THE ARSONISTSby Max Frisch
New translation by Alistair Beaton
Kitchen Dog Theater
Directed by Tim Johnson
Composer/Music Director – Jon Schweikhard
Choreographer – Zenobia Taylor
Stage Manager – Michelle Foster
Costume Design – Giva Taylor
Scenic Design – Jeffrey Schmidt
Lighting Design – Aaron Johansen
Sound Design – Kellen Voss
Prop Design – Jen Gilson-Gilliam
Biedermann – Max Hartman
Babette – Karen Parrish
Anna/Chorus – Jenny Ledel
Schmitz – Jason Kane
Eisenring – Michael Federico
Chorus Leader – Rhonda Boutté
Chorus/Policeman – Ian Ferguson
Chorus/Doctor of Philosophy – Chris Sykes
Chorus/Mrs. Knechtling – Joshua Kumler
Pianist – Jon Schweikhard
Percussionist – Mark Baker
Reviewed Performance: 11/7/2014
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Soon after WWII, the world was in upheaval as the atrocities of Nazism were becoming evident. A new world order rose, which put Western freedom squarely against Eastern despotism. Out of this upheaval, a young author and playwright named Max Frisch penned a play called Biedermann und die Brandstifter, or Biedermann and the Fire Starters, which questioned the people of Germany and possibly the people of Russia for embracing Nazis and Bolsheviks even as their countries burned from the worst forms of hell. There are many possible themes addressed through this play, a central one being, “If ignorance of evil creates bliss, can it still be innocence?”
Alistair Beaton re-translated Frisch’s play in the 60’s, renaming it The Arsonists, which is now premiering at Kitchen Dog Theater.
The Arsonists is a story of an upper class man and wife who rail against a rash of house fires in the town and proclaim the arsonists should be caught and punished. But within minutes a lower class man appears, claiming to be homeless and wanting a place to stay. After a few days another friend shows up to stay in the attic, which becomes storage for, well, that would go a bit too far.
The Arsonists is not like most plays; it’s kind of like a musical and a farcical comedy, with a Greek chorus made up of firefighters who sing narrations and commentary on the action. But they don’t really fight fires. And it’s not a musical like My Fair Lady, rather more like Eating Raoul or Assassins. A keyboardist and percussionist back up the singing narrators, providing atmosphere and sound effects. The Arsonists is a comedy, so funny and farcical you find yourself laughing out loud at the most ridiculous things, like stores and houses and restaurants burning down, even while you get a sense of foreboding.
The setting is the house of Gottlieb Biedermann and Babette, a well-to-do couple. Designed by Jeffrey Schmidt, the bare polka-dot floor allowed for a sitting room or kitchen, depending on the furniture. On one side, a tall platform created an upstairs attic above an alcove where the band played behind a scrim, and on which fireplace flames were projected.
Lit by orange and blue spots, Aaron Johansen’s design created a reddish glow and shadowy line atmosphere in the background. Johansen played games with this lighting, making shadows, illuminating back wall windows, turning on functional hanging lamps, creating flash effects “outside” the set, and otherwise making a bright setting.
Aside from music played by the band, Kellen Voss created a set of preshow and intermission songs about fire, and created sirens, explosions and other outdoor sounds. Music Director Jon Schweikhard also played the piano as well as composed some of the music.
Jen Gilson-Gilliam’s property design included diverse forms, such as a lavish table setting for a holiday feast, a fire axe and ladders used by the Chorus, large 55-gallon drums in the attic, and lots of cigarettes. Yes, there’s constant smoking – it is about fire you see - and if one is sensitive, sitting in the back row is advisable. It did not affect my own sensitivity however, the smoking generally being very quick.
Giva Taylor designed an equally diverse set of costumes including fire brigade uniforms for the Chorus, a stereotypical, sexy, maid outfit for Anna, and lavish robes and dresses for Babette.
This show could be called an extended dance routine and Choreographer Zenobia Taylor used the space to the maximum for dance-like movement by all. The Chorus was constantly in motion amongst the actors on stage as they sang their narrations. Their group movements were fascinating on their own. Whether in unison or in all directions at once, they moved in perfect time like line dancers with the beat of their narrations. At times they went into the audience, moved through doors or into windows, but all moved like an octopus’ eight legs, completely independent but always in unity. It was the most innovative dance movement I’ve seen all year.
The Chorus sang most of their narrations as little songettes, each to introduce, explain or punctuate the current action. These were not American Idol songs, though I didn’t hear bad voices. They were more like dirges. Being in tune, with perfect phrasing and tonal sensitivity, wasn’t the purpose. They were narrating the story, and this too was the most creative form of exposition I’ve seen. Jon Schweikhard’s musical direction of these narrations, along with largely unrecognizable songs, was as much fun to hear and watch as the story itself and really served the story well.
