Review: “The Arsonists” (Strawdog Theatre Company)

"The Arsonists" at Strawdog
“The Arsonists” at Strawdog

Show: The Arsonists

Company: Strawdog Theatre Company

Venue: Strawdog Mainstage

Die Roll: 16

When pressure from all sides is at its greatest, wealthy businessman Biedermann turns to the audience of Strawdog Theatre’s The Arsonists, because, in order to save face, he’s chased off any other sounding board or willing ear. He asks us when we knew the strange men at his door and in his attic were in fact the arsonists he’d been so carefully warned against. And well, because authors Max Frisch and Alistair Beaton have crafted an absurd allegory and their characters are much bigger and broader than they seem, Biedermann’s not going to like our answer. That homeless gentle-giant whose past employers have all burned to the ground hasn’t fooled us for a moment. When the lights went up, and the businessman flung his newspaper, scoffing at the likelihood he would ever fall victim to the arsonists’ blatant ruse, we know exactly what he is in for.

But I’m getting ahead of myself! The Arsonists, directed by Matt Hawkins, is an ‘oughts era update an absurd comedy written in the aftermath of World War II and a commentary on the atmosphere and thinking that allows for despicable acts to occur while blind eyes are turned. Biedermann, played by Robert Kauzlaric, grimacing with increasingly tight-winding energy, has eschewed the advice of the diligent and ever-present fire brigade and taken in some unsavory boarders. Schmitz (Scott Danielson, booming and deftly navigating a stage that seems a shade too small for him) dares the businessman to deny room and board to a sweet man-child, and ever-honest Eisenring (Ira Amyrx), who- wait, just how did he get in here with all those oil barrels?

Biedermann is determined to outwit the firebugs on his own; intent on returning to his simple life and making the arsonists someone else’s problem.  But he simply isn’t willing to lose face to his sedated wife (Sarah Goeden), his overworked maid (Rebecca Wolfe), a chorus of firefighters, or the arsonists themselves. He traps himself in his pride and failed efforts to manipulate a bad situation in his favor. As Biedermann finds his options narrowing in the face of impending fiery doom, the stage closes in on him, a tangle of scaffolding, fuse wire and fire hose.

When he breaks the fourth wall in Brechtian fashion to ask us when we knew he was in league with arsonists, Biedermann opens the flood gates for more uncomfortable questions: at what point do we go from observers to complicit in heinous acts? Where is that line drawn? Do our good intentions ever matter? The Arsonists is an argument against accepting an ‘inevitable fate’ says guest speaker and historian Dr. Eugene Beiriger in a post-show panel discussion. Even as his situation steadily worsens, Biedermann is never without the opportunity to act, but chooses not to; possibly a familiar choice to an audience of people pursuing our own simple lives.

With The Arsonists, Strawdog has cultivated a thought provoking production and an artistic team perfectly suited to their space and a terrific addition to a season devoted to those tricky personal and political grey areas.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Ruthless fire starters can’t bring one man up to code.

RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”