Sunday, July 20, 2014

The master MASTER BUILDER: Wallace Shawn, André Gregory & Jonathan Demme grace Ibsen

Who'd have imagined this? One of Henrik Ibsen's last plays, The Master Builder -- one that is not that often produced because it's so dense and difficult -- has now been brought to the screen in a modern dress version (translation and setting) that is the best by a very long shot that I have ever seen. Granted, I've only seen it on stage twice (and read it back when I was far too young to appreciate it). Yet this new version surpasses anything I've seen in bringing to light the play's meaning(s), characters and dialog. It is, first frame to last, a riveting experience.

Most of the credit must be laid at the feet of Wallace Shawn, who translated the play -- and so well! -- in this new version, which was first done as legitimate theater under the direction of André Gregory. Shawn then adapted that transla-tion into this screenplay, directed by Jonathan Demme (shown at right). Triple-threat Shawn, shown below, also acts the leading role of the master architect Halvard Solness as though he were born to play it. Perhaps he was. I doubt I shall ever associate another actor so thoroughly with this role.

If you've seen Shawn on stage and/or film, you of course know that he is very short of stature, so playing a "great architect" and a man entire towns look up to would seem a bit of a reach. Not at all. So fiercely intelligent is Shawn, so thoroughly has he immersed himself in the play and the role that he simply owns it. We hang on his every word, and he pays us back with the richest, most encompassing characterization imaginable.

What a horror is Solness! The lives he has destroyed! And yet, Shawn also allows to perceive the greatness that was there, and why this still matters. Though Solness and Shawn rule, the rest of the cast is equally strong, with a special shout-out to an actress I must have seen previously, though here she proves indelible: Lisa Joyce. Ms Joyce plays Hilde Wangel, the young woman (or maybe she's simply an apparition) who comes to visit Solness, telling him of the enormous impression he made on her as a young girl when he visited her town a decade previous. If you want to see a master class in acting, watch Ms Joyce and Shawn in their scenes together. These are sheer, unadulterated, moment-to-moment brilliance.

Mr. Gregory, above, right,  plays Knut Brovik, one of those men whom Solness has effectively destroyed. He's now working on the destruction of Brovik's son, Ragnar -- a fine Jeff Biehl, above, left -- a talented architect who works under Solness' thumb. Gregory's one scene, in which he begs Solness to honor his son's work, is one of the most moving I've encountered in a long while.

Finally, there is Julie Hagerty  in the role of Aline Solness, Halvard's beaten-down wife. Ms Hagerty may be best known for her dizzy comic timing in movies such as Airplane! and A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, but her dramatic chops are fully in evidence here. She makes Aline somehow a figure of improbable yet enormous neurasthenic strength.

The always excellent Larry Pine (above, right, as the local doctor) and Emily Cass McDonnell (as Solness' bookkeeper/mistress -- another life waiting to be destroyed) complete this remarkable cast.

A year or two back, when Cindy Kleine's André Gregory: Before and After Dinner opened theatrically, we saw in that documentary scenes of the Master Builder play being rehearsed or maybe even performed. Those scenes looked very good, as I recall. But little could have prepared us for just how good this production really is.

A MASTER BUILDER (can't think why Shawn changed the title from the original The to an A, but I guess he's entitled) opens this Wednesday, July 23, for a two-week run in New York City exclusively at Film Forum. Distributed by Abramorama and running two hours and seven minutes, it will undoubtedly play theaters elsewhere, too. But since Abramorama still does not have a working website (come on, get with the program!), we'll never know....

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