Arsonists are on the loose in town. They’re finagling their way into people’s homes, taking up residence briefly, then burning the houses down. And now you’ve let a couple of them into your home. They’re sleeping in the attic, filling it with barrels of gasoline, and asking for matches.
Such is the quandary in which Mr. Biederman finds himself in Max Frisch’s play "The Arsonists."
In Biederman’s case, a successful businessman of good social standing and dubious ethics, it’s of the utmost importance not to step outside the lines of bourgeois propriety. In fact, if you voice your concerns and offend your guests, they may get angry and who knows what they might do then?
Originally conceived by Frisch in the wake of the 1948 Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia and informed by his witnessing the rise of Nazism and the consequent horrors of World War II, "The Arsonists" (often alternately titled as "Biederman and the Firebugs") was first staged in Europe in the late fifties.
Now, this clever and comedic parable about the dangers of appeasement, denial and the disturbing power of ingrained social habit, is being staged in a tight, swift, and highly entertaining production at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley.
Snappily directed by Mark Jackson on a set that manages to evoke both the thirties and the contemporary with its Art Deco-inspired furniture, the production utilizes a nicely updated and somewhat abbreviated translation by British comic playwright Alistair Beaton. It’s a translation that was first performed at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2007 to rave reviews, and that manages to breathe air into a clearly allegorical script which, to our contemporary ears, could feel a little tiresomely didactic at times.
It’s no surprise that Frisch was pals with Bertolt Brecht. His characters are not much more than social representations, and the political themes never stray far from the surface, if at all. In "The Arsonists" Fritz also draws amply on the classical device of the chorus (in this case a trio of dedicated firefighters) to provide an ominous commentary on the play’s events.
In some contexts, these techniques could end up feeling heavy-handed. And, for the first several minutes, the play feels mired by the chorus’ not entirely intelligible chanting and the required set-up for the story to come.
After this, however, the consistently convincing and highly engaging performances from the entire cast make "The Arsonists" take off. It reveals itself as a laugh-out-loud comedy and a highly unsettling parable, with the juxtaposition of these two elements amplifying the impact of both.
As Biederman, Dan Hiatt wonderfully evokes a man unrestrained by concern for a business associate who commits suicide but who is tightly bound by his own insistence on politesse. Babette Biederman, who’s never quite on board with her husband’s non-confrontational strategy of dealing with the squatters in their attic but can’t confront them herself, is played with flustered veracity by Gwen Loeb.
As their maid, Anna, Dina Percia expresses her disapproval of both her employers and their unwanted guests with a delightfully acrobatic repertoire of facial expressions. While as the arsonists themselves, Michael Ray Wisely (Schmitz) and Tim Kniffin (Eisenring) make such gleeful bare-faced liars whose capacity for violence is apparent without their lifting a finger or issuing a single threat that we can empathize with Biederman’s ridiculous strategy at least a little. These guys might be about to set his house on fire, but if he challenges them, they might also decide to beat him to a pulp.
Despite these pyromaniacal villains (and an amusing cameo from an "academic" that supports the arsonists’ cause until he finally realizes what they’re up to, at which point he delivers a letter dissociating himself from their cause and promptly departs), they are not actually the problem.
Indeed, throughout "The Arsonists" we never truly doubt that Biederman is his own worst enemy. As we witness the ends to which he will go to continue the comfort of his denial, we see a mirror held up not only to the disastrous trends of history, but also to contemporary society’s continued failings to stop evil in its tracks.