It's quite a feat to pull off gloomy Henrik Ibsen in hipster Brooklyn, but that's precisely what takes place at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's (BAM) production of Ibsen's, The Master Builder, starring one of the borough's favorite sons, the always-versatile John Turturro.
Ibsen obviously isn't for everyone. At times his plays, such as A Doll's House, Hedda Gabler, and Ghosts, can sound as ponderous and preachy as Chekhov on crack. With all that brooding psychological complexity, weighty philosophical themes, and naturalistic language that sounds anything but natural, Ibsen has a way of turning a night at the theater into a graduate school seminar on Kierkegaard.
It helps, of course, if the play is produced from a fresh, earthier translation, which this one is from the British playwright, David Edgar. Smoothly directed by Andrei Belgrader, the play also benefits from having stripped away the usual furnishings of 19th century Norway, which can instantly cast a chill on the audience at opening curtain. For this production at the Harvey Theater, however, the staging more resembles a post-industrial jungle gym than a stately house near Norwegian woods.
Of course, the combined talents of this nimble cast could have enlivened even a more wooden production. The play centers on Halvard Solness (Turturro), the titular master builder who seems to be undergoing a combination of mid-life, career and existential crisis--all at the same time. He fears that his advancing age makes him vulnerable to a younger protégée. His loveless marriage is overshadowed by the death of his twin sons from a house fire that caused him to rededicate his career to building homes for far happier couples than he and his wife will ever be. And if that wasn't enough, he now seems to be at war with god, too.
Enter the new girl, Hilda Wangel, featuring the luminous Wrenn Schmidt, whose youth ignites in Halvard the possibility of a second chance. Quite aware of the renewed fire she brings to the master builder, Hilda proceeds to mess with his head with all Lolita-like, jailbait beauty. Katherine Borowitz, Turturro's actual wife, plays Aline Solness, the master builder's wife, with a bemused intelligence not usually found in the role.
Given its theme of the demons that torment the minds of all creators, and how tall buildings--especially those with audacious spires--show man at his most triumphant, and yet also expose how small he seems in contrast, BAM was the perfect setting for this production of The Master Builder. In the shadow of Manhattan's skyscrapers, and with the spire only recently lifted onto the Freedom Tower, Brooklyn is a safe distance from which to contemplate just how high man can reach before falling.
The evening, alas, belongs to Turturro, as it should, and this BAM showcase is yet another reminder that his work on the Transformer films and his hilariously endearing portrayal of a terrorist in You Don't Mess with the Zohan are more like day jobs than where his heart lies. His best film work is of more rarefied fare, which can be found in The Truce, The Luzhin Defence, and some of the Spike Lee and Coen brothers films in which he appears. Yet, for several more performances at BAM, there is still time to see him at his most majestic in The Master Builder.