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And yet, thanks to the skill of the actors, who include Julianne Moore and frequent Gregory collaborator Larry Pine, the world of the play takes shape before us — at least until intermission. Then, as if we were in an actual theater, we see the audience get up to chat, move around and have a bite to eat. A few minutes later it’s back to the play. The result of this juxtaposition is to create once again a thin boundary between theater and life, the flimsiness of which makes the fiction even more apparent. The message seems to be that the creation of worlds doesn’t require any special infrastructure — just ability and imagination.
Indeed, Gregory has said as much himself. In “Before and After Dinner” we see him tell a group of students at The New Actors Workshop: “All you need is a tiny room with a few friends, and you can make a miracle, with time.” And by “time,” he means a lot of time — as much time he needs, without any commercial pressure. This was his approach for his first major production, an experimental version of “Alice in Wonderland” that ran for seven years, and it’s been his strategy ever since. His latest project, “A Master Builder,” was rehearsed for 14 years before it was finally performed and turned into a movie.
Unlike “Vanya,” the film version of “A Master Builder” takes place entirely within the fiction: There is no on-screen audience, and though the sets and costumes are minimal, they belong to the play. The story centers on Halvard Solness, a dictatorial architect trying to justify the hardships he inflicted on others in order to achieve his success. As he struggles to maintain control over his wife, his mistress and his employees, a mysterious young woman appears at the door, seeming to promise a fresh start.
In Shawn’s adaptation, Solness is also deathly ill, and his conversations with the young woman, Hilde Wangel (played by Lisa Joyce), take on a confessional air. Although the actors are all excellent — including Julie Hagerty as Solness’s high-strung wife, Pine as Dr. Herdal and Gregory himself as the elderly architect, Knut Brovik — Shawn outdoes himself as the cruel and imperious Solness. Despite being frequently cast in comic roles thanks to his unusual voice and appearance (he was the evil Vizzini in “The Princess Bride” and Grand Nagus Zek on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”), Shawn is a dramatic actor of the first order, and his performance serves as the film’s center of gravity. Joyce, dressed like a mountaineering sex kitten in white shorts and hiking books, is unnervingly exuberant, but given her symbolic role that is perhaps not inappropriate.
Although “A Master Builder” is more conventional than “Vanya,” it too is intense and unusual and, like its predecessor, depends entirely on acting. Not only does the action stay within Solness’s house, at least half the shots are close-ups of the actors’ faces. Though the set is spacious and bright, the tone of the movie is a barely contained hysteria and the emotional tenor is suffocating and claustrophobic.
Yet the most interesting aspect of the movie are the rehearsals that preceded it. In “Before and After Dinner” we see parts of those rehearsals, which take place in a comfortably furnished apartment, and the preparations for the staging of the play, which took place in 2011. Most fascinating, we hear Gregory explain the purpose of his epic preparations:
One of the reasons that I work for so long is that we wear masks, and even when actors have easy access to expressing emotion — deep emotion — even that emotion can be a mask. So what I’m doing is I’m not adding to the performance… I’m stripping away. Less and less and less, so I’m always working for a kind of simplicity…
For Gregory, the years-long rehearsals are not about teaching actors the roles they need to play in order to become characters. Rather, they’re about the roles the actors are already playing and which as characters they need to drop.
If Gregory represents a world in which acting opens the door to discovery and imagination, then Roman Polanski represents the nightmare. Whereas in Gregory’s plays the blurring of an actor’s self with his fictional character leads to deeper understanding and enlightenment, in Polanski’s movies the destruction of such boundaries leads only to terror.
Polanski is a versatile filmmaker, and the breadth of his work makes it impossible to pin him to any particular genre. Over more than 50 years he’s made black-and-white psychological dramas (“Knife in the Water”), genre spoofs (“The Fearless Vampire Killers,” “Pirates”), satanic thrillers (“Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Ninth Gate”), and sprawling period pictures (“Tess”), not to mention his genre-defining neo-noir classic, “Chinatown.” But over his wide-ranging career he has also turned repeatedly to themes of mental disintegration, and to the terrifying conflation of hallucination with reality.
Polanski’s own life has been marked by the kind of instability that makes sanity seem like a thing to cling to rather than experiment with. As a child he was imprisoned with his parents in the Krakow ghetto, where he witnessed his father being rounded up and deported to Mauthausen — an experience he drew on in his Oscar-winning 2002 film, “The Pianist.” After escaping the ghetto in 1943, he spent the remainder of the war hiding among his Catholic neighbors, coming close to discovery and death several times. Polanski’s father survived the war, but his mother was murdered at Auschwitz.
Polanski’s life continued to be turbulent after the Holocaust. Although he achieved early success in Poland — his first full-length feature, “Knife in the Water,” was nominated for a foreign language Oscar — he fled Communist rule in the early 1960s, settling in France instead. Later that decade, after he began making movies in Hollywood, Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, then almost 9 months pregnant, was murdered by the Manson family along with four others. Since 1977 he has been living in exile from the United States after raping 13-year-old Samantha Geimer, whom he was photographing for French Vogue. Despite pleading guilty to “unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor,” he fled the country before sentencing after several plea deals with the judge fell through.