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Review: EWT pres. The Master Builder

By Oct 15, 2009 Stage & Dance

After a brief respite from the heavy stuff (their last was Neil Simon's "California Suite"), local theatre group East West Theatre is back, wrestling with heady, modernist concerns with their production of Henrik Ibsen's challenging play, "The Master Builder".

"The Master Builder" is Halvard Solness (Thomas Caron), an architect at the tail end of a successful career building houses. Despite enjoying ample professional success (thanks in part to malicious strategies, it is revealed), it comes at the cost of his marriage to his wife, Aline Solness (Amy Brummit), with whom a previous shared tragedy has kept them both alienated from, and bound to, one another. Halvard is also facing becoming rendered obsolete professionally with the rise in ability in his young assistant, Ragnar Brovik (Derek Kwan).

Circumstances are aggravated (or alleviated?) with the arrival of Hilda Wangnel (Elena Yao), a child from his past and now a young woman who reminds him of previous success and instills in him the notion that perhaps his greatest success still lies yet ahead.

"The Master Builder" is straight-up, crisis of man and masculinity stuff, with the dramatic tension unfolding from the central character wrestling with the imminent erasure of a hitherto successful life by the passage of time and the impermanence of all things. "The Master Builder" is a precursor to something like Miller's "Death of a Salesman" and Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross", although its use of heavy symbolism compels a more cerebral philosophical reading, with Halvard representing the artist/creator, his profession representing art, the creative act, paradigms of understanding, and man's attempt to divine "The Grand Design" and Hilda, a manifestation of youth, purity, and immortality, representing the great Muse, source of divine inspiration and ultimate destruction. "The Master Builder" is resolutely theatre of thought, rather than theatre of diversion, and thematic lucidity is a secondary concern to positing the great questions of life: Can man express the divine? Can art be immortal?

Or simply: What's it all about? What's the deal, God?

"The Master Builder" is a hard play to sit through and a harder play to perform. EastWest tackle the job admirably, and it's an interesting choice for the group, as they must be at something of a professional crossroads themselves. "The Master Builder" is the last play to be directed by Jonathan Geenan (he shares directing credits with Adrianna Koralweska), who had hitherto directed all of EastWest's previous productions since 2006. The cast is comprised of a few familiar faces and a few we'd not seen before. Caron, whom we'd previously admired as Vladimir in "Waiting for Godot" was great in the title role of Halvard Solness, and he imbues a certain pomposity and vanity in the character only a man well-versed in the Shakespearean arts can. Another highlight was Derek Kwan's strong performance as Ragnar Brovik, and we look forward to his continued involvement with the group. Although a bit flat in some bits, on the whole EWT's "The Master Builder" is stimulating and provocative. Go see it -- a modernist classic from a very talented group of people. A rare thing in Shanghai.


EastWest Theatre pres. Henrik Ibsen's "The Master Builder". The performance run is October 14-18 at the Ke Center. Tickets are 150rmb pre-sale, 200rmb at the door. Reservations to 135 6410 2955 or email Here's the event listing.


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