Other than Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House, Ibsen’s plays are mostly out of fashion these days, especially the folkloric early works featuring trolls and the mystical late works featuring Great Men who, come to think of it, are also trolls. The effectiveness of those in the latter category, including The Master Builder, now being revived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, depends in part on an assumption of respect for great men in general, so that something dramatic can occur when they are found to be wanting. Our time is not perhaps sufficiently amenable to that assumption. In any case, the revival, directed by Andre Belgrader and starring John Turturro, makes an excellent case for continued neglect.
Turturro plays Halvard Solness, the “master builder” of the title; out of egotism disguised as modesty, he does not call himself an architect. Noted in his youth for his especially high church steeples, he has, after a crisis of faith, shifted his attention to the domestic sphere, much as Ibsen did when he entered his golden middle period. (The play is symbolically, and not only symbolically, autobiographical.) Instead of building houses of God, Solness now builds homes for “happy families,” even though — irony alert — his marriage to Aline (played by Katherine Borowitz, who is married to Turturro) was reduced to ashes by a terrible fire soon after the birth of their twin boys. Believing that the immensity of his greatness somehow allowed him to will that fire, Solness has become paranoid that the younger generation will now bring him down. In the Ibsen manner, he then proceeds to make sure it happens.
The agent of his destruction, and the chief source of the play’s notoriety, is a wild child named Hilde Wangel, who appears at the Solnesses’ door with her skirts hiked up and, as she brazenly announces, a rucksack full of dirty underwear. Claiming to have been kissed by the master builder ten years earlier, when she was 13, and thereby seduced into a dream of eventually uniting with him, she worms her way without much resistance into the unhappy household. She’s scary, but she does not want retribution; she wants to inspire Solness to greater heights of architectural achievement. (Her rather banal dream project is … a castle.) And however little she does in the course of the play to help him actually get such a project up, she does even less for Ibsen. Upon her arrival, the play becomes a lightly dramatized argument between Eros and Thanatos: fascinating in theory, deadly in practice.
The play has its problems, but Belgrader adds significantly to them by construing the Eros part way too literally. He may be taking his cue from the British playwright David Edgar’s new version of the text, which goes well beyond unstuffing the Victorian locutions of the first English translations. Hilde, especially, gets revamped. A shocking creature at the play’s debut in 1893 — not just for her manner of dress and speech but for her visionary impudence — she is now little more than a caricature minx of totally weird vintage. I stopped counting her Valley Girl locutions after “Yep,” “Wow,” “I’ll bet,” “Oh, sure,” “Yeah, absolutely,” and “Grow up!” Since no one else talks this way (though Turturro’s Brooklyn accent is amusing when he refers to his draftsman’s “droorings”) you are left to wonder if Belgrader intends to make a point about — well, no, there’s simply nowhere to take it.
More distorting still is the overtness of Hilde’s sexuality; the brave and fetching Wrenn Schmidt basically writhes in pre-orgasmic expectation for two hours, and parts her legs invitingly whenever the word “steeple” is uttered. There’s no denying the play’s annoying phallic symbolism, or even its pervasive sexual undertone; after all, it began in an affair Ibsen had with an 18-year-old who then quasi-stalked him for years. But there’s a reason to leave undertones under. Where the original translation has Hilde ask Solness, “Is it you that writes in this great ledger?” Edgar’s version winks like Mae West with: “Ooh, do you write in this big book?” It not only gives you the Salome-as-played-by-Madonna giggles but completely unbalances the play. With Hilde so obviously a nympho-nutjob, Solness must be stupid not to notice, and Aline must be a masochist to house her. Even the minor characters are forced to step indulgently around the girl luxuriating like a cat on the floor. When The Master Builder becomes an episode of Gilly, you know something’s wrong.
As a way of experiencing Ibsen’s 120-year-old intentions — which admittedly are vague but involve a consideration of the price of greatness and the meaning of conscience — this version of The Master Builder is a bust. But as a way of experiencing 30-year-old avant-garde tropes, it’s priceless. The most pernicious of these tropes is the uprooting of the repression from which classic dramas like this one grew, and without which they go limp. But Belgrader, who directed a very good Endgame with Turturro at BAM in 2008, gives us the whole catalog of clichés. There’s the expressionistically angled set (by Santo Loquasto) to suggest an atmosphere of moral vertigo. There’s the silent-movie-style acting, albeit with lots of sudden yelling. (Only Borowitz seems to have an inner life that is not immediately outed, and even she is asked to do things like snip at a plant while talking about death.) And then there’s the self-consciously eerie music that accompanies each reference to Solness’s paranoia. Why doesn’t everyone just run away at the first crazy whine of the viola?
The Master Builder is at BAM through June 9.