by Mike “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant
Quantum Theater caps off their 2015-2016 season with Henrik Ibsen’s poignant allegory about success and creativity with “The Master Builder.”
An acrophobic architect, Halvard Solness (John Shepard) terrorizes his staff, the father and son duo, Knut (John Reilly) and Ragnar (Thomas Constantine Moore) Brovik, flirts with Ragnar’s fiancé, Kaja Fosli (Kelly Trumbull) and taunts his cold but dutiful wife, Aline Solness (Catherine Moore). Everything is upturned when the young, vivacious Hilda Wangel (Hayley Nielsen) wanders into town.
When Hilda enters the scene, suddenly everything changes. She is the inciting incident, a catalyst of crazy. The girl remembers a moment that may or may not have happened a decade ago, and clings to it with ferocity. Ten years ago, the Master Builder came to her tiny hamlet and constructed a church with a towering steeple. Once the church was complete he scaled the ladder and placed a wreath at the top of the church. Then, at a celebratory dinner he may or may not have kissed the then fourteen-year-old Hilda and promised to build her a castle in the sky. Hilda took his fanciful speech in the heat of the passionate embrace for a fact and sought the attention of the married man. She comes to his home seeking fulfilment on his pledge.
Ibsen’s play posits “do we pay a price for success?” Answer: Yes. And the cost is high (that’s also a pun). Ibsen’s play is steeped in symbolism. There is a philosophical/spiritual belief made popular in Rhonda Byrne’s book, “The Secret” about the Law of Attraction, or, more commonly known as the power of prayer. Ibsen loops around it. You’re never sure if he is espousing it or scoffing it. There’s also a whole ‘circle of life’ thing going on, wherein the architect built his empire on the back of his predecessor and now fears his apprentice, the aforementioned Brovik clan. He is afraid of being usurped by the younger man, even though he usurped the man’s father years ago.
The acting in the play is exquisite. Shepard chews through the minimalistic, modern scenery. He seethes with rage like a warrior-despot over a kingdom of blueprints. Nielsen matches him in intensity. Her character is quick-tempered, tempestuous and singularly determined. Hilda is a strange child-woman believing in the kindness of an almost stranger. It’s a triumphant performance for Nielsen, especially considering she is playing opposite to Shepard’s powerful, enigmatic architect.
Catherine Moore’s Aline moves with a clipped precision. Her anguish is buried deep in her sense of duty to her husband. Though she seems cold and unfeeling on the surface, the pain and anger reside closer than you think. It’s conveyed brilliantly by Moore.
Philip Winters plays the congenial Dr. Herdal. The character is brought on mostly for exposition (he is Solness’s sounding board), but Winters plays the jovial doctor with panache.
While Ragnar, Kaja and Knut are peripheral characters, Thomas Constantine Moore, Kelly Trumbull and John Reilly hand in terrific performances, but the evening belongs to Shepard, Nielsen and Catherine Moore. And it’s excellently directed by Martin Giles. Giles is the master builder here carefully composing the pacing of each intricate scene. One word of caution. The play has three acts with two intermissions.
Like all Quantum shows, location is also a character. The play is performed on the ninth floor of Nova Place, the former Allegheny Center. The story plays out in front of a panoramic view of downtown Pittsburgh with a post-modern furnishings provided by Pittsburgh’s own Master Builder, scenic designer Tony Ferrieri accented by turn-of-the-century clothes from costume designer Richard Parsakian.
Quantum’s theme of the year was about relationship and cooperation. They opened on a high note (literally and figuratively) with the lush, spectacle of “A Winter’s Tale.” It was a delightfully whimsical collaboration with Chatham Baroque and Attack Theatre. They are finishing the season strong with a collaboration with the Heinz Architectural Center of the Carnegie Museum of Art. “The Master Builder” is a masterfully constructed play.
The Master Builder runs April 8 to May 1 at Nova Place (formerly Allegheny Center) 100 S. Commons, Pittsburgh, PA 15212. For more information, click here.