, the hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainheadrendered by Gary Cooper in the King Vidor movie. And if we were looking for referents in contemporary culture then the sexualization of Solness’s muse Hilde Wangel (Wrenn Schmidt) and his amanuensis Kaja Fosli (Kelly Hutchinson) could easily recall Fifty Shades of Gray. Of course a helluva lot more is going on in both the play and in Andrei Belgrader’s direction, but there’s something in Ibsen that conduces to the kind of distortion that sees the romantic conception of the uncompromising artist as form of bombast and tyranny, with those surrounding him as submissives. The play can easily be turned into The Masturbator rather than The Master Builder. The very name Solness, the state of “soul ness,” sounds like an iteration from one of the great German idealist philosophers. When you step into late Ibsen, you enter the world of aspiration, in which being is trumped by the notion of becoming, and happiness is the price one pays to create  “castles in the air”—the expression Hilde uses to describe her master builder’s calling. The German word for passion is Leidenschaft and leiden means suffering, a kind of suffering that can lead to the ultimate sacrifice, the famous Liebestod of Tristan and Isolde. The recently released Andre Gregory: Before and After Dinner contains scenes for a work in progress of The Master Builder that has been going on for years. It reveals another approach to the play, based upon conversation and devoid of hyperbole. Freed from the burden of melodrama, Ibsen’s play becomes as complex as say a Bergman movie.

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