Aurora builds a mighty (funny) Monster

Monster 2
The cast of Amy Freed’s comedy The Monster Builder – (from left) Rod Gnapp as Andy, Sierra Jolene as Tamsin, Nancy Carlin as Pamela, Thomas Gorrebeeck as Dieter and Tracy Hazas as Rita – believe they have avenged the evil of Danny Scheie as “starchitect” Gregor in the Aurora Theatre Company production. Below: Jolene and Scheie work out the intricacies of a design. Photos by David Allen

When salsa splatters across the unsealed Carrara marble, the horror of the architect played by Danny Scheie resounds through the intimate Aurora Theatre Company. An hors d’oeuvre has fallen on the floor, and after admonishing the clumsiness of his girlfriend, the architect demands a napkin and some vodka to clean it up. The marble is not stained, and the architect, one Gregor Zobrowski, calms down enough to say, “Crisis averted.” But is the crisis averted? Not even a little bit, and that’s the fun of Amy Freed’s The Monster Builder, a very funny riff on Ibsen’s The Master Builder (which the Aurora produced in 2006).

San Francisco writer Freed once again partners with the inimitable Scheie – past collaborations include You, Nero and Restoration Comedy – to create a comedy that skewers the world of egomaniacal “starchitects” and their sometimes godawful creations as well as the bad architectural taste of the general public that aims for nostalgia but settles for utilitarian garbage.

The fun of Freed’s play is watching Gregor navigate his giant ego through a cocktail party at his newly completed masterwork, an island residence made only of glass and marble with no walls and, apparently, no place but the floor to sit down (the humorous angular set is by Tom Buderwitz). Gregor is toying with a young married couple, Rita and Dieter (Tracy Hazas and Thomas Gorrebeeck), who run an idealistic architecture firm whose goal is bring back the commons in some way and help people come together the way they used to.

Monster 1

Gregor’s girlfriend Tamsin (Sierra Jolene) tries to fill in the social graces that the master architect lacks, but this is the Gregor show. Director Art Manke keeps the comedy fairly subdued at first. Scheie is strong and funny but reigns in what can sometimes be a wild on-stage personality. There’s a slow build, so to speak, at work here, and the payoff involves a leap into some theatrical wildness involving human sacrifice, revenge and the building of the Abu Dhabi Tower of Justice and Interrogation. Oh, and there may be something supernaturally Faustian going on as well. One of Scheie’s finest moments here (among many) is the astonishing measure of disgust he can express in three simple words: “arts and crafts.”

If Ibsen’s Master Builder had some sort of troll in his soul, well Gregor’s got something even bigger and nastier – a mystery that is only partly solved by play’s end. There’s a Young Frankenstein vibe to the second act of Monster Builder, and that’s a whole lot of fun. At one point, in full villain mode, Gregor is pounding out Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in the church he has converted into his office. It’s really just a set up so he can say to Rita, “Put your hand on my organ.” As smart as Freed can be, she also can’t resist a cheap joke, and we love her for that. Who else would reference an Alzheimer’s institute made of a series of mazes?

The game cast, expertly balancing zany farce and brainy comedy, also includes Nancy Carlin as an old-money dame with a juicy remodeling job and Rod Gnapp as her husband, a man whose occupation can inspire surprising reactions. There’s a lively camaraderie among the actors, and when, in Act 2, they all (save one) join together in a common pursuit, there’s a satisfying enjoyment in their efforts.

Part farce, part examination of the world we make for ourselves, The Monster Builder erects a lovely, lively structure around a dark heart that beats with the sounds of delight in every crack of humanity’s foundation.