Actors sang at times, especially Biedermann, played powerfully by Max Hartman. When he let loose near the conclusion, it was clear the man could sing! Hartman really nailed his character’s haughty, uppity personality, then became confused, meek, and putty in the hands of the low-class boarders he let in. Hartman’s voice and presence filled the space in the early scenes as he commanded, demanded and showed the confident side of Biedermann. But after the boarders arrived, Hartman’s characterization reduced to one who would fall for anything and defend his enemies to the very end. Babette is the highbrow, haughty wife of a rich, influential, business tycoon. Karen Parrish gave this woman a full sense of her character’s importance, gradually disintegrating into a puddle of disbelief, disillusionment and abject fear as Babette came to grips with her husband’s ignorance of the obvious facts. Parrish’s constantly nervous eyes and wavering voice provided an endless stream of hilarious faces toward her husband as he made pronouncements and explanations why the boarders should stay.
The boarders, Schmitz and Eisenring, came to visit, infiltrate, and prepare the house. These two lovable criminals were played by Jason Kane and Michael Federico.
In Schmitz, Kane played an obviously lower class, rough, heavyweight wrestler type. Wearing something you’d see on a mineworker, his powerful voice and erudite, imposing figure would likely make anyone bend his way. Standing a bit hunched over, Kane’s Schmitz was a man of no manners, yet one who was comfortable in a rich setting. His facial looks and stares were hilarious and powerful, but it was his psychological invasion you were not sure you could withstand.
Billy Eisenring is the brains of the arsonist operation. A tuxedo-wearing, smooth-talking leader, Billy seemed to have feelings for Schmitz and this relationship played out like George and Lennie in Of Mice and Men. Federico talked fast and confidently, like a used car salesman from Jersey or Philly, and played Eisenring as a criminally despicable, yet friendly and trustworthy guy you might turn your house over to. But we never forgot he was violent, and Federico injected a bit of sleaze to help us believe. In author Frisch’s world, he represented the Nazis and he had to act uncomfortably violent.
Biedermann’s maid Anna is played by Jenny Ledel. She weaved between serving them in their expected, lavish ways and her place in the Chorus. As maid, she is often under assault by both her employers and the two boarders. Ledel did an amazing job being cute, conflicted and afraid. That range takes skill, and Ledel showed Anna’s fear facially, physically, as she cowered, and vocally as she wavered in her fearful responses. But then every few minutes, she had to jump into a fireman suit and join the Chorus.
The Chorus consists of three men and two women. Like Ledel, each of the men also play another part; a policeman by Ian Ferguson, a Doctor of Philosophy by Chris Sykes, and Mrs. Knechtling by Joshua Kumler. Each of these brief character scenes were interludes, a bit of humor in the midst of growing ominous feelings or making a point about another character. But their main work was to sing narrations and interact with the audience; warning, preparing, and pointing out discrepancies. Added to the mix is the constant voice of the Chorus Leader, a fire chief played by Rhonda Boutté. This little dynamo led the chorus in all the songs and spoke most of the text expositions to the audience. Boutté’s voice was strong, her demeanor always serious and a bit menacing. What she said was obvious – we could see it developing – but through her words and the Chorus’ songs we were dragged into the story, as culpable as the Biedermanns.
Tim Johnson directed a powerhouse of a play. His designers created an atmosphere that made you feel the heat. His actors and musicians created a flawless story that gave no choice but to think about the “moral play without a moral.” Whether it hit you as remembrance of the blind ignorance of the Germans, and indeed the world, during WWII, half a century of communist subjugation, 3rd world genocides in the past few decades, or the horror of disease in Africa, we cannot depend on our own ignorance and blindness to feel better about those events. We are part of the problem.
But remember, The Arsonists is a comedy. It was hilarious in places, probably the best way to approach a subject like this. And there’s no preaching, only consideration.
Kitchen Dog Theater
McKinney Avenue Contemporary (The MAC)
3120 McKinney Ave
Dallas, TX 75204
Plays through December 13th
Thursday - Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sunday at 2:00 pm. Performances on Friday, Dec. 5th will start at 8:30pm. Additional performances are on Wednesday, Nov. 12th, Dec. 3rd and 10th at 8:00 pm .
Pay-What-You-Can, available to the first 25 patrons, are on Wednesday, Nov.12th, Dec. 3rd, 10th, and Thursdays. There will be NO performance on Sunday, Nov. 16th and Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 25th.
Ticket prices range from $20.00-$30.00 and $15.00-$25.00 for MAC, STAGE, KERA, DART, ARTSCARD, TCG members, students, and senior citizens/65+ (all with proper ID).
For information and to purchase tickets, go to www.kitchendogtheater.org or call the
KDT box office at 214-953-1055.