Staff Players' presentation of Firebugs is sure to kindle controversy.
Thursday, November 6, 2003
Ignore or run from the confrontation of truth that stares you in the face and risk the consequences of annihilation. Such is the dark message that resonates from the challenging absurdist play, The Firebugs, by Swiss-born writer Max Frisch, now being performed at Carmel''s Indoor Forest Theater.
This cautionary and intriguing "moralist tale without a moral" came after Frisch had written several earlier works dealing with guilt associated from witnessing the origins and atrocities of Nazism. In the play, Frisch''s insidious arsonists (firebugs) are able to gain shelter in the home of Gottlieb Biedermann (translated: "God loves everyman") in much the same way Hitler was able to gain a shelter in the homes and hearts of the German people. Frisch''s writing always aims to provoke questions of his audience, not provide answers.
While farcical writing such as this doesn''t allow much room for virtuoso performances by any particular actor, this performance is driven by the acting strength of both firebugs, convincingly played by Craig Clark and Thomas Burkes. Clark captures his portrayal of a particularly unsavory character named Sepp Schmitz, who brilliantly milks both his hosts for all of his needs. Burkes masterfully plays his cohort in fire crime, Willi Eisenring, an unctuous con with contempt for the rich who, on occasion, blurts the truth without notice.
As the play progresses, the arsonists gain access to a wealthy business owner''s tinderbox of an attic by using a clever, manipulating mix of flattery, humor, intimidation, sentimentality, guilt, and "the best camouflage of all...the plain simple truth...because nobody ever believes it."
The almost but not-quite-unwilling landlords of the arsonists are the Biedermanns, a comfortably well-off, self-satisfied couple that refuse to believe they are at risk from the danger they have allowed into their home.
Joe Cunningham is obnoxiously amusing as Mr. Biedermann. Cunningham''s character is whiny, ineffectual and pompous. Accustomed to faking altruism when his own skin is at risk, his transparent true colors of greed and hypocrisy make a ripe target for the hate-filled arsonists.
Jennifer Galvin nicely plays Babette Biedermann, the supportive wife who wants to behave in a socially acceptable manner so as to not hurt anyone''s feelings, even if it means sacrificing her life.
Mark Burgman haphazardly plays two small roles; a policeman who the Biedermanns neglect to use for their salvation throughout the play; and also a Ph.D. Frisch manages to convey, even in this small part, obvious disdain for the intellectual type who doesn''t take any action but merely studies.
In this play, as in life, the "guilty" complacent parties are not the only ones who pay with their lives. The Biedermann''s maid, Anna, gracefully played by Leila Zaremba, also gets pulled in the fiery maelstrom caused by her employers. Other innocents include the firefighter chorus (played by Torrey Griffith, Jennifer Boyd, Sarah Andrews and John Dixon, and very effectively led by Toni Johnson.)
As a whole, director Nick Hovick makes it all work. I have a difference of opinion as to how the playwright would portray the character of Mr. Biedermann; as an "everyman," I feel his character would hold more thought-provoking weight if portrayed as a stronger, self-made type, with flaws, and whom the audience could more easily relate to.
On the night of my viewing, lines were a bit off overall, perhaps due to the very real smell of smoke and floating ash still lingering in the air from our local "controlled" burn. These performances are sure to spark with improvement. Don''t miss this seldom-seen Max Frisch piece that will ignite your thoughts.
The Staff players Repertory Company presents Firebugs, in the Indoor Forest Theater, Mountain view at Santa Rita, Carmel. Thurs-sat 8pm, sun 2:30pm, ends nov 23. 624-1531.