Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Arsonists
Frank Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Only One Sophie, Newsies, George Bonga: Black Voyageur and The Amish Project


Jefferson Slinkard, Jay Albright, and Mark Rhein
Photo by Tony Nelson
I had just seen a play about the avoidance and denial of individual responsibility for acts of degradation and destruction. So why was I feeling giddy and thoroughly satisfied? Frank Theatre's production of The Arsonists is so much fun, and so thoroughly well formed, that I couldn't help but leave the Ritz Theater with a keen feeling of optimism—if not for the future of human-kind, then for the ability of theater to be so good at putting our most dire issues on stage, punctuated not by tears but by laughter.

The Arsonists indeed raises troubling questions that are as pertinent today as when Swiss playwright Max Frish wrote the play in 1953, under the title The Fire Raisers. The current production uses Alistair Beaton's 2007 translation from the original German, but changes little of the play's narrative. It is set in a community that is literally going up in flames, as building after building is victimized by arsonists who evade capture. The team of firefighters acts as vigilante enforcers, ready with hoses to douse the least spark, down to an unauthorized candle-lighting. These serve as a Greek chorus for the play, issuing predictions of further devastation, and commenting on the behavior of the play's characters.

Mr. Biedermann (in German, "decent or worthy man") is ruthless in business—hair restoration products is his line—but prides himself on being a sensitive and generous citizen in private life. A sensible man, he cannot fathom how so many people have been duped into giving the renegade arsonists entrance to their homes or businesses. Yet, when homeless Joe Schmitz comes to his door, Biedermann states that we must be able to trust one another and lets Schmitz, an out of work wrestler since the circus that employed him burned down—lodge in his attic. Mrs. Biedermann is aghast at this intrusion, but Joe manages to manipulate her into accepting his presence.

Before long, Joe has moved his friend Billy Eisenring into the attic. Billy was headwaiter at the most swanky restaurant in town until it burned down. In short order Joe and Billy are hauling oil drums up to the attic. All the while, Biedermann brays against Knechtling, a recently fired employee who is petitioning for his rights, but is unwilling to believe he has been duped by the strangers in his attic. He is sure the oil drums are some kind of joke. Still, to be safe, he determines it better to be friends with Joe and Billy than to make enemies of them, and has Mrs. Biedermann host a dinner party for them. This tests the lengths to which a decent and worthy man will go to avoid facing the plain truth.

The story is dark, a cautionary tale written in the shadow of World War II, and with fears of nuclear holocaust quite palpable. Today we live with other fears—environmental degradation, climate change, terrorism among them, reversion to tribalism—and yet, decent men and women continue to avert their eyes. So, how does such a disturbing message manage to provide such great entertainment? The text, to begin with, is chock-full or delicious irony, finding humor in the way characters fail to see what is most obvious, and in the way formal courtesies and conventions can mask sinister intents.

Wendy Knox directs The Arsonists with keen awareness of the humor, both in text and also in presentation, creating characters that are cartoon representations through their outlandish costumes and postured performance style. The chorus of fire fighters' stern surveillance of every move makes comic hay of the competition between property and liberty rights. The set, light and sound design create a delirious candy swirl that assures us that what we are watching is all pretend, allowing us to enjoy the laughs as the real medicine, soaked in sugar, seeps into our consciousness. This approach can easily go awry, but Knox and her creative team have got the recipe just right.

Of course, the performers make a crucial difference, and Knox has cast The Arsonists with all the right players. Jay Albright could not be more perfect as Gottlieb Biedermann, full of self-puffery over his business acumen and his humanitarian instincts, while allowing us to see his inner doubts. His growing anxiety, as he realizes, but cannot admit to, the mistakes he has made, fills the stage with tension. Jefferson Slinkard and Mark Rhein, as Joe Schmitz and Billy Eisenring, respectively, are terrific, their droll delivery turns the most matter-of-fact lines into comic swordplay. Charlotte Calvert is fine as Mrs. Biedermann, smart enough to know her husband is wrong-headed, but bound by social convention to play his game, and Nastacia Nicole is delicious as their maid Anna, put upon by the demands of her employers so that we can feel her ambivalence about the fix they have gotten themselves into.

Kathy Kohl's costume designs call for special recognition. The wrestler Joe Schmitz brings to mind Minnesota's best known wrestler (and former governor), which may be an inside joke for a Minnesota audience, but it works. All of her costume choices, though, demonstrate both the humor and wisdom of the work, in their exaggerated tailoring, iconic styling, and utter inappropriateness. Mike Wangen's lighting design and Dan Dukich's sound design work together to create a sense of impending doom.

I laughed more heartily during The Arsonists than any work of theater in a long time. I also left with more to think about, and more to worry about, than most plays provide. Hats off to Frank Theatre for selecting a work whose timeliness has never run out, and for putting together a matchless (pardon the expression) production.

The Arsonists, a Frank Theatre production, continues through March 6, 2016, at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $25.00, $22.00 for students and seniors. For tickets call 612-724-3700 or go to franktheatre.org

Written by Max Frisch as The Fire Raisers ((Biedermann und die Brandstifter), 2007 translation by Alistair Beaton; Director: Wendy Knox; Set Design: Erica Joe Stanley; Costumes: Kathy Kohl; Lighting Design: Mike Wangen; Sound Designer: Dan Dukich; Stage manager: Glenn Klapperich; Dramaturgy: Steve Matuszak

Cast: Jay Albright (Gottlieb Biedermann), Charlotte Calvert (Babette Biedermann), Becca Hart (chorus leader), Steve Matuszak (chorus), Gabriel Murphy (Policeman, chorus), Nastacia Nicole (Anna, chorus), Victoria Pyan (Mrs. Knechtling, chorus), Mark Rhein (Billy Eisenring), Jefferson Slinkard (Joe Schmitz), Mohamed Yabdri (Doctor of Philosophy, chorus).


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