October 25, 2008

"The Master Builder" is Poorly Constructed

Chekhov and Ibsen are such an integral part of the theatrical canon that we often forget that most of us know their works primarily through translation. Sometimes, as with Christopher Hampton’s nimble reworking of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull (currently dazzling theater lovers on Broadway), a new translation can make one of those 19th century plays come alive for contemporary audiences. But other times, as with Frank McGuinness’ plodding adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Master Builder that opened at The Irish Repertory Theatre this week, the effect can be just the opposite.

The Master Builder, written in 1892, towards the end of Ibsen’s life, has never been as popular as his A Doll’s House or Hedda Gabler (the 18th Broadway revival of the latter is scheduled to open on Jan. 25 with Mary-Louise Parker in the starring role) so the Irish Rep gets some points for taking it on. But why bother if you’re going to go at it in such a dismal fashion? During intermission at the performance my buddy Bill and I attended, audience members walked by one another, heads bowed and avoiding eye contact, as though they were at the wake of someone who had died prematurely. One man grabbed the arm of another waiting for the restroom and whispered, “So bad, so bad.” Nearly one third of the audience, apparently feeling that it had paid its respects, opted not to come back for the second act.

The actors, of course, stayed. But they seemed just as despairing. The Master Builder tells the story of Halvard Solness, an architect who, abandoning his ideals for financial success, has become an uncaring husband and an unbearable boss. His life is changed when a young woman who still worships him because of the church he built in her village when she was a child tries to reignite his idealism. James Naughton, a two-time Tony winner and usually a fine actor, seems totally lost in the role. I didn’t even recognize him when he first walked on until I heard his distinctively plummy baritone. Unfortunately, he seemed to be reciting the part instead of playing the role and he didn’t even do that well since he kept stumbling over his lines. (Click here to read a Theatermania interview in which he talks about why he took the part.) Kristin Griffith, who plays his wife, remembered hers but she was still lifeless. On the other hand, Charlotte Parry as the young woman was so lively that she came off as shrill.

Normally, I’d blame their performances and the overall lethargy of the production on bad direction and assume that the director didn’t know what he was doing. In this case, however, the show was directed by Ciaran O’Reilly, the company’s producing director and an experienced hand. But he wasn’t the only vet who was undone by this production. Eugene Lee, who has won every honor available for his set designs including having been recently inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame, put together one of the clunkiest sets I’ve seen since my high school drama class productions: the main office setting is handsome enough but when the action moves from inside the Solness home to the yard outside, stagehands simply push the furniture to the side of the stage.

But in the beginning is always the word. And McGuinness’ words sound as though he were doing a parody of a stiff 19th century play. The result is, well, a stiff 19th century play. Bill later reminded me that whenever the legendary actress Eva Le Galliene did Ibsen, she translated the play herself because she thought the standard English translations were “stilted and unworthy of Ibsen’s language, style and intentions.” One can only imagine what she would have thought of this production

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