Monster-Builder at Aurora: Hilarity and Bizarre Twists in the World of Architecture

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Floored: Collapsed architect Gregor (Danny Scheie) draws the puzzled gaze of (from left) Rod Gnapp, Sierra Jolene, Nancy Carlin, Thomas Gorrebeeck and Tracy Hazas.

Photos by David Allen

One thing can be said with certainty about Aurora Theatre's production of Amy Freed's The Monster-Builder: It's hilarious. Big laughs start early and continue through to the play's bizarre climax.

Beyond that, you can probably get an argument about every other aspect of the show, starting with that hyphen in the title. Does it refer to someone who builds monsters, a la Frankenstein, or to a monster whose specialty is building? And, is it a sex comedy, a melodrama, a murder story, a ghost story, a super-broad satire about overblown ego . . . or possibly a fiercely debated exercise in architectural criticism? A case can be made for all of the above.

Although Freed's title pays homage to Ibsen's The Master Builder, about an architect whose grandiose ambitions lead to his own death, the similarities are few. Freed's protagonist, Gregor (Danny Scheie) can easily be seen as the Donald Trump of contemporary architecture: a man who gloats about his own accomplishments, enjoys worldwide fame, scorns any rivals and has a taste for gorgeous women.

Gregor's buildings look like nothing that bears Trump's name, however. He designs structures that defy convention in their shape, their materials and their approach to human needs or comfort, which he views with disdain. Beyond that, he roars with contempt toward the form-follows-function austerity of international-school architecture of the mid-20th century as well as toward any impulse to preserve relics of past eras, which he derides as bourgeois sentimentality.

He's a grotesque examplar of deconstructivist architecture. If that term is new to you, plug it into Google Images and see a multitude of structures that some might call creative and others might see as exhibitionism, supported by people and institutions with very deep pockets. Freed is clearly in the latter camp.

To frame that debate in theatrical terms, she surrounds Gregor with antagonists, a luscious playmate/assistant and a pair of potential patrons. Their chemistry is consistently wacky, and stylized performances by Aurora's expert cast makes clear that Ibsenesque realism is not the intent of either the playwright or director Art Manke.

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These architects don't see eye-to-eye: Tracy Hazas and Danny Scheie

The antagonists are Rita (Tracy Hazas) and Dieter (Thomas Gorrebeeck), who team as both architects and marital partners. Their plans for restoring an old New England boathouse send Gregor into fits of derision, but Rita's sensual allure leads him toward double-barreled seduction: luring her to adopt his aesthetic vision, which might raise her status to something resembling his, and to his bed.

With Rita gone, Dieter plugs on with his restoration plans until they are upended by Gregor, whose renown carries much weight with the folks who issue permits for local construction projects.

The super-architect -- or starchitect as he's called -- draws support in standard and strange ways from live-in assistant Tamsin (Sierra Jolene), who looks like the kind of knockout that Gregor would covet and possesses the flexibility of an Olympic acrobat. In perhaps the first act's funniest scene, Gregor manipulates her body into all manner of contortions, seeking inspiration for the shape of a grandiose building. Circling her, crawling under her raised abdomen, twisting arms and legs into shapes unattainable by any normal human body, he finally reaches the epiphany he seeks. The grand entrance must be at the rear. Of course.

As potential clients, Nancy Carlin projects the epitome of snobbery and Rod Gnapp affects airs of abject crudeness until events lead them to drop their facades.

Those events, which I dare not describe, cascade through the second act, tossing a wildly funny but relatively commonplace farce in weird, unlikely and spooky directions. Freed, director Manke and the cast maintain their momentum in generating roars but the links between the play's two acts are tenuous at best. As diverting comedy, the show is masterful; as coherent theater, it's off the mark.

Credit for designing the set, a multilevel home that Gregor has built for himself with views of the ocean on one side and a meth lab on the other, goes to Tom Buderwitz. Composed principally of faux marble floors and asymmetrical windows framed by thin mullions, it's stark and gorgeous. But in one way I think Gregor might find it gauche: The floors are horizontal. How unsophisticated!

The Monster-Builder runs through Dec. 6 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley, Tickets are $32-$50 from 510-843-4822 or auroratheatre.org