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The Master Builder

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The Master Builder, Keyhole Players, at Josephinum. Adapter-director Frank Merle sets this production of Henrik Ibsen's 1892 play in 1920s Chicago, Americanizing characters' names and otherwise nipping at the original. Though the abridgment seems unnecessary and some illuminating passages are missing, this is nevertheless a fine staging.

Harold Solness (Ed Keller), the ruthless title character, is an aging narcissist who frets constantly in anticipation of professional decline, afraid of being surpassed by someone younger. Rich and powerful, he's acquired everything he has at the expense of others. Then a young woman from his past, Heidi Wangel (Dominica Wasilewska), arrives--and her delusions of his heroism are so powerful that he joins in her belief. Casting gives the production an interesting twist. Solness--a thinly veiled stand-in for the 64-year-old playwright--is usually played by a man of that age. Keller's Solness is fortyish, a man facing a long unhappy road, not one who's come to the end of it. Wasilewska plays Heidi, who's sometimes presented as an unstable waif (think Winona Ryder), as a cavalier preppie vagabond who simply wants what she wants.

We forget how psychologically sophisticated the Victorians were, before shrinks put a name to everything: passive aggression, projection, overcompensation, phallic symbols. They're all here. Solness and his workplace-household offer a smorgasbord of symptoms. No wonder this was Freud's favorite play.

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