Amy Freed’s The Monster-Builder continues an extended run through Dec. 20 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$60. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

Theater review: `You, Nero’

Opened May 20, 2009 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Nero 1
Danny Scheie solidifies his reputation as one of the Bay Area’s best, most original actors as the title character in Amy Freed’s You, Nero on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage. Photos by

A funny thing happened on the way to `You, Nero’
««« ½

Berkeley Repertory Theatre ends a spectacular 41st season with local playwright Amy Freed’s You, Nero – and it’s a fitting conclusion after the varied, adventurous delights of Yellowjackets, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Arabian Nights, In the Next Room (The Vibrator Play) and The Lieutenant of Inishmore.

In a theater world that seems to be contracting and cowering, Berkeley Rep continues to prove its mettle by challenging and rewarding audiences at every turn.

And so it falls to the tyrant of a crumbling empire to end the season in a burst of laughter.

You, Nero has been somewhat revised and re-cast since its premiere earlier this year at South Coast Repertory, and though it hasn’t yet reached its zenith, this sharp, thoughtful comedy is definitely on the ascendant. Freed, author of The Beard of Avon and Restoration Comedy among others, writes for people with highly developed brains and funny bones – and they don’t necessarily have to be attached. She can be intellectual, low brow or both, and she’s probably incapable of not entertaining or engaging her audience.

Nero 2

For two-plus hours, Freed, working again with director Sharon Ott (a former artistic director of Berkeley Rep), pulls laughs out of a fairly serious subject: the end of the Roman Empire. While democracy fell victim to corruption, nihilism, degradation, persecution, the citizens (the ones who weren’t being tortured or starved, anyway) looked the other way or were distracted by mindless mass entertainments (how fitting that You, Nero opened the same night as the “American Idol” finale).

And there, surfing Rome’s tidal wave of destruction, is the emperor, Nero Caesar.

Freed’s basic idea here borrows from Dickens. Instead of three ghosts appearing to show Nero the error of his ways before Christmas morning, she creates a Jiminy Cricket-like conscience in the form of a playwright, Scribonius of Carthage, whose art will expose Nero’s flaws, the psychological scars of his childhood and the moral goodness he has most likely repressed.

Happily, Nero resists all attempts at course correction, and his reign ends in a fiery rock concert.

Effortlessly blending contemporary and classical, Freed’s comedy generates continuous laughter. Ott’s cast descends from comedy nirvana with Danny Scheie as Nero serving as lord and master of the merry mayhem.

Jeff McCarthy (of Broadway’s Urinetown: The Musical, above with Scheie) as Scribonius could arguably be called the show’s protagonist, and he’s a great guide for the audience, but the play gets a comic turbo charge every time Scheie struts on stage looking every inch the delightful despot in costume designer Paloma H. Young’s slick toga finery.

Scheie is such a uniquely gifted comic actor that he can generate laughs from syllables instead of entire words. One of the evening’s longest laughs comes from Scheie uttering one word – “no” – because his timing is so expert. Childish, imperious, frightening and flamboyant, Scheie’s energetic Nero is a one-man spectacle as he veers from giddy delight to tyrannical tempest to nearly genuine introspection.

Though widely admired here in the Bay Area, Scheie emerges a true star in this play, and it’s impossible to imagine You, Nero having future life without him.

Nero 3

To be sure, this is Scheie’s show, but the supporting cast is superb. In addition to McCarthy’s solid Scribonius, we have the wonderful Kasey Mahaffy as Fabiolo, a hot young actor who unfortunately catches the eye of Nero, and Lori Larsen as Agrippina, Nero’s mother and occasional bedmate (yes, there are plenty of incest jokes). Berkeley native Susannah Schulman (above, with McCarthy) is fantastic as Poppaea, Nero’s ruthless lover, for whom life at court is the be-all, end-all of existence.

Whether playing the actors Batheticus and Patheticus or the wise Romans Burrus and Seneca, Mike McShane and Richard Doyle are a hoot, especially when they don skullcaps to play the eunuchs Beppo and Zippo.

There are comic moments in Nero that, to paraphrase Freed, are so profane they’re sacred. So why doesn’t the play feel like it’s completely there? Partly because of the split focus shared by Nero and Scribonius. The other has to do with Nero’s rock star epiphany, when he eschews (gesundheit!) the art of traditional theater to do his own egomaniacal thing.

What’s needed here is a full-on Hedwig and the Angry Inch moment, but we get a half-hearted attempt (original music and sound design by Stephen LeGrand and Eric Drew Feldman) that has the trappings of rock (Erik Flatmo’s set gives way to a scene right out of Gypsy and Peter Maradudin’s lights go appropriately rock concert crazy). But where the scene should rage, it sort of fizzles.

There’s work yet to be done on You, Nero, though what’s here is pretty rich. This play is too good to follow Rome’s example of going down in flames.


Amy Freed’s You, Nero continues through June 28 on the Berkeley Repertory Theatre Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$71. Call 510-647-2949 or visit for information.


Page to Stage, an ongoing series of conversations with theater artists, brings You, Nero playwright Amy Freed to the Thrust Stage with Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone for a free event at 7 p.m. June 15.

Danny Scheie: Leading man at last

Danny Scheie NeroI’ve written before about Bay Area actors whose names, just by appearing on a cast list in a program, excite certain expectations and delights.

Danny Scheie (at right, photo by Henry DiRocco) is one of those actors. When I first started covering theater in San Francisco 17 years ago, he was better known as a director, but then I saw him as Hermes, the rollerblading imp in the Fifth Floor production of Orestes. From that moment on, whether behind the scenes or in front of the footlights, Scheie is a theater personality who always benefits whatever he’s involved with.

Graduating from supporting player to leading man, Scheie is starring in You, Nero, the new play by San Francisco playwright Amy Freed, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

I had the chance to sit down with Scheie and talk to him for a San Francisco Chronicle article, which appeared in the May 17 Pink Section. Read it here.

You, Nero continues through June 28 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$71. Call 510-647-2949 or visit for information.

New Amy Freed play added to Berkeley Rep season

[show’s dates have changed since original posting: Previews begin May 15, opening is May 20 and closing is June 28]

Local playwright Amy Freed (above) will collaborate once again with director (and former Berkeley Repertory Theatre artistic director) Sharon Ott on a new play that has just been added to the Berkeley Rep season.

You, Nero will play on the Thrust Stage May 15 through June 28, 2009.

The play will star Danny Scheie as Nero, emperor of Rome, famous for playing the fiddle while his city burned. In Freed’s comedy, not only does he fiddle, but he also fills the Colosseum with sex and decadence as he commands a washed-up scribe to create an extravaganza that flatters his pitiful regime.

This marks the third collaboration between Freed and Ott, who have paired previously on The Beard of Avon and Restoration Comedy.

Nero, a co-production with South Coast Repertory, marks the second show Ott will direct for Berkeley Rep this season. She is at the helm of Crime & Punishment, in a new adaptation by Marilyn Campbell and Curt Columbus, in February of 2009.

“You, Nero is the perfect way to end the coming year, on a high note of incisive, satiric wit,” said Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone. “Modern American life bears a remarkable resemblance to Nero’s Rome, and Amy Freed mines the parallels to wonderful comic effect.”

For information visit

Tip-top ten

Happy holidays, Theater Dogs!

Thanks for reading the blog in 2006. I’ll try to make it bigger, better, funnier and fresher in 2007.

Below you’ll find my Top 10 list of favorite theater experiences in 2006. I’d love for you all to share some of your favorites as well, so use the comment feature liberally.

1.The Clean House,TheatreWorks

Sarah Ruhl’s immaculate play — is it a comic drama or a dramatic comedy? — reveals a writer so attuned to the human heart that her work may actually be beneficial to your health. This production, helmed by Juliette Carrillo, sure was. Love is a mess, Ruhl tells us. It’s dirty (like a good joke), messy and, at its best, like really good homemade chocolate ice cream.

