By Philip Pearce
The Western Stage has opened a troubling dark comedy called The Arsonists by Swiss playwright Max Frisch and it’s worth watching.
Premiered at the Municipal Theater of Zurich 13 years after the end of World War 2, The Arsonists was an instant smash hit and has survived as a classic of Brechtian political satire.
It’s Brechtian in that its one-track plot is eventful but neither complex nor logical and its characters are intentionally exaggerated comic strip illustrations of a secular sermon. Twentieth century audiences everywhere quickly got the point, unpleasant as it was: stupid middle-class Gottlieb Biedermann’s good-hearted hospitality to a trio of itinerant firebugs bent on burning his house down was, and is to this day, a dark parable of the way Western Europe capitulated to Third Reich Fascism.
If that suggests an unrelieved dose of heavy dramatics at the Western Stage Studio Theater, think again. Director Susan Burns and a busy cast of thirteen players exploit the script’s farce elements with the determined slapstick madness of Keystone Cops. Even the lighting cues point up the irony with spooky prophetic effects every time somebody lights a cigar.
As the beleaguered Biedermann, Jeff McGrath offers a wonderfully varied caricature of self-assured accommodating Bourgeois idiocy. Even his gestures and facial expressions have a conventional predictability that manages—just barely—to keep you laughing so hard you decide not to throw something at the guy. Cheryl Games is appropriately desperate and confused as his sleep-deprived wife Babette: “Men! As soon as there’s trouble, they take a sleeping pill!” Kelly Yarborough rounds out the household as a delightfully sullen, door-slamming housemaid named Anna.
First arsonist to arrive (just in time for supper) is a homeless wrestler and circus performer named Schmitz, played with tremendous wit and gusto by the remarkable Brandon Burns. He and director Burns (no relation) have collaborated with costume designer Allison Dillard on a surprise entrance and a spectacular costume that brilliantly reflect the checkered past of this visiting vagrant. His ensuing scene with McGrath and Yarborough, in my view, is the visual and acting high point of the evening.
Nearly as funny is a subsequent session where Games launches a get-tough approach to ousting the unwelcome guest and within minutes is plying him with goodies and begging him to stay.
The second pyrotechnic expert to check in is a smooth talking ex-waiter named Eisenring. Chris Deacon plays him loud and energetic, but I missed the busybody ex-con’s underlying smarmy hand-kissing persuasiveness.
Not surprisingly the Biedermanns end the evening with an attic filled with itinerant firebugs and a big load of gasoline drums linked to a fuse wire that all of a sudden got strung along rows of the audience. You need to stay alert and watch your feet at this show. Spectators get unexpectedly caught up in the action, often facing direct questioning and some shared emotional struggles from members of the cast of characters.
Eight of the company are always hanging around somewhere on the set as a latter day Greek Chorus. Dressed in bright red firefighters’ gear, they insist they are always watchful—“Just give us a call!,”—offer sensible suggestions nobody follows, point out the errors in cast and audience attitudes and occasionally hand essential props to the principal players. They are the most challenging ingredient of the script and of this production. As a voice choir, they were obviously working hard to merge their shared snatches of moral commentary, but the opening night blend was sometimes uneven and we missed a number of their ideological messages.
And the first-night performance energy seemed to slow down and miss some key connections even as the story moved into its louder and more crucial closing moments. But the production as a whole continues an impressive Western Stage policy of offering, even in the face of today’s big economic challenges, strong and exciting scripts you won’t find in the repertoire of your average modern day community theater.
The Arsonists continues Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2 through October 4th.