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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
While the Irish Rep has a devoted following and doesn't have to rely on big name stars to fill seats and, in fact, often has to extend a run to meet demand, the just opened Ibsen play does have the cache of a starry Halvard Solness in James Naughton. Though no stranger to straight dramas, Naughton is best known as a musical theater performer and every line he speaks reflects his musicality. But McGuiness's new version was undertaken to give the text a more contemporary flavor, not to transform this dour, heavily autobiographical and symbol-laden drama into a musical (it would have to be an opera). Consequently, Naughton's music-inflected voice must be supported by an emotionally resonant, confident portrayal of the complex character he's taken on. Surprisingly —and disappointingly— the dashing hat and coat costume designer Linda Fisher had provided for his entrance fits Mr. Naughton to a tee, but this complex role is a far more imperfect fit; thus, anyone coming to the Irish Rep not to see Ibsen, but to see James Naughton, is likely to be disappointed.
In McGuiness's version this play from Ibsen's final years is indeed quite accessible and with fewer grating inconsistencies than most previous translations. There are slips such as the overused cliche "when push comes to shove" sounding downright odd next to phrases like "don't tarry." Generally speaking though, McGuinnes allows The Master Builder to be viewed within a familiar basic plot framework: A successful older man is inspired to once more scale the heights by a young woman who adores and challenges him to recapture the heroic near ecstacy of their somewhat Lolita-like first meeting when she was thirteen. But no matter how clear and contemporary the text, things are never what they seem in an Ibsen drama, and certainly not this one.
Before a pretty young woman named Hilde (Charlotte Parry) enters Solness's study he is a man made cruel and distant by doubts about losing his artistic powers and being pushed aside by younger people. He manipulates Kaja (Letitia Lange) the young office assistant who's smitten with him, in order to keep Ragnar (Daniel Talbott)), his assistant architect who wants to marry her, in his employ.
Solness's career trauma is exacerbated by a marriage soured as a result of his womanizing and the fire that destroyed his wife Aline's (Kristin Griffith) home — a fire that marked the beginning of his becoming the master builder and also resulted in the death of twin infant sons; the latter a tragedy neither Solness or his wife Aline have ever gotten over or been able to discuss openly.
It's no minor acting challenge to convey the emotional trajectory of this troubled man. In the course of the lengthy conversations with Hilde that propel the story to its inevitably melodramatic climax, Solness must make the leap from a tightly wound, earthbound man to one reinvigorated to apply his talent to lofty purpose (tall steepled churches, instead of houses for ordinary people) and to ultimately fulfill the play's main phallic symbolism by forgetting his fear of heights and risking all to satisfy Hilde's demand for the "castle in the sky" he promised her ten years earlier. While Naughton does manage to move from the play's initial into more spiritual, symbolic and more than a little mad territory, he does so in small steps rather than soaring leaps.
Unlike Mr. Naughton's too contained performance, Ms. Parry errs in the other direction. Her Hilde never gets off the emotional, wild child roller coaster. The support players are all commendable but the strongest performance is provided by Kristin Griffith as the quietly convincing as the sorrowful Aline Solness. Here is a woman whose mournful dress and demeanor brings to mind Chekhov's famous opening line for The Seagull's Masha — "I'm in mourning for my life."
As with previous Irish Rep productions he's helmed, Cieran O'Reilly deftly sidesteps the limitations of the small stage with its awkward and immovable post and side thrust seating. Obviously constrained by budget considerations, Mr. O'Reilly has relied on Eugene Lee's handsomely furnished set to serve as the Solness office and home, and even the play's final move outdoors to the patio. A drop cloth around the furniture now simply piled against the walls during the final stage, would have made it easier for the audience to envision the outside world and the stratosphere into which Solness soars ever so briefly. But then the Irish Rep audiences are good theater goers, and perhaps O'Reilly is right to force them to give full reign to their imaginations.