Review: The Arsonists at Maryland Ensemble Theatre

TheatreBloom rating:

Maryland Ensemble Theatre picks up in the back half of their 2014/201g season with a fiery smart and dark comedy. The Arsonists is Max Frisch’s satirical look at the banality of evil. Directed by Gerard Stropnicky, the new translation by Alistair Beaton is sure to light a fuse of laughter through the audience with its twisted elements of absurdism. Intent on proving how simple it is for human beings to be manipulated into bringing about their own destruction, the performance is ablaze with talented performers who keep the audience easily entertained throughout the show.

Lisa Burl (left) as Babette and Tad Janes (right) as Gottlieb
Lisa Burl (left) as Babette and Tad Janes (right) as Gottlieb Spence Photographics

 Tad Janes and Lisa Burl play Gottlieb and Babette Biederman, a conventional upper-middle-class couple. Into their lives comes Clay Comer as Schmitz, a circus wrestler down on his luck (as the circus has mysteriously burned down). Comer’s wild-eyed intensity immediately arouses suspicion that he is the arsonist who has been setting fires all over town, but Janes vigorously denies any such thoughts, preferring to preserve his own propriety even for such a rude, obnoxious visitor. Schmitz invites himself first to dinner, then to move into the attic.

 Schmitz’ character is soon joined by Tim Seltzer, playing Eisenring. The two immediately and obviously set to work preparing to burn the place down. Janes and Burl are delightfully put-upon as the discomfited couple, unwilling to throw out their unwanted guests for fear of being rude. Their maid Anna, played by Katie Rattigan, is screamingly funny, with hilariously timed double-takes and subtle physical comedy.

The Firefighting Chorus of The Arsonists at Maryland Ensemble Theatre
The Firefighting Chorus of The Arsonists at Maryland Ensemble Theatre Spence Photographics

 Around and between the action appears a Greek chorus of firefighters. In case it wasn’t already obvious, they provide additional foreshadowing and declare, “Woe unto us.” In fact, they frequently steal the show with musical numbers, songs with a fire theme (“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, “Ring of Fire”, etc.), generally Acapella. Their rendition of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”, led by Caitlin Joy, is delivered with a Stomp-style beat, and is the highlight of the show. They are not, for the most part, singers or dancers, but their commitment and Julie Herber’s Choreography makes them a delight every time they’re on stage.

 These chorus member are also responsible for rotating Ira Domser’s magnificent set. Turning reveals a riotous, colorful cityscape, a magnificently appointed drawing room, and an explosives-filled attic (complete with trap door), making tremendously impressive use of the Maryland Ensemble basement space. Tabetha White’s subtle and thoughtful lighting design keeps solid pacing with the shifting moods and settings.

 Director Gerard Stropnicky sets a measured pace through the first act, as Janes skillfully portrays the allegory of Biedermann’s downfall. Seltzer, incongruously clad as a high-class waiter (his restaurant has burned down…) runs mental rings around Janes’ befuddled homeowner, while barely controlling Comer’s mania. The chorus spells it out for us. While we are distracted by horrifying news of the world, we end up complicit in acts of violence at home, willfully ignoring the evils we see in front of us and even conscripted by our own politeness into helping.

Lisa Burl (center) and the chorus of The Arsonists at Maryland Ensemble Theatre
Lisa Burl (center) and the chorus of The Arsonists at Maryland Ensemble Theatre Spence Photographics

 Unfortunately, this theme has largely played itself out by the end of the first act, and the second act drags by comparison. The back end of the play passes as an uncomfortable drawing room comedy as Janes bends over backwards trying to get the criminals to like him. Janes and Burl bring a deep, sympathetic humanity to the characters.

 The climactic conflagration makes full use of the marvelous rotating set and the sharp lighting design. Adding to the spectacle of the blaze is Jerry Matheny’s sound design, an important design element worth praising. Jennifer Adam’s does an excellent job of making the fireman look authentic; their costumes are charming as they reflect the burned and weary conditions of humanity’s inevitable downfall. All in all one of the better staging tactics of incendiary proportions, thanks to the hard work and dedication of the design team.

Tim Seltzer (Left) as Eisenring and Clay Comer (Right) as Schmitz
Tim Seltzer (Left) as Eisenring and Clay Comer (Right) as Schmitz Spence Photographics

 The play is a warning and an absurdist black comedy. It is at times heavy-handed and blunt in its moralizing. Despite the new translation it often felt bound by the classist outlook of its original setting. It wears its theatricality on its sleeve. “There is nothing more senseless than the story just told,” the chorus concludes. They have run the gamut of emotions for the show’s duration, and that is perhaps the sense of the story being told. Strong performances and tremendous stagecraft give strong reasons to see this discomforting and thought-provoking play.

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

The Arsonists plays through March 8, 2015 at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre— 31 W. Patrick Street in historic Frederick, MD. For tickets call the box office at (301) 694-4744 or purchase them online.

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