NEW YORK -- If you didn't think Henrik Ibsen's work was sexy and racy, you'll be pleasantly surprised by BAM's production of "The Master Builder," which embraces a whole new interpretation of that classic 1892 tragedy.
At least the Freudian symbolism of tall towers, even taller church spires and ruined homes remains, and the basic story is intact, in the spirited production that opened Monday night at the BAM Harvey Theater. There are moments that almost look like soft-porn comedy, which detract from the anguished soul-searching the main character is meant to undergo. Yet those moments also seem suitable, as the fantasies of an older skirt-chaser.
An aging architect (John Turturro), whose success was built upon the exploitation of others, is faced with mortality and regrets. Selfishly reluctant to pass the torch to the next generation, he's also trapped in a dead marriage, partly of his own doing, and compulsively flirts with much-younger women. A lively young stranger (Wrenn Schmidt) will insistently change the course of his life, demanding fulfillment of a long-forgotten promise while he uncharacteristically shares his weaknesses and fears with her.
This version by British playwright David Edgar, from a literal translation by Desiree Kongered McDougall, has modernized and changed Ibsen's language, removing many references to the inner "demons and trolls" that plague the architect. Notably, under the direction of Andrei Belgrader, Hilde's sexuality and advances to the architect are so bold that he practically gropes her in return.
As arrogant, self-made master builder Halvard Solness, Turturro commands the stage. His expressive demeanor invokes the bravado, paranoia and flaws that fluctuate within Solness. Turturro's dynamism and intensity are well-matched by the youthful energy of Wrenn Schmidt, who vibrantly portrays 23-year-old Hilde Wangel, the intruder who shakes up Solness' complacency and leads to his downfall.
With bold sexual gestures, Schmidt presents a bawdy, flouncing impertinence that diminishes some of Hilde's mystery and menace, but she's fun to watch. Katherine Borowitz makes an elegant, compelling impression as Solness' politely sardonic wife. Kelly Hutchinson is sweetly in thrall as Solness' hapless young mistress, while Max Gordon Moore is effective as her humble, oblivious fiance. Ken Cheeseman makes a comical foil out of the role of Dr. Herda.
A rusting, sagging skeleton of a building (Freud again) majestically centers the spare set by Santo Loquasto, and subtle orchestrations create a supernatural mood when Solness is pondering his mortality and his relationship with his Maker. Distinctive lighting by James F. Ingalls illuminates the mercurial mood swings in this surreal yet satisfying production.