Back in the late 60’s when I was still in college, certain plays kept asserting themselves for production. One such play was the Swiss playwright Max Frisch’s play Biederman and the Firebugs. I remember seeing a mediocre student production but the play has always stayed with me. I admired the play’s imaginative way of making its points, and the message itself as my contemporaries applied it to Vietnam.
The new translation by Alistair Beaton, as presented under a new title, The Arsonists, is getting a terrific production at the Odyssey Theatre. The play seems even more relevant than ever, something always true of great plays. It is directed by the company's Artistic Director Ron Sossi who has a real affinity for this sort of play, and is acted by a special group of actors who get together, usually once a year, to explore a text using the approaches introduced by Grotowski, Chaiken, Brecht, Brook, and Suzuki. The results here are funny, explosive, and affecting.
Biederman and his wife are visited or rather invaded by two strangers who manipulate and threaten by implication the very safety of their existence. The town is being overwhelmed by arsonists who move into the houses, then torch them to the ground. Biederman refuse to acknowledge that this menacing pair of thugs, beautifully realized by baby-faced John Acorn (as Schmitz) and Ron Bottita as his slimy friend Eisenring, a waiter. The more Biederman (the timid and effective Norbert Weisser) and his sniveling wife Babette (the always-delightful Beth Hogan) refuse to face the truth, the more the audience squirms. We know the intruders are the bad guys but the Biedermans become culpable by their refusal to deal with the reality.
Playwright Frisch probably had Nazism or communism on his mind but the brilliance and sad fact about the play is that it fits almost any period. I couldn’t stop thinking about the tea-baggers, especially the gun-carrying kind, and the constant intrusion into our lives by the likes of Fox News and MSNBC. Cable TV leaves us anxious but we must ignore their dire prophecies in order to get out of bed in the morning and face the drudgery of everyday existence.
Ron Sossi orchestrates the play beautifully using the chorus of firemen to underscore the action. These firemen also know the truth but merely linger on the edge, reminiscent of the Keystone Kops. The Arsonists plays at the Odyssey Theatre until May 23rd.