By Tyler Plosia
Early in the first act of The Master Builder, Halvard Solness, the play’s titular character, asks: “Do you want to hear a weird story?” The audience reaction at this point in the play might act as a barometer for how the rest of the performance is going to go. But even more than that, the moment serves as an indicator for how those in the production have approached the play’s duplicitous script. At BAM’s Harvey Theater, John Turturro is asking Solness’s question, and everyone else seems to want to ask it as well.
Playwright Henrik Ibsen is maybe most referenced in conversations about the emergence of realism in theater. I’ve even heard “hyperrealism” used to describe his work, in part because his dialogue often embraces the conversational aimlessness that typifies everyday speech. And while the script of The Master Builder is in some ways no exception, director Andrei Belgrader and the rest of his crew made a point to move beyond the usual bland flatness of realism and enter some new realm, one in which the world of the play is partially defined by the ability of individuals to will their futures into existence.
The weird story Halvard Solness tells is about Kaja, a young woman who works as his bookkeeper, and Ragnar, an apprentice of his whom he wants to prevent from leaving. Solness claims that one night in the not-so-distant past, the night he met Kaja for the first time, he quietly devised a plan. He realized he could keep Ragnar from leaving him if Kaja would come to work for him as well because his apprentice showed an obvious attraction to her. But then the very next day, Solness claims, Kaja offered to work for him – without Solness speaking a word of his plan to her. This presentation of perceived mysticism introduces a recurring concern of Solness’s (less than a few moments later, he portends “youth knocking on his door” and a young new muse bangs from outside).
As Halvard Solness, Turturro plays a belief in the unbelievable with convincing sincerity. His character questions whether or not he is delusional. He questions whether those around him think he’s crazy. But he also seems to very firmly believe that some people – including himself – can wish for things and they’ll come to fruition, with nothing other than silent desire as their cause. In a production plagued by tropes of hyperrealism, Solness would be portrayed as mad. Those around him would agree, both the supporting cast (the sane ones, anyway) and the members of the audience. But in this production, there is something else going on. Solness might actually be right. It may be that in the world of The Master Builder, thought can materialize. And if such a distinctly unreal reality can be so readily believed by an audience, what else can we be convinced of?
Ibsen’s name will always be attached to realism, a movement which presumes to reflect upon modern conditions by mimicking them onstage. The Master Builder (at least at as it’s being presented at BAM) is evidence that Ibsen’s work can function as another type of theater as well, one where our reality is questioned by the dramatic suggestion of another.
Through June 9th at the Harvey Theater, Brooklyn Academy of Music.