“The Arsonists” lights a blazing, provocative fire

SHARE “The Arsonists” lights a blazing, provocative fire



When: Through Sept. 27

Where: Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway

Tickets: $28

Info: (866) 811-4111; http://www.strawdog.org

Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission

“The Arsonists,” the best-known work of the Swiss-German playwright Max Frisch (a contemporary of Bertolt Brecht), was written in 1953, and it could easily be taken as an allegory about the way the Nazi regime was embraced by the Germans and many of their neighbors, and how the poisonous nature of the whole transaction was a mutual act of self-destruction.

But watching the play today, particularly in Strawdog Theatre Company’s ideally mad, razor-sharp, deliciously realized production — expertly directed by Matt Hawkins (and prefaced by the Vitamin String Quartet’s version of The Doors classic, “Light My Fire” — the whole thing opens itself up to a slew of more contemporary interpretations.

Frisch’s work easily could be seen as an exploration of 21st century domestic terrorism. At the same time, all you have to do is glance at the building that stands across the street from Strawdog — a former SRO now undergoing a major rehab that promises “market value” apartments — to realize this story also captures the potentially explosive nature of a society with an extreme class divide.

At the center of “The Arsonists” is Biedermann (Robert Kauzlaric), a thriving, subtly ruthless businessman who lives a privileged, bourgeois life along with his wife, the understandably high-strung Babette (Sarah Goeden), and their pretty, ever-skeptical maid, Anna (Rebecca Wolfe). (Both actresses have marvelously expressive faces.) Things would be fine for Biedermann — aside from a nagging dispute with a terminated employee over a patent — were it not for the many recent incidents of arson in the area. These have left the town’s residents in a state of great anxiety, and the local fire brigade (seven firefighters who form something of a Greek chorus) in a state of high alert.

Then comes a knock at Biedermann’s door. Enter Schmitz (a tour de force portrayal by Scott Danielson, who makes you believe he was born to play this role). A huge bear of a man, he is homeless, with maudlin, self-dramatizing tales of an orphaned childhood and wrestling career. He makes a plea for Biedermann to show some humanity, andasks for shelter and bread. But very soon his mock humility turns into a sense of entitlement as he plays on Biedermann’s fear and guilt. Before long he is living in the attic and feasting on his host’s finest food and wine. And he is soon joined by a friend and co-conspirator, Eisenring (a terrifically caustic, insinuating Ira Amyx, in the Philip Seymour Hoffman mold), a former waiter and ex-con, who oversees the arrival of huge canisters of petrol. It’s only a matter of time before the big boom.

The fast-paced production, featuring a zesty adaptation by Alistair Beaton, is greatly enriched by the perfectly integrated design of Mike Mroch (sets), Sean Mallary (lights), Brittany Dee Bodley (costumes) and Sarah Espinoza (sound).

By the time it’s all over I found myself thinking of a line from Ronald Keaton’s one-man show about Winston Churchill (at the Greenhouse Theater Center through Sept. 14). As that bristling statesman observed: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”

Words to live by.

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