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'Master Builder' apprentice style

A Noise Within's production of Ibsen's complex drama gets uneven treatment.

November 11, 2005|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

Henrik Ibsen is generally regarded as a key shaper of the ripped-from-life drama that, 100 years later, continues to dominate our stages. But in his later works especially, he also pointed the way toward less realistic forms of drama.

One such piece is "The Master Builder," published in 1892, when Ibsen was 64. Though regarded by some scholars as the ultimate expression of certain themes in his writing, it's a tricky play to get right, even by those fine interpreters of classics at A Noise Within.

Stylistically, "The Master Builder" is a disconcerting free-for-all of psychology, symbolism and myth. Beneath all that, though, is a story of creative drain, wrapped in midlife crisis -- and this much, at least, still speaks urgently in a 1992 translation by the late Jerry Turner, upon which directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez Elliott build this production.

The title character, a designer of homes, hasn't achieved all that he'd hoped and fears he'll soon be supplanted by the younger generation. With tall, solidly built Geoff Elliott occupying the role, we get an image of a graying but virile Alpha male. A frightful petty tyrant, master builder Halvard Solness talks down to everyone. Yet grief bursts upon him like thunderstorms, reducing him to a tearful, spineless mess.

Jill Hill, as Solness' wife, is often observed walking sideways, like a woman who's lost her balance. The marriage has been touched by tragedy, and the couple have drifted apart.

Then a woman in her early 20s bursts into the household. Delivering the most captivating performance, Julia Watt is impetuous, impish, dreamy, breathless and giddy. She is Solness' lost youth come to goad him to reach for the sky again. Typical of her needling (and of Ibsen's experiments here) is the line: "Is what she said true? ... That my Master Builder does not dare -- that he cannot -- climb as high as he can build?"

Sibyl Wickersheimer's semi-abstract slat-wood set seems at once elaborate and rickety, like a house of cards ready to collapse. Angela Calin's costumes -- confining 19th century suits and long dresses -- are color-coded to the wearer's psychological traits. Shadows fall meaningfully across it all, courtesy of Ken Booth's lighting design.

The performances, however, are out of balance. Each of the seven key actors works in a different mode, from belabored melodrama to breezy realism, as though performing in his or her own play. The master playwright set out some serious challenges in this story. It takes more than gumption to meet them.

*

'The Master Builder'

Where: A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale

When: 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Nov. 30. Call for December schedule.

Ends: Dec. 11

Price: $32 and $36

Contact: (818) 240-0910, Ext. 1 or www.anoisewithin.org

Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

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