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A Master Builder

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You've seen lots of Master Builders if you were brought up on Shaw's The Quintessence of Ibsenism or if you are an aspiring artist or married to one--or you're just someone who 's interested in the darker sides of either imagination or aspiration. There are straight Victorian translations of the Ibsen classic and adaptations by playwrights who put their words in Ibsen's mouth (as Mamet has done with Chekhov's The Three Sisters or David Ives with Moliere's Misanthrope). Andre Gregory's stage adaptation with Wally Shawn playing Ibsen's Master Builder Solness has been fourteen years in the making and it's not The Master Builder, but A Master Builder, underlining the fact that it's a far cry from the straight translation mode. Now we have the movie, directed by Jonathan Demme (with a screenplay by Wally Shawn). Louis Malle famously filmed Vanya on 42nd Street which was the result of a similar collaboration and the style might be called vernacularization, with the impetus being to make dialogue (even in its more arch incarnations) sound like the things that people might actually say to each other. Vanya on 42nd Street was a masterpiece, but in the case of A Master Builder using the same technique doesn't necessarily produce similar results. Perhaps the problem lies in the initial decision to introduce Solness in home hospice care with the sound of a heart monitor constantly beeping in the background. This initial set up gives the language the quality of a television soap with the melodrama revolving around Ragnar the son of Solness's one time mentor, Knut Brovik (Andre Gregory) and Kaia (Emily Cass McDonell), Ragnar's fiancé. Solness is afraid that Ragnar (Jeff Beihl) will surpass him just as he had once outdone Brovik. So he seduces Kaia in order to prevent Ragnar from leaving. The screenplay coops the style of Shawn's brilliant meditation on civilization itself, The Designated Mourner with monologues masking as dialogue, but in this case to ill effect. After a while one craves what most contemporary theater directors eschew, an old-fashioned drama with characters literally walking in and out of rooms. There are some wonderful bits like Solness commenting about Kaia "What made me imagine I'd said things to her I'd only imagined." And there's the initial meeting between Hilde Wangel (Lisa Joyce) and Solness, which exudes the quality of a symposium in a psychoanalytic institute. Are we dealing with repressed memory syndrome or Freud's repudiation of the seduction theory? But the lovingly worked over scenes with their occasional flashes of insight don't cohere. They look like successions of outtakes from the long workshop that, in fact, took place. A Master Builder may be disconcerting for those who first met Shawn and Gregory in My Dinner with Andre. All the extemporization is there, but the chemistry is gone. They pull the rug out from underneath themselves by perseverating in the same approach. The urgent beeping of that heart monitor replacing Solness' emblematic fall with flatlining doesn't help matters either. This Solness is soulless.

{This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture}