I love a show that takes a new twist on a classic production and Theatre Novi Most’s The Master Builder does just that. Grabbing Henrik Ibsen’s play by the throat and delving down to its core, this adaptation creates a dark, fantastical world where trolls are real and a powerful, seductive tension perpetually simmers beneath the surface.
The Troll (Alex Barreto Hathaway) introduces us to this world, describing Norwegian winters and life there. Physically pulling a statuesque Halvard Solness (Pearce Bunting) onstage, a master builder whose tale the Troll eagerly wants to tell, the Troll shifts into different people in Halvard’s life – his coworker Ragnar whom he is trying to prevent from leaving and getting his own architectural work; Kaia, Ragnar’s fiance, whom Halvard is having a sort of sexual relationship with; and Doctor Herdal. Herdal, brought in by Halvard’s wife Aline (Barbra Berlovitz), is there to help Aline who continues to suffer after the loss of her twin children and the destruction of their former home, and to ascertain whether Halvard might be going mad. Through all of this, the Troll shifts between this figures, seeing to pay homage to the shapeshifting trolls/frost giants of Norse Mythology. As Halvard grapples with what he calls the troll inside him – physically represented by the Troll and expressed through his own id and desire – he tries to construct a life and mold the people around him into what he desires. And then, with a knock on the door and an explosion of party music, disco lights, and confetti, Hilda Wangel (Shelby Richardson) appears in Halvard’s life. A young woman he hardly remembers, Halvard one made a twisted promise that he would build her a kingdom. And now Hilda has come to reclaim what she has been promised.
This production is stunning and jaw-dropping. Bunting’s builder is Shakespearean at moments, on par with a self-destructive Hamlet, but also feels new and unique, unlike anyone we have met before. We want him to build something astounding, but we also aren’t sure we want to be left alone in a room with him. Hathaway’s Troll steals the show with his clear shifts between character, humor, and breaking through the fourth wall to engage with the audience. Berlovitz is beautiful, serene, and sad, contrasted with Richardson’s beautiful, chaotic energy. Both seek to change Halvard for the better and become at odds with each other in their desires.
With a simple, Scandinavian-inspired set that becomes a playground for building and destroying dreams, a rich sound design that shifts between low background murmurs to loud music, and costuming that capture each character’s mentality while playing with recognizable styles in Scandinavian stories (lederhosen, hipster backpacker, wealthy socialite, fur-wearing mountain man), a rich, metaphoric space is created where rocks become more than just mere props and a shift in light and sound brings powerful changes. Novi Most specializes in incorporating physicality into their work and it is used in this piece to its full impact – from the Troll’s shifting between characters, to character entrances, to personal interactions and body language, to nudity. Actions can say things that words cannot or give them a different meaning, and this adaptation uses that create bold, powerful, and discomforting drama.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a production quite like this and I’m grateful I had the opportunity to see such an incredible adaptation. Each moment carries with it a certain complexity and I’ve found myself puzzling over it long after the show ended. I cannot recommend this show enough and hope you all get the chance to enter this strange, frightening, magical, and beautiful world.
The Master Builder is adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s play and is directed by Vladimir Rovinksy. It is playing now through April 22nd at the Southern. Ticket and show information can be found on Theatre Novi Most’s website as well as the Southern’s website.