Dancing About Architecture

Everything an artist produces is, to varying degrees, a manifestation of his or her own experience. In the case of playwright Henrik Ibsen, scholars have long speculated that The Master Builder was the great Norwegian's attempt to channel a few of his personal demons through a series of fascinating characters. After all, Ibsen regarded his own trade to be akin to that of Halvard Solness, the architect of the play's title, and Ibsen's three major creative periods strangely parallel Solness's three building phases. Furthermore, both Solness and Ibsen maintained unhealthy dalliances with young girls (at least one of whom was rumored to have mothered Ibsen's illegitimate child) and shared the same fear of heights.

Like all of Ibsen's great plays, though, the enduring relevance of The Master Builder lies in its timeless human theme, its penetrating psychological examination of character and its sheer stage power. The arresting drama, translated by Michael Meyer, is being presented by Germinal Stage Denver under the adroit direction of Stephen R. Kramer. Although the production could benefit from a greater attention to technical detail, the one-and-three-quarter-hour show boasts several strong portrayals that illuminate Ibsen's story about an aging artist's love-hate relationship with youth.

The three-act drama, performed here with just one intermission between Acts One and Two, begins with a spirited discussion between Solness (Ed Baierlein), his secretary, Kaja Fosli (Jenny MacDonald), his draftsman and Kaja's betrothed, Ragnar Brovik (James Miller), and Ragnar's father, Knut Brovik (James Mills), a former architect who's presently an assistant to Solness. Within a few minutes, the performers establish that Knut represents the over-the-hill artisan whose deteriorating physical condition limits his ability to fulfill his inner desires; Ragnar is a symbol of youth yearning to breeze through traditional rites of passage; Kaja is the long-suffering handmaiden who nurtures Solness's daily work habits if not his creative muse; and Solness is the accomplished artist inextricably bound to a calling that he no longer loves but refuses to abandon. A brief appearance by Solness's wife, Aline (Carol Elliott)--an understandably mournful woman who's been clad in black since the day their twin sons died a few years ago--indicates that Solness is trapped in a loveless marriage as well.

In a twist on Ibsen's A Doll House, which concluded with a liberated housewife's famous "door slam heard around the world," Solness jokes with his friend and family physician, Doctor Herdal (John Seifert), that both men are getting on in years and will soon hear youth knocking at the door. "What if they do?" asks Herdal. "Then it's the end of the master builder," replies Solness. A second later we hear a portentous knocking. When a vibrant young woman named Hilda Wangel (Jennefer Morris) confidently strides through the door, the drama takes on a completely different tone. At once disarmed and transfixed by the 23-year-old she-devil, Solness seems powerless under her spell. Despite his initial and emphatic denials to the contrary, the old man eventually and inexplicably admits to covering Hilda with kisses when she was a mere girl of thirteen and promising the teenager that he would build her a magical kingdom exactly ten years later.

For the remainder of the gripping production, it's nearly impossible to take your eyes off Morris. Much of the time the talented actress fixes her piercing gaze on Solness as if Hilda is attempting to hypnotize him. Occasionally Morris stations herself on the topmost platform while Baierlein, facing away from the audience and standing on the lowest part of the stage, looks up at Hilda and regards her with an almost worshipful awe. In fact, at one point, seemingly bowled over by Hilda's beguiling stare and confounding revelations--Solness pointedly refers to the troll within Hilda that accounts for her supernatural powers--the befuddled engineer collapses onto the edge of a platform, places his hand over his heart and murmurs, "This is most strange." And when Morris describes a dream in which she fell over a cliff, her description is so vivid that you can feel your toes curling in your shoes as you listen to her. It's a compelling portrayal that's animated, true to life and, best of all, blessedly free of theoretical mumbo-jumbo.

Morris is nicely complemented by Baierlein, who delivers a solid portrait of the addled Solness. Stamping about the stage as if in constant, slow-motion pursuit of his mental marbles, the veteran performer summons renewed vigor when he's spurred on by Hilda to perform the traditional ceremony of placing a wreath on the spire of his newly constructed home. Although Baierlein's blunt matter-of-factness sometimes belies Solness's underlying creative passion, he clearly conveys his character's deep-seated need to connect with a woman who will inspire him. Given Elliott's quietly bristling portrayal of Aline, it's not hard to understand the emotional distance that separates the couple. MacDonald, Mills, Seifert and Miller each turn in straightforward portrayals and together form a satisfactory ensemble.

A few bizarre lighting cues near the end of Act One prove more confusing than evocative, and the spare scenery (which consists of several blotchy, bare platforms and a black backdrop painted with an amorphous, meaningless vista), while vaguely expressionistic, isn't of the caliber that local audiences have come to expect from GSD's typically tasteful and inventive designers (no one is credited with the design). One theatergoer said she thought the backdrop looked like a shoreline with a lighthouse oddly stuck in the valley between two hills; another spectator remarked that the scene was perhaps a subtle reference to a well-known Munch painting. Minor worries aside, however, the well-acted production faithfully reconstructs the most personal of Ibsen's castles in the air.

The Master Builder, through March 7 at Germinal Stage Denver, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108.

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Jim Lillie