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Ibsen is one of drama's towering master builders. Yet many who admit this dismiss him as excellent for his time, but valuable now only as an admitted period-piece; they cite Doll's House and Ghosts. But they forget that Ibsen in his younger days wrote a sprawling, grandiose work that is timeless: Peer Gynt. And that Ibsen in his maturity wrote a far tighter master-piece whose power is equally timeless: The Master Builder. The HDC choice of a play could not have been better.
The present production, and this is a stronger achievement, does not let the play down. Yet among excellent aspects there are several unconquered difficulties, so that as a whole, the evening is good rather than perfect.
The main difficulty is probably that the master builder is fifty years old, and Robert Jordan, who plays him with undeniable skill and versatile force, happens to have an extremely youthful face. This means, for example, that he can never smile fully; he frowns and glares and looks gloomy even more constantly than his part requires. His posture, his vigorous strides, and even some of his highly dramatic gestures also remind us too often that this master builder is a member of the very younger generation against which Ibsen's master builder carries on the fight that is the heart of the play. Yet Jordan has excellence; when he underplays, he is usually most persuasive, and in the voicing of passionate or solemn crucial passages, e.g. the line "Homes for human beings," he is outstanding. Even if Jordan is not a complete master builder, he is often brilliant, and nearly always forceful.
Moira Wylie, as Hilda, the young, bright worshipper of the master builder, who nonetheless represents the generation that he fights, is, in brief glimpses, ebullient and vital. Too often, however, she stands firmly, awkwardly, unnaturally, for little reason. This may be the director's fault.
Elizabeth Stearns, as the master's wife, is excellently aged and numb, but probably a bit overdone, a bit zombiesque. James Spiegler, as Doctor Herdal, can be correct, but usually overuses his face muscles. Mark Mirsky, as an architect displaced by the master, nearly gets away with a very mannerized portrait of a dying man. Daniel Selznick, although occasionally over-petulant and childish, is generally most persuasive, and honest and successful. Jill Welden is right as a bookkeeper.
The director, Barry Bartle, blocks well, and a few touches, such as Hilda sitting on a table in Act II, show exact thought and stagemanship. Whether he doesn't also overdirect details--Selznick's Act II entrance, or Hilda's sudden bursts of life--one cannot be sure.
John Beck's sets are extraordinarily fine. Light, simple shapes of window and door frames, as well as modern furniture, fit the spirit of an architect's house exactly.
The HDC's Master Builder is most worth while.
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