You might say that actor and theater director André Gregory creates theater Boyhood-style: He and his compatriots, chief among them actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, have been known to rehearse certain plays for a decade and more, gradually building on them, revisiting them, allowing them to change shape and texture as the participants age. That's how Gregory approached Henrik Ibsen's 1892 chestnut The Master Builder. Over the years he and Shawn -- who had retranslated the play himself -- would perform the play for friends. Now, Jonathan Demme has directed a modestly scaled but potent film version of the adaptation.
Shawn plays Halvard Solness, an architect nearing the end of his life. Solness has reached the top of his game by crushing, misleading, or manipulating the people around him. In Ibsen's version, Solness is aging but perfectly healthy. Here he's on his deathbed, seemingly waiting to draw his last breath, until a vision appears before him, a radiant and loopy young woman (Lisa Joyce). She restores his enthusiasm and vigor. She also urges him to rethink some of the terrible choices he's made in life.
Even if you generally deem Ibsen el-snorro (important but boring), you may get more out of this adaptation than any other. Demme, following in the footsteps of the late Louis Malle, takes a spare, direct approach to the material -- his economy pays off in quiet eloquence. And Shawn, with his trademark two-tooth smile, is marvelous: One minute his Solness is a cheerful gnome, happily toting up his achievements like fat gold coins. The next he's a sour gremlin. He's mercurial to the max, a Solness who's treacherous but not soulless.