Dallas — Director Tim Johnson begins Alistair Beaton’s translation of Max Frisch’s The Arsonists at Kitchen Dog Theater with a bang.
A chorus of firemen lit by little l.e.d. lights in the brims of their helmets sing from stair-step ascending windows in a wall of broad strips painted in gradients of flame and smoke. Nothing could more appropriate for a show about guys who start fires with gas. Only, where do you go from there?
At first, choreographer Zenobia Taylor has the answer. Led by the supremely confident Rhonda Boutté, this group carries Jon Schweikhard’s twisting tunes to the audience in a sort of Busby Berkeley/Keystone Cops mash-up. It’s witty and whimsical and not a little foreboding on Jeffrey Schmidt’s masterstroke set under Aaron Johansen’s supportive lights. The chorus (Joshua Kumler, Ian Ferguson, Chris Sykes and occasionally Jenny Ledel) manages the maneuvers better than the music, but the frayed ends work toward the silly seriousness with which they approach their charge.
You see, the show was written in a time before smoke detectors and sprinklers when a fire could overtake a town, if not for constant vigilance. The trick was to fight the flicker before it became flame. Some see an easy reference in playwright Frisch’s work here to the rise of Nazism as this was written soon after World War II. Director Johnson refrains (except for a few heel taps) from overt references, perhaps wanting the audience to see modern potentials for disaster (ahem, Putin) and not have the production pigeonholed to history.
It’s a task costume designer Giva Taylor takes to heart, putting onstage a mix of periods from modern firefighter garb to a French maid outfit to a shocking shoulder padded Eighties cardigan. The polka dots in several outfits tie into the Ben-Day dot floor and signal that these are considered choices meant to confound as well as contribute to the incongruity of this genre defying dark play. For all the fun of the opening with the chorus, music, lights and all, at some point, things have to settle down. The proceedings require a plot, after all. And this one is absurdly predetermined.
The original title is often translated to Biedermann and the Firebugs. It’s foretold, therefore, that the first visitor to the Biedermann abode, after he finishes complaining about the recent rash of arsons, would be…an arsonist. The comic engine going forward, then, will be Biedermann’s increasingly acrobatic attempts to ignore the plain truth. The fun wears off quickly as ignorance becomes almost willful complicity and the play wags its finger in harmonized dirges of woe to the accompaniment of explosions.
It’s not subtle, but neither is global annihilation.
The richly voiced Max Hartman as Biedermann shoulders the greatest challenge of the play: to not admit that his visitors are the bad guys. To help him out, director Johnson brings in the even richer voiced Jason Kane to play Schmidt, the wayward circus wrestler (and obvious arsonist). Finding someone with as much stage presence as the assured Hartman is a casting coup. Kane’s Schmidt combines merriness and menace in statue-like stillness. Jenny Ledel as Anna, the long suffering maid, has a ball swinging from the bars of these two high status players. Like serving drinks at a chess match, when the participants are that engrossed, there’s no limit to the size of eye rolls and attitude a servant can get away with.
Of course, things will get complicated. Biedermann’s wife, Babette, who’s alternately domineering and supremely fragile, returns from shopping. Karen Parrish plays her in a kind of perpetual dramatic paralysis à la Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. At first, the fear is that she’ll hear that Schmidt is staying in the attic, but that’s obliterated instantly as Schmidt adds an accomplice in the attic, the dapper former waiter, Eisenring, (Michael Federico). After all, it takes two to move a barrel of gas, right?
You’d be right to see the farce in all of this, except that the consequences are so clear. And consequences aren’t much fun in comedy and have no place in farce. In the second act, Johnson can’t keep the corners of either label glued down. They constantly curl revealing a menacing message. For a play with the subtitle “A moral play without a moral,” this one seems pretty sure of its mission.
Things come to a head at dinner, as they often do (ahem, Thanksgiving). Biedermann and the wife host Schmidt and Eisenring in an attempt to shore up the friendship with who they’re sure are arsonists. Everyone brings his or her own brand of mania. The tone varies from cringey to crazy with Eisenring in particular revealing a deeper level of darkness than anything that had gone before. Federico’s performance extinguishes any lingering laughs by making manifest the evil that could, up to that very moment, have remained a remote idea. He is buoyed in no small part by Ledel’s terror at being the target of his attention.
The end is powerful but no catharsis comes with the climax: the relief is in the leaving. The feeling of dread seems to follow the crowd as they shuffle out.
If they aren’t moving fast enough, resist the temptation to yell, “Fire.”
» Read our interview with Tim Johnson here