Although The Monster-Builder is at times captivating, I’m still a bit flummoxed by its construction. It’s mostly a comedy that interlaces cogent comments about post-modern architecture. However, it awkwardly mixes its moods, alternatively presenting satire, farce and sex-capades with observations on building design, but without creating an integrated theatrical experience.
We all can recognize post-modern architecture by our strong reaction to it. Sometimes we are in awe of the creativity and experimentation shown in a startlingly gorgeous building. Other times, we wonder what the architect and client could have been thinking when we notice an odd-shaped building that doesn’t fit its location or purpose. Playwright Amy Freed (Freedomland- 1998 Pulitzer Prize nomination, The Beard of Avon; Still Warm; Restoration Comedy, You, Nero), the daughter of an architect, seems to only express the negative aspects of modern architecture.
Freed’s dominant character is the internationally renowned, sinister architect, Gregor (excellent Danny Scheie), whose ego-driven drive for power makes him destroy or co-opt all those around him. We meet the ever black-clad Gregor and his ditsy young girlfriend Tamsin (Sierra Jolene) at his absurdly incongruous glass house. He shows off the house to Tamsin’s former college roommate, Rita (Tracy Hazas) and her husband, Dieter (Thomas Gorrebeeck), who are both young architects.
Rita is awestruck by the mesmerizing Gregor and she lapses into amusing eruptions of architect-speak. She is proud to explain that she and Dieter are close to receiving the commission to restore a landmark boathouse so that it can be used as a public space, a “third place,” in substitution for the concept of the old public Commons. A sweet idea, which the Faustian Gregor can’t help but sabotage. Why restore when one can tear down?
Creativity isn’t coming easily to Gregor these days. Needing to make progress on his plans for the new “Abu Dhabi Palace of Justice and Interrogation,” he poses his nubile girlfriend in various positions as a mock-up for the Palace. Gregor’s anxiety about the loss of his creative powers recalls Ibsen’s The Master Builder.
As the play continues, it hurdles inexorably to farce. Rita falls under the soulless Monster-Builder’s mysterious spell. It falls to her husband Dieter to hand-hold their rich eccentric clients, Pamela (Nancy Carlin) and husband Andy (Rod Knapp), who add a touch of genuine humor and realistic commentary to the proceedings. Ultimately, the roots of Gregor’s life-force are unearthed, and all modern architecture from the Bauhaus to the present is damned as devilry.
Danny Scheie, a gifted comic and perennial Bay Area favorite (Cal Shakes’ Comedy of Errors and Restoration Comedy, also by Amy Freed), is fascinating as Gregor, but seems confined, in voice and action, by Aurora’s small stage. Talented Tracy Hazas gives a strong performance as Rita, whereas Thomas Gorrebeeck’s second act as Dieter is more vibrant than his first. Favorites Nancy Carlin (Hysteria, Benefactors) and Rod Knapp (The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity) charm the audience as Pam and Andy. Sierra Jolene is a smash as Tamsin, channeling a combination of Marilyn Monroe and Judy Holiday.
The Monster-Builder premiered in Portland last year, where it was also directed by Art Manke. On the surface, it’s an amusement, but clearly the author is also trying to express significant ideas, that unfortunately may be dimmed by the Sturm und Drang of the farce.
The Monster-Builder is playing at The Aurora Theatre through Dec. 6 2015. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit the Aurora Theatre’s website.
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