LANESBORO — The first clue that “The Master Builder” will be a different kind of Henrik Ibsen play at the Commonweal Theatre comes before the opening scene when actors wander onto the stage and open up their laptop computers.
“The Master Builder” was written in 1892, long before computers were invented. It is the occasional wont, however, of theaters and directors to move classic plays into the modern era, perhaps as a way to emphasize the continued relevance of the work.
On the one hand, it’s a distraction for those who like their Ibsen in its original time period. On the other hand, the Commonweal’s ‘Builder’ contains few modern references beyond than the computers and costumes, so maybe it really doesn’t matter.
What it does reveal, however, is that after all these years of presenting Ibsen, the Commonweal is still striving to find new and fresh ways to stage his plays. This particular adaption is by Jeffrey Hatcher, and is directed by Lee Gundersheimer, from the Great River Shakespeare Festival. The Commonweal previously staged “The Master Builder” in 2003.
It is a lively production, as Ibsen goes, and that is due in large part to Ana Hagedorn, as Hilde. Hagedorn’s Hilde is part temptress, part put-down artist, and she’s as modern in her manners of speech as the computers of the first scene.
By contrast, everyone else in this play seems so dour, including Halvard Solness, the master builder of the title. “There’s never any light in this house, never any sun,” says Solness, played by Scott Dixon. No kidding. Maybe that’s because Solness is himself a tortured soul. Full of guilt about what he has achieved, full of fear about what others might achieve, Dixon’s Solness really only glimpses the sunny possibilities of life when being teased and challenged by Hilde.
The rest of the cast has Ellen Apel as Halvard’s long-suffering wife, Aline; Hal Cropp as Knut Brovik; Brandt Roberts as Ragnar Brovik; Claire Richards as Kaia Fosli; and David Hennessey as Dr. Herdal.
As stated earlier, the modern touches don’t seem to add or subtract from Ibsen’s original, although the choreographed, robotic set changes are perhaps a case of trying too hard to do too much.
In any event, Ibsen is most often easier to admire than to enjoy, and while the Commonweal’s “The Master Builder” can occasionally be cold and off-putting, it can also be entertaining. And how often can you say that about Ibsen?