Last week I saw a production of a classic Henrik Ibsen Play, The Master Builder at the BAM. I went in deliberately blind to knowing anything about the play, other than the star John Turturro who plays the lead role.
I’d been scarred by Ibsen, when I studied another famous play of his A Dolls Housein High School. That play was about a woman hoping and holding up her ungrateful husband, who after being taken for granted, berated and squashed, leaves her family. The social commentary about family, womens responsibilities and rights was really ahead of its time when written in 1879. Ibsen used a sudden, dramatic and sad ending to punctuate his point. This was good, but the dry pain points made it hard to watch and even harder to study.
almost 15 years later, Ibsen wrote what seems to be a semi-autobiographical play in The Master Builder. An older man, at the zenith of his career as a builder, is so terrified of losing his power to younger generations of builders that he has an affair with the fiancee of his apprentice in order to secure his loyalty.
Turturro does a great job at navigating the complicated feelings of a man who is both using and used by women. He becomes infatuated with another young woman, who comes along to use and be used by him. Turturro does a great job of portraying his distaste for his wife, whom he dislikes due to the pain of losing their 2 sons: The audience knows he doesn’t like her, but with some love clearly latent in his interactions.
Wrenn Schmidt plays the temptress in the builders life. After seeing him at a young age, she kept a supposed secret infatuation for years until finally showing up at his doorstep to snag her man. Her act is great, but a little too obviously Lolita-esque in mannerisms on stage. Every movement is bluntly sexualized, perhaps a little too much, or perhaps just showing what fantasy Turturro’s character has.
Eventually, in a combined desire for conquering over gods powers, and as a show of force to his new young muse, decides to climb the top of the tower of his newly created home. It’s a mixed set of reasons, all of which are based on his fantasies that drive him to climb atop the tower. The symbolism is a culmination of the whole plays themes of a man fearing his downfall to youth and loss of power, combined with getting his revenge on god for taking his children. So he tries to conquer everything in his power.
Sadly, and almost predictably, he falls while climbing the tower, and dies. And that’s why the play jars on me, since the sudden, predictable and uncanny ending felt worn. Something in the play didn’t work for me, but the BAM production is excellent.
If you want to see what will be one of the best stagings of this play for years, go and see this production. The set is symbolic and a background to the show, the acting is sublime from every character. I guess I just didn’t love the show.