A new production of a difficult Ibsen classic helps with the play's slippery heroine

What's up with Hilde Wangel? No matter how hard I try, I just can't get my head around Henrik Ibsen's most elusive female character. I mean, Nora from A Doll's House and Rosmersholm's Rebecca West have their peculiarities, but at least there's a modicum of logic to their actions. But "logic" is as dirty a word as "duty" to "forest bird" Hilde. (Strange bird is more like it.) From the moment she pitches up in the middle of the first act of The Master Builder -- the Norwegian bard's 1892 drama about a middle-aged architect's ill-fated attempt to stem the onrush of time -- babbling on excitedly about a palace in the sky or a kingdom in the air or some such to a man whom she met only once for about 10 minutes when she was 12, one cannot help but wonder if the mental hospital in her hometown of Lysangen wasn't short-staffed that day.

Even allowing for the distance in time and place between Ibsen's world and our own, representing Hilde onstage is challenging. Her very appearance suggests a force beyond our ken: She knocks on Master Builder Halvard Solness' door just as the protagonist, a highly successful yet embittered architect, is kvetching to the local doctor about how the younger generation is "knocking at the door" to destroy him. Hilde strides in unannounced, makes herself at home, and promptly demands that Solness build her a kingdom. She's convinced -- much to his befuddlement -- that he promised her one 10 years previously, when he was in Lysangen celebrating the opening of the church he'd built in the town. She says she's spent the last decade waiting patiently for the architect to return and carry her off to her new palatial home. For reasons I'll never quite understand, Hilde manages to persuade Solness to admit that he owes her the aforementioned kingdom, to reveal some dark truths about his past and his greatest fears, and finally to climb to the top of a high tower -- quite a feat for the deeply acrophobic man. And all this accomplished within the space of just 24 hours by a virtual stranger to the Solness household.

It's not her gutsiness or traditionally unladylike behavior that makes Hilde hard to pull off (although I imagine Victorian audiences must have been shocked at the notion of a young woman roaming about in the wilderness unchaperoned, soliciting kingdoms from married men). Neither is the flirtation between a pretty young thing and a cantankerous old duffer anything new. It's that the depth of Hilde's interest in Solness has little basis in reality -- even a reality as surreal and dreamlike as Ibsen's in this play. Ever since The Master Builder was first performed in Berlin in 1893, critics have dealt with the Hilde Problem simply by tossing reality into the nearest fiord. "The poet does not demand our absolute credence, as though he were giving evidence in the witness-box," the Scottish critic William Archer wrote in the introduction to his 1893 translation of the play. "What he requires is our imaginative acceptance of certain incidents which he purposely leaves hovering on the border between the natural and the preternatural, the explained and the unexplained." Psychological and expressionistic readings of the character abound. For some, Hilde is a siren; for others she's a troll. But a masterful new production of the play by the Aurora Theatre Company leads me to believe that Hilde may be something else entirely: a projection of an old man's most lurid fantasies.

What About My Needs: Hilda (Lauren Grace) and Solness (James Carpenter).
David Allen
What About My Needs: Hilda (Lauren Grace) and Solness (James Carpenter).


Through March 5

Tickets are $38

(510) 843-4822

Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley

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Lauren Grace is no Lolita (she looks at least 22), yet she portrays Hilde (or Hilda, in Paul Walsh's elegant translation) as if viewed through the eyes of a Humbert Humbert. When she first bounces onstage in a jaunty little Scandinavian mountain outfit, sparkling like a lucky penny, she resembles a pensioner's wet dream. (Revealingly, while Archer's translation says Hilde is "somewhat sunburnt," in Walsh's, she's much more attractively described as being "lightly tanned.") In many instances, Hilda reverentially refers to the architect by his professional title of Master Builder, rather than simply calling him Mr. Solness, as is the case through most of Archer's text. Every sentence she speaks appears to end in an exclamation point: Everything's "thrilling" and "wonderfully exciting." There seems no limit to her enthusiasm. In short, Grace's Hilda is at least as wholesome as Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. I half expected her to break into song.

The dynamic between James Carpenter's Solness and Grace's Hilda frequently slides into that of a father and daughter, echoing the circumstances of the pair's only other meeting, when Hilda was a child. When she asks the architect about hiring another office clerk, he speaks down to her as if he's talking to a little girl. "Perhaps you'd like to stay here -- and write in the big ledger?" he suggests. The word "big" is missing from Ibsen's original, giving a patronizing and slightly lascivious edge to Walsh's text. Grace plays up Hilda's moments of jealousy with a childish pout. She makes her displeasure known when she finds out about the nature of Solness' relationship with his current clerk (Zehra Berkman), and impetuously articulates thoughts about Solness' deadly-dutiful wife (Anne Darragh) and his upstart employee (Brian Herndon) -- thoughts that Solness ardently believes but would never dare utter. There's also a playful element to the relationship between Hilda and Solness in this production. Talk about princesses and towers and kingdoms is couched in tender and wicked amusement, which further underlines the sinister father-daughter vibe.

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