The Arsonists: A provocative play has resonance today

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Firefighters (l-r, Michael Uy Kelly, Tristan Cunningham, Kevin Clarke) surround Mr. Biedermann (c, Dan Hiatt) in his home, in The Arsonists playing at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. Photo: David Allen

Aurora Theatre Company’s provocative production of Max Frisch’s classic absurdist play The Arsonists is a cautionary tale in which apathy, greed and weakness allow evil to flourish. The play is set in a nameless country, in a nameless city, at an unidentified time. It is, however, a time of civil unrest. Arsonists roam the streets setting fire to numerous, yet seemingly arbitrarily chosen, buildings.

The main character of the play, Biedermann, which translates as “bourgeois man,” is masterfully portrayed by Dan Hiatt. The conventional Biedermann lives a moral double life. Although he is smug about his correct, polite and decent family life, he is ruthless and brutal in his business life. In that regard, he could be a Soprano family member, performing vicious criminal acts during the day and kissing his kids in the evening.

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Mr. Biedermann (r, Dan Hiatt) half-heartedly holds the fuse for arsonist Eisenring (l, Tim Kniffin) in The Arsonists. Photo: David Allen.

When two self-acclaimed arsonists (first-rate acting by Michael Ray Wisely and Tim Kniffin) breach the boundaries of Biedermann’s home cum castle, he accedes to their cunning request to stay in the attic. His decision appears to be based on a combination of outward civility, appeasement and fear. After all, Biedermann seems to reason, if the arsonists are “guests” in his home, they may continue their mayhem elsewhere, but they will not harm his family. He’s unaware of Hamlet’s realization, “… one may smile, and smile, and be a villain …”

The audience sees Biedermann’s naiveté immediately and watches in consternation and incredulity until the predicable fiery dénouement. Yes, the play is an extended metaphor, but it is a bit too extended and too obvious, even in 90 minutes (no intermission). But to put it in context, The Arsonists is part of the exaggerated “theatre of the absurd” in which people are victimized by outside forces or they are reacting to a world that no longer has meaning. Think of Durrenmatt, Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter and Genet.

A welcome addition to the play is the Greek chorus of three firefighters (well done by Kevin Clarke, Tristan Cunningham and Michael Uy Kelly) who accompany the action. They say that they are prepared to act against the arsonists, yet, like others, make no move to do so.

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Mr. Biedermann (c, Dan Hiatt) sings a friendly song with the arsonists (l, Tim Kniffin, r, Michael Ray Wisely). Photo: David Allen

Award-winning director Mark Jackson and the other members of the production have done outstanding work with this imperfect parable. The acting, pace, sets, lighting and Alistair Beaton’s new translation all combine to modernize and enhance The Arsonists. For example, nice touches are the use of a cell phone, modern references and an aside to the audience.

Although Swiss architect and writer Frisch conceived the ideas in The Arsonists as a sketch in the 1940s, it was not until 1958 that The Arsonists was first produced theatrically. In 1940s, one can suppose that the arsonists symbolized Nazi Germany and Biedermann, English Prime Minister Clement Atlee. After 1948, the arsonists may denote the USSR and Biedermann, Czechoslovakia.

The list of evils continues today — environmental damage, nuclear weapons, loss of civil liberties in the name of the War on Terror. Frisch’s theme still has resonance.

The Arsonists runs through May 12, 2013. For information and tickets, visit the Aurora Theatre online.

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Longtime East Bay resident Emily S. Mendel has been Berkeleyside’s freelance theater and art critic since 2012.