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    2008-2009 reviews:
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    The Master Builder
    Photo by Carol Rosegg

    Night in the Museum

    The Irish Repertory's new production of "The Master Builder" is a superficial, museum-theater disappointment.


    The new production of Ibsen's "The Master Builder," unveiled last week at the Irish Repertory Theatre, is proof positive of the fact that any successful staging of a classic work requires more than period costumes and the stentorian elocution of its lead actor. Presenting Ibsen's masterpiece as some kind of embalmed artifact of 19th Century realism, corseted tightly in Frank McGuiness's awkward and affected translation, would have been more forgivable if the entire production, including its actors and director, didn't seem so perplexingly uninterested in the inner conflicts, motivations, relationships, and symbolism of the play itself. Even the natural ebb and pull of Ibsen's long and difficult scenes, which require a director (or, at least, willing and sensitive actors) able to delineate the beats, the switches, the paragraphs of dialogue that, step by step, trace the main character's psychological descent (or ascent, depending upon how you look at it).

    Written by: Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Frank McGuinness.
    Directed by: Ciaran O'Reilly.
    Sound design by: Zachary Williamson.
    Set design by: Eugene Lee.
    Costumes by: Linda Fisher.
    Lighting design by: Michael Gottlieb.
    Production stage manager: Pamela Brusosli.
    Wig and hair design: Robert-Charles Vallance.
    Assistant Director: Helena Gleissner.
    W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre
    132 West 22nd Street (between 6th & 7th Avenues)
    Oct. 10 - Nov. 30, 2008

    James Noughton, as the titular "Master Builder," exhibited an unnuanced self-regard from the outset, one that never managed to develop into anything deeper or more complex. Instead of the appropriate conflict, the audience (those of us still awake to witness it) was treated to a series of poses, pronouncements, and a limited stock of actorly gestures. Except for occasionally turning up the dials of his formidably ear-splitting baritone, never once did he come close to cracking the shell of this character's armor of ambition and vanity to convincingly suggest Halvard Solness's insecurity, need, or crisis of conscience. His performance was not only strangely guarded, but too cool for school. With Noughton's mature good-looks, perfectly blow-dried coif and heavily powdered tan, this was Master Builder as faded marquee star — a winking, debonair, "here's-lookin-at-you-kid" leading man, ever threatening to break into a Billy Flynn number. It's a mildly interesting, wholly incomplete and inappropriate take on one of Ibsen's most complex male characters.

    The Master Builder  
    Photo by Carol Rosegg  
    It should be noted that what Noughton has, which is almost entirely missing from a theater scene now dominated by film and TV stars, is a kind of thorough old-school training that allows him to easily employ his vocal instrument to project a range of dynamics into the far corners of theaters much larger than the Irish Rep. It's the sort of thing you only see from veterans like Brian Dennehy and John Lithgow. With that said, Noughton's natural gifts as a performer are never successfully made to fit this character, much less the intimacy of the space.

    However, it's the lack of a coherent perspective, of any directorial point-of-view, as well as an odd unwillingness to lift the characters off the page, that contributes to the enormous obstacles the production places before its actors. Director Cirian O'Reilly's apparent lack of interest in what the play is about is made abundantly clear by his unwillingness to make any clear choices beyond the obviously decision to ignore Ibsen's symbolism, and present "The Master Builder" as some sort of parlor room drama, encased in amber and painted in brown hues, with lines to be recited off of papyrus (what I wouldn't give to have seen Ingmar Bergman's stage versions of Ibsen!). Indeed, I wonder if the actors weren't thrown on stage with no guidance whatsoever, besides the occasional instruction to pose and look longingly into the middle distance. Watching Charlotte Parry's Hilde try vainly to infuse energy into the one-note conception of her character, with Noughton's stilted Solness tripping over his lines in an attempt to make the stiff translation sound fresh, was not only sleep-inducing but even painful.

    It's a shame that these talented actors could be so poorly served and miscast.

    OCTOBER 31, 2008

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