2. The Glass Menagerie, Berkeley Repertory Theatre

The news that Rita Moreno, the Bay Area’s resident living legend, would tackle the role of Amanda in this Tennessee Williams classic was intriguing. Could Moreno handle it? Anyone who doubted Moreno’s chops was quickly proven wrong by her powerhouse portrayal of a mother desperate to see her children succeed in a harsh world. Director Les Waters gave us such a fresh approach to the play that it almost seemed newly minted.

3. Love Is a Dream House in Lorin, Shotgun Players

Playwright Marcus Gardley did a magnificent thing with this world-premiere play: He turned a neighborhood into art, and in doing so made the specific universal. Gardley immersed himself in the history of Berkeley’s Lorin District — from the recent past clear back to Native American days — and, with the help of director Aaron Davidman, managed to capture something significant about each era leading up to the present. The cast of more than 30 professionals and nonprofessionals found the heart of the piece and showed us over and over again that without community, we’re not much.

4. Hunter Gatherers, Killing My Lobster

Of all this year’s comedies, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s world premiere for sketch troupe Killing My Lobster was the meatiest. Maybe it had something to do with the onstage slaughter of a lamb at the play’s start. Or maybe it was the huge chunk of roasted meat that factors into the play’s bloody end. Whatever, this was an aggressively funny play about our primal, cave-man impulses, man’s need to hump (or kill) everything in sight and woman’s need for chocolate.

5. 4 Adverbs, Word for Word

San Francisco’s Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) ended his “Series of Unfortunate Events” books this year, but not before releasing a book under his own name. Four chapters of that book (Adverbs) became the basis for a typically wondrous production by Word for Word, the company that translates short fiction to the stage without changing a word of the original text. Kind of makes you glad Lemony Snicket is taking a break.

6. Dessa Rose, TheatreWorks

A musical about slavery sounds like a glum proposition, but in the hands of composers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, glum turns into serious, which turns into transcendent. Based on the novel by Sherley Anne Williams, the story of an escaped slave and the slave owner she reluctantly befriends bears the weight of history and the healing power of music.

7. In On It, Encore Theatre Company

Canadian playwright/director Daniel MacIvor’s work isn’t that well-known south of our northern border, but based on this dynamic, beautifully directed and performed piece,
MacIvor should be in demand. Actors Ian Scott McGregor and Glenn Peters broke the fourth wall, bent time and concealed key details as they told us the story of actors who used to be lovers working on a play about their relationship. Or were they?

8. Gem of the Ocean, American Conservatory Theater

The late August Wilson received a beautiful valedictory production of his second-to-last play from ACT and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson. The electric jolt of Wilson’s language — “So, live!” are the play’s final words — coursed through the nearly three-hour show, but the sturdy cast, headed by Michele Shay as Aunt Ester, made it very much alive.

9. Restoration Comedy, California Shakespeare Theater
San Francisco writer Amy Freed’s effervescent comedy is based on two 17th-century comedies that wished they could have been this fresh and funny. Special mention must be made of the hilarious Danny Scheie, who played Sir Novelty Fashion who later becomes Lord Foppington, the star of the show-stopping Act 2 fashion show (Anna R. Oliver provided the costumes).

10. Permanent Collection, Aurora Theatre Company

This serious drama about race relations by Thomas Gibbons veered into polemics, but before it did, the battle between a black man and a white man over a collection of art is humane, disturbing and, best of all, thought provoking.

The best shows that didn’t necessarily originate here (or were on their way somewhere else — like Broadway) include: Jersey Boys (Best of Broadway/SHN); A Chorus Line (Best of Broadway/SHN); The Miser (Berkeley Repertory Theatre/Theatre de la Jeune Lune); The Light in the Piazza (Best of Broadway/SHN); The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Stone, Nederlander, Barrington Stage Company et al); Swan Lake (Best of Broadway/SHN).

For more 2006 highlights, check out Jones for Theater.

OK. Now you…