Once more into the past, with a twist. Quantum Theatre’s Kara Boos take us to an adventurous setting via Henrik Ibsen, that master of modernity. The Master Builder, set on the ninth floor of of Two Allegheny Center at Nova Place on the Northside will have you spinning–your head in a good way with its 360-degree view of the city and your mind, psychologically.
Another magnificent move for Quantum is spot on for Ibsen’s drama of a manipulative “master builder” who climbs over others to secure his reputation and commissions. As mid-century real-life counterpart Frank Lloyd Wright once told an associate, great men are not always good people. This story set in the 20th century has uncanny parallels with Wright’s ambition, arrogance, and tragedy as the master builder coolly tells people what they want to hear to get his way.
Title character Halvard Solness would indeed experience vertigo at Nova Place, making this setting even more appropriate. There are also timely metaphors here for Pittsburgh as “yinzers” are now meeting young newcomers and welcome back those returning as the city again reinvents itself.
Setting Ibsen’s 1892 drama in 1958, director Martin Giles defines the open space through three-quarters staging for this finely-acted production playing briskly over 100 minutes and three short acts. Simple embellishments and furnishings by scenic designer Tony Ferrieri handsomely support the era and story, depicting an architectural office, a residence, and garden. Set pieces are cleverly moved into the open spaces around the ninth floor where audience members can view them around three short acts. Patrons and players all exist in the world of the play; we can look closely at an architect’s tools and take in amazing city views.
In the master builder’s office, his young draftsman and aspiring architect Ragnar Brovik (Thomas Constantine Moore) is concerned for the health of his father, a former Solness colleague Knut (John Reilly), who is dying. Both Moore and Reilly deliver strong performances, with Ragnar’s growth apparent as his father declines
However, Solness (John Shepard) is reluctant to refer his protege due to two admitted fears that drive his actions: invasive youth and losing of his stature atop the architectural heap.
Characters perhaps recognizable from our own experiences are well-drawn by the strong ensemble and production team including insightful costumer Richard Parsakian in his vintage wisdom. Aline is broken for life, never changing from 1940s black, mourning garb that she’s been wearing for years. The younger characters are likewise dressed for their own realities and foreshadow the future. Thoughtful light and sound cues by Alex Stevens and Aaron Vockley work perfectly to support the action.
Halvard is played wonderfully by Shepard who solicits empathy appropriate for his tragic hero. The veteran actor projects care for Halvard’s wife while rejecting her and displays confidence in a sea of self-doubt. Shepard smooth maneuvers from Halvard’s clever untruths to fantastical ideas about his own powers.
Halvard harbors suppressed guilt about a few things, like imagining how he might use his wife’s property should the family house be destroyed. Unrelated to his daydreams, her family home burnt to the ground, so he subdivided the gardens to create houses “for strangers”. Following the fire, the death of their infant twin boys permanently scarred the couple, a loss indicated by three empty nurseries in their current and future houses.
As Aline, Catherine Moore finds subtle ways to show her inner pain and knowledge of Halvard’s indiscretions. Her Aline is dignified and steadfast, a kind of damaged ballister in the plot’s fine construction. As Giles also makes use of the large windows surrounding the stage and audience, Aline’s revealing garden monologue may be seen in profile and, more powerfully, through her reflection, suggesting this woman’s secrets, grief, and hopelessness.
Dr. Herdal (Philip Winters) often shows up in his classic ‘40s suit. Winters plays the family physician more as psychologist upon whom Aline depends. His early scene with Harvald echoes a therapy session as Giles has Shepard move a chair to face the audience rather than the doctor.
The two young women, likely based on Ibsen’s own lovers, include Kaja Fosli (Kelly Trumbull), Halvard’s initial obsession. Trumbull nicely balances Kaja’s infatuation with her married boss and her deception of her intended husband.
Then Hilda Wangel (Hayley Nielsen) shows up a decade after meeting Solness and essentially moves into a nursery in the house. Halvard shared affections with a very young Hilda when working on a church commission, work to which he once connected spiritually. A flame igniting the dramatic fuse, Nielsen takes over with a reckless joi de vivre throughout Hilda’s cryptic pursuit while Halvard discards Kata. Neilsen aptly keeps her Hilda on track for drama’s sake with a cool detachment that mirrors that of the somewhat sociopathic Halvard while she takes control like a soul-stealing demon.
Halvard’s church steeples may bring him closer to the God whose hand he says control life’s events. But the master builder ultimately dismisses his own weaknesses and takes charge of his own fate. Halvard’s unstoppable path to his dramatic summit recalls Icarus and his climb toward towards the sun.
Look to enjoy a singular theatrical experience through another stellar Quantum production adventure and a wonderful example of a finely built tragedy that Aristotle would love.
Quantum Theatre’s The Master Builder is produced in collaboration with the HACLab Pittsburgh: Imagining the Modern. The production runs with evening performances only (the better to see the city’s nighttime skyline) through Sun., May 1 at Nova Place (formerly Allegheny Center, Northside). Various pre- and post-show talks, ladies night, a tour or Nova Place, and more are offered on selected dates. Visit the Quantum website for tickets and details.
Special thanks to Quantum Theatre for complimentary press tickets.
Photo credits: John Altdorfer