From the moment the audience stepped off the elevator into the lobby of the Walnut Street Theatre’s Studio 5, director Tina Brock thrust them into the irrational world of MAX FRISCH’S THE ARSONISTS. Members of the show’s fire brigade checked tickets next to a sign warning against bringing cigarettes, detonators, and other explosive devices or fire hazards into the theater. Once inside, the brigade chief, well played with mock authority by John D’Alonzo, reminded everyone again that smoking and explosives were not permitted—everyone, that is, except the eponymous arsonists. Such was the relevant illogic of this rapid-fire 70-minute production by Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium; absurd, yet eerily familiar, if you’ve been through a random airport screening lately.
Originally conceived by the Swiss playwright in the aftermath of World War II, THE ARSONISTS still speaks to us today, by employing an absurdist/comedic mode to underscore a serious point: ignoring, accommodating, or enabling a homicidal sociopath is never a good idea; it wasn’t with Hitler, and it isn’t now.
Frisch’s 1953 parable about deception and gullibility, misplaced trust and middle-class guilt, and most importantly, about hearing the truth but choosing to ignore it, continues to raise compelling psychological and ethical issues. It questions personal cowardice and hiding behind the façade of bourgeois etiquette in the face of obvious danger, and ponders why people prefer to live in a state of denial than to act for the common good and their own survival.
IRC’s spirited cast brought an appropriate preposterousness to the outrageous proceedings. Liam Castellan was hilarious as the neurotic nerd Gottlieb Biedermann (whose name, in German, ironically alludes to God-loving conventional bourgeois decency)—a hypocritical, ruthless businessman who bullies a devoted long-term employee into suicide, yet is too cowardly to stand up to the obvious threat that stands before him and his community. Kirsten Quinn was equally humorous as Biedermann’s nervous, insomniac, but ever fashionable wife Babette, as easily intimidated as her husband into befriending the firebugs, despite her well founded reservations. Ethan Lipkin and Mark Knight were funny, disquieting, and diabolical as the criminals, who conned their foolish victims with a combination of sentimentality, humor, and unabashed honesty, confident that no one would believe the blatant truth when faced with it.
The stellar design team of Meghan Jones (set), Brian Strachan (costumes), Josh Schulman (lights), and Aaron Oster (sound) created a disturbingly convincing ambiance for the dark comedy. And the brigade of six ineffectual firefighters (D’Alonzo, Monah Yancy, Jaime Pannone, Bob Schmidt, Michael Dura, and Tomas Dura) functioned effectively as a finely synchronized Greek chorus, who collectively addressed the audience with summary comments and bits of wisdom, but in the end, took no more action than the Biedermanns to save their town from annihilation.
If you missed this entertaining and provocative offering, you can catch IRC again in February 2012, when the company returns to the stage with another absurdist classic, Nikolai Gogol’s MARRIAGE–an “utterly improbable occurrence in two acts.”
MAX FRISCH’S THE ARSONISTS (THE FIREBUGS)
The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium
August 31-September 18, 2011
Walnut Street Theatre, Studio 5
825 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107