Alistair Beaton’s English adaptation of Max Frisch’s 1950’s German play “The Arsonists” works well in The Strawdog Theatre’s performance space. The idiosyncratic layout of the stage and house allow a great deal of room for the large chorus of firefighters to tell us about, and futilely try and prevent, the complicity of the protagonist, Mr. Biederman (Robert Kauzlaric), in the destruction of his family, possessions, and society. The chorus, the action, and the characters give us exposition, explaining that arsonists are systematically putting fire to an urban society in an attempt to eliminate it completely. Throughout the play, the chorus of firefighters show up to put out the flame every time someone lights a cigar, always missing the real arsons, but have become a highly reverenced institution and explain their own take on the threat of social obliteration and its origin.
When a homeless man called Schmidtz (Scott Danielson) appears at Biederman’s home claiming not to be an arsonist, Biederman reluctantly offers him a meal in the form of bread and wine, and agrees to shelter him in the attic. Soon, another itinerant man called Eisenring (Ira Amyx) shows up in the attic with petrol canisters, but Schmidtz assures Biederman that Eisenring is not an arsonist. He just has a quirky sense of humor. As that lie becomes increasingly unbelievable, Biederman and his wife, Babette (Sarah Goeden), decide to serve up a meal of goose stripped of all accoutrements for their guests, even inviting their maid (Rebecca Wolfe) to the table, but recognize that is a very desperate act; Biederman calls it “a literal Last Supper.” As it becomes clear that these men are arsonists, and that a plan has been laid to burn down the entire city, a crusty academic tries to warn everybody that “the arsonists” are just that: pathological firebugs. They were not interested in destroying the city in the rational or justifiable way originally envisioned.
This play, written in German in 1953, was as an avowed meditation on the rise of the Nazi Party and The Holocaust (a word which means “consumption by fire”), and purely as a meditation on those horrors, it fails miserably. The Holocaust was not perpetrated by the disenfranchised against successful and respected: quite the other way around. The victims were marginalized groups: the Jews, the mentally ill, homosexuals, the developmentally disabled, and many others). The reverence given the totalitarian state was not misguided because the state failed to prevent the extermination of society by the people it had excluded; it was the state that perpetrated the extermination of marginalized. The complicity of the Christian Church in the Shoah and Nazism was done in defiance of its values, not in accordance with its insistence on hospitality to the marginalized or an interpretation of the Eucharist as a love-feast. The academy did not enlist the help of unworthy people to kill; the state enlisted the support of unworthy academics to justify genocide. Finally, people did not practice a misguided or insincere altruism, refusing to believe that they were going to be destroyed because they did not expel people from their communities; they refused to believe that the state was systematically enslaving and slaughtering the groups of people considered that society to be undesirable.
For all this, the play is haunting and succeeds as a work of art perhaps, and thanks to The Strawdog Theatre’s production, it succeeds phenomenally. Firstly, there could not be a more provocative time to stage the play than in autumn of 2014 when, all around the world, people from every ideology and creed are professing their intent to destroy each other, usually in violation of those ideology and creeds’ values. Nor a more provocative place than Chicago, where an apocalyptic fire is the city’s primal narrative. In fact, an urban backdrop, deftly designed by Mike Mroch ,so that we barely notice it until it becomes clear it is doomed, subtly resembles Chicago. The blocking and direction (Matt Hawkins), particularly of the chorus, gives the play a mythic feel, and the actors are both talented and well-cast. Scott Danielson as Schmitz appears every bit the angel in disguise that you might feel obligated to welcome into your home while Ira Amyx as Eisenring is perfect as the menacing intruder that you don’t want to find there. Sarah Goedden and Robert Kauzlaric give performances remarkably faithful to the script as put upon people with a faded glamour who refuse to recognize despite all the evidence that their altruism, sincere or otherwise, is leading them to their own destruction. Sound (Sarah Espinoza) and lighting (Sean Mallary) effects give the play a surreal atmosphere that plays on our feelings of both the gothic and nightmare.
“The Arsonists” is playing at The StrawDog Theatre until September 27th, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday’s at 4 p.m with an industry performance on Monday, September 8th at 8PM. Tickets are 28 dollars for general admission and 24 dollars for seniors. They can be purchased at https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/30125. The theatre is located at 3829 N. Broadway several blocks southeast of the Sheridan Redline stop.
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