Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Master Builder and The Glass House - A Review

Posted by David

Resonance Ensemble, a relatively young company, is dedicated each season to producing related theatrical presentations that share themes and ideas that remain relevant to current audiences.  For its 2010 season, the company has paired Henrik Ibsen's classic The Master Builder with the new work The Glass House by June Finfer.  Both works have at their center a prominent architect facing both professional and personal challenges while also examining the conflicting role of architect as both artist and artisan.

Let me state up front that I enjoyed both productions.  The casts are strong and the direction and design for each is unique yet complimentary.
Sarah Stockton as Hilda Wangel and Chris Ceraso as Halvard Solness.  Photo by Jon Kandel

Harris Yulin as Mies van der Rohe and Janet Zarish as Edith Farnsworth.  Photo by Jon Kandel

 As I saw it first, I will start with The Glass House.  This new work is based on actual events surrounding the design and construction in the late 1940s of Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House, a ground-breaking piece of architecture celebrated for having walls only made of glass.  The main players in the drama are van der Rohe, his peer and occasional nemesis Philip Johnson, the client Edith Farnsworth, and van der Rohe's sometime paramour Lora Marx.

The play features the esteemed actor Harris Yulin (Hedda Gabler, The Price, The Diary of Anne Frank among other Broadway credits) as van der Rohe and Yulin provides a magnetic performance from the get-go.  His charismatic and charmingly human portrayal of the celebrated architect is wonderfully nuanced.  We see both the artistic commitment as well as the petty stubbornness of this iconic figure.  He is in supreme command when describing his approach to his work or in supervising its construction, and he is at times selfish, dissembling and petulant in his interactions with his peers and lovers.  The peers and lovers are equally well-played by David Bishins as an oily and self-serving Philip Johnson, Gina Nagy Burns as the determined and compassionate Lora Marx, and Janet Zarish as the steely, brittle Edith Farnsworth.  The cast is fleshed out with three supernumeraries who serve as various waiters, office and construction workers as well as the de facto set crew.  Kudos to Joie Bauer, James Patterson and Chris Skeries who efficiently populate the scene transitions without pulling focus from the principle action.

The play itself is extremely well written.  Finfer has an excellent ear for natural dialogue and the characters she has crafted are fully-fleshed and three-dimensional. Evan Bergman's direction is strong and assured, the progression of the story is well-modulated and makes excellent use of the small space at the Clurman Theatre, housed in the Theatre Row complex on 42nd Street.  Bergman is well supported by his design team, which I will address later in the review.

Ibsen's classic, The Master Builder, is a more crowded piece than its more modern partner and so takes a bit longer to settle into its rhythm.  Regardless, Eric Parness, artistic director for Resonance, provides an intelligent and smooth direction to his very capable cast.  Chris Ceraso, portraying the title character Halvard Solness, may not have the extensive credits of Harris Yulin but he just as effectively provides a strong center for the play.  He is matched, quite brilliantly, by Sarah Stockton as Hilda Wangel, the young visitor that sets the conflict of the play in motion.  The scenes between the two are mesmerizing at times.  In smaller yet well-played roles are Susan Ferrara as the fragile martyr of a wife, Aline, and Brian D. Coats as the marvelously unctuous Doctor Herdal.  Rounding out the cast are Peter Judd, Pun Bandhu and Jennifer Gawlik.

Both productions mostly share the same design team.  Jo Winiarksi's scenic design works wonders with a few set pieces and a raised platform - particularly in The Glass House - and is perfectly paired with and given clarity through Pamela Kupper's smart lighting design.  The same can be said for Nick Moore's sound design.  The costumes for The Glass House, designed by Valerie Marcus Ramshur, are both simple and effective while those for The Master Builder, by Sidney Shannon, are by necessity more elaborate and well-suited to the period of the play.  The Glass House also features projections well designed by Daniel Heffernan, although I felt their use sometimes teetered between supportive and distracting.

I will say that in seeing The Glass House first, followed by The Master Builder, I wonder if the plays would have been served better if viewed in reverse order, from old to new instead.  Rather than seeing how the classic mirrored the modern piece, it might have been more instructive to have the older piece as a frame of reference for the newer work.  But that is a quibble regarding two overall enjoyable productions.

The Master Builder and The Glass House are performing in repertory at The Clurman Theatre located at Theatre Row (410 West 42 Street) where Resonance Ensemble is a Theatre-in-Residence.  Performances will run through June 5th.  Tickets can be purchased through Ticket Central at (212) 279.4200 or at

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