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‘A Master Builder’: Modern artists put their imprint on Ibsen

DePaul Theatre School grad LisJoyce plays woman paying an unexpected visit man from her past (Wallace Shawn) “A Master Builder.”

DePaul Theatre School grad Lisa Joyce plays a woman paying an unexpected visit to a man from her past (Wallace Shawn) in “A Master Builder.” | ABRAMORAMA

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‘A Master Builder’ ★★★1⁄2

Halvard Solness Wallace Shawn

Hilde Wangel Lisa Joyce

Knut Brovik Andre Gregory

Abramorama presents a film directed by Jonathan Demme and written by Wallace Shawn, based on “The Master Builder” by Henrik Ibsen. Running time: 127 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Updated: September 9, 2014 6:03AM

Consider this detail. Henrik Ibsen’s 1892 play is titled “The Master Builder.” Look carefully at the compelling new film version based on the work — which features a screenplay (and title performance) by Wallace Shawn, and direction by Jonathan Demme — and you will notice it has been renamed “A Master Builder.”

As it turns out, this is very much a contemporary reimagining of the Norwegian playwright’s strangely insidious and compelling drama about love, death and “legacy” as filtered through the sensibilities of several highly individualistic artists. The movie bears the clear imprint of Shawn’s notably blunt yet often cryptic writing style (with a performance to match). And Demme’s direction (underscored by Declan Quinn’s photography) is a series of the tightest close-ups. The movie, which often feels like a master class in scene study, is, in fact, based on years of rehearsal and private performances of the play done by Shawn and his frequent collaborator, Andre Gregory, who also appears in the film.

At the center of the story is Halvard Solness (Shawn), a wildly narcissistic architect in middle age who might or might not be on his deathbed when he is confronted with the unexpected visit of Hilde Wangel (Lisa Joyce), a ravishing young woman he met a decade earlier, when she was just 14.

Is Hilde an “angel of death” who has arrived to fuel the guilt-ridden man with hallucinatory intensity? Or is she altogether real, and does her sudden appearance simply exacerbate Solness’ already anxiety-filled midlife crisis, as he tries to remain on top of his profession, deal with his bitter, neglected, self-flagellating wife, Aline (Julie Hagerty), elicit truth from his insightful physician (Larry Pine), and keep a hold on his secretary/mistress, Kaya Fosli (Emily Cass McDonnell)? Fosli (duplicitous in her own way) is the girlfriend of Solness’ talented chief draftsman, Ragnar Brovkik (Jeff Biehl), whose father, aging architect Knut Brovik (Gregory), wants desperately to have Solness make his son heir to the firm.

The cast is uniformly superb. But it is the palpable erotic tension between Solness and the mysterious, bewitchingly nubile Hilde (who he may have sexually abused or at least titillated a decade earlier) that drives the film.

Shawn veers away from his usual nebbishy persona here and skillfully suggests a master manipulator and shrewdly controlling womanizer driven by insecurities and guilt. He has more than met his match in Joyce, the Chicago-bred actress and DePaul Theatre School grad who made a powerful imprint in the 2005 Steppenwolf production of Adam Rapp’s “Red Light Winter.” Her lush beauty comes paired with an uncanny ability to turn from youthfully luminous muse who can drive Solness on to one great emblematic effort, to two-faced, perhaps even deranged vixen, hellbent on destroying him. Either way, the camera adores her, and she transforms Shawn.

Those familiar with Shawn’s biography might sense why Ibsen’s play has exerted such a powerful hold on him. His own father, William Shawn, the legendary editor of the New Yorker, is known to have carried on a 40-year affair with a staff writer at the magazine all thoughout his decades-long marriage to Wallace’s mother. Playing Solness might just be the ultimate revenge, or self-administered therapy.

Lisa Joyce will discuss the film at screenings at 4:45 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.


Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic

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