Off-Broadway Theater Review: THE MASTER BUILDER (Harvey Theater at BAM)

Post image for Off-Broadway Theater Review: THE MASTER BUILDER (Harvey Theater at BAM)

by Dmitry Zvonkov on May 21, 2013

in Theater-New York


The great John Turturro stars as the architect Halvard Solness in David Edgar’s translation of Ibsen’s enigmatic chef-d’oeuvre The Master Builder, which is currently being performed at BAM’s Harvey Theater under the direction of Andrei Belgrader. Mr. Belgrader chooses to take what might be called a more traditional approach to staging the work, using affected speech patterns and Marco Piemontese’s period costumes to create a formal theatrical experience that is rich and satisfying at times, but not entirely persuasive.

John Turturro and Katherine Borowitz

Fundamentally, The Master Builder is the tale – or fairytale – of a supremely successful, middle-aged architect haunted by guilt over his past wishes and in constant fear of being usurped by the young. Into his life arrives a seductive twenty-three-year-old girl named Hilde (Wrenn Schmidt), who demands that he fulfill an impossible promise, which she insists he made to her ten years earlier.

The play ranges from the realistic to the surreal, and every combination in between; as soon as you think you have a firm hold of the work, it changes its shape and slips away. Mr. Belgrader chooses to take a middle line of sorts, grounding the show in reality but infusing it with a good bit of the mystical and dreamlike. This duality can be seen immediately in Santo Loquasto’s psychological set, with its combination of everyday period items under an expressionistic rusted metal skeleton that somewhat resembles a church tower leaning precariously over everything. Ray Rumery’s sound and James F. Ingalls’ lighting also alert us when something not quite realistic is about to happen. The solid and sure-footed technical proceedings are aided by first-rate performances from the remaining cast: Julian Gamble, Kelly Hutchinson, Max Gordon Moore, Katherine Borowitz, and Ken Cheeseman.

Wrenn Schmidt, Max Gordon Moore, and John Turturro

But the show lacks nuances which keep it from hitting its mark. Hilde, when she is with Solness, does a lot of suggestive posing intended to seduce or at least to entice him. She uses her youth and sexuality to get him to do what she wants, but her physical bluntness doesn’t seem to quite fit the period style of the production, and it feels like overkill. Most importantly, this redundancy eats into time that could have been spent making Hilde a more complex figure, both in terms of her as an individual but also with regards to her thematic place in the play.

Another underdeveloped element is Hilde and Solness’s relationship. After the first few scenes, their emotional connection barely shifts – they just seem to be rehashing the same old thing over and over. As a result, the architect’s important final monologue to her doesn’t seem to come off as it should: We understand that in this speech Solness is being earnest and that for him the words are dramatic, but it’s not clear if we are supposed to take it at face value or with a bit of irony. The same could be said of a production which nonetheless holds our attention.

John Turturro and Wrenn Schmidt

photos by Stephanie Berger

The Master Builder
Brooklyn Academy of Music at Harvey Theater
ends on June 9, 2013
for tickets, call (718) 636-4100 or visit BAM

Leave a Comment