UC Berkeley’s Theater, Dance and Performance Studies department burns down the house with lively performance of ‘The Arsonists’

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There is a fine line that has to be walked when performing “The Arsonists,” Max Frisch’s 1953 play. Originally written for radio, the play is a comedy — it needs to bring up its own zaniness to make its audience laugh. At the same time, it needs to bring a clarifying realism to its sobering themes and content. This line was acknowledged but shifted by UC Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, or TDPS, whose take on the play about complicity and ideology tends toward the comedic but faces some uneven tonal shifts.

For the most part, the production was solid. In defiance of any restriction on liberty, the play began by breaking one of the few exceptions to free speech, with someone yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. As the first match was struck, it’s smell lingered, setting the tone for the rest of the performance. The play is primarily allegory, its characters serving as stand-ins for real-world groups in an onslaught of ideology. The main character, Biedermann (Benjamin Arsenault), takes the place of the average, well-meaning citizen while various forces, represented by the play’s characters, act upon him, serving Frisch’s allegorical intentions.

These character representations were done well. Schmitz (Marrec Selous) was particularly engaging to watch. His charismatic mixture of intimidation and magnetism made it easy to understand why anyone, Biedermann especially, would be willing to allow him to sleep in his attic and bring along his cohort, Eisenring (Abril Centurión). Everything in the acting, from Eisenring’s impatience and aggression to Babette’s (Eleanor Hammond) various façades, served the greater purpose of characterizing the conflict at hand — the clash of the ideological and the personal.

The chorus, a brigade of firefighters, was a delight. One of their additional roles was an onstage sound crew, plucking ukulele strings and tapping on metal piping for the sounds of rain. The chorus, however, was an important element of the tonal tightrope TDPS walked with this production. On one hand, the chorus played a role as a messenger for the play’s larger themes of ideology and complacency, shouting “Woe is us!” and proselytizing to both Biedermann and the audience. On the other hand, the chorus often played for comedy, with comically large hats and lampshade disguises.

This balancing act mostly worked. Throughout the play, tension visually mounted in a credit to the design of the stage, as oil drums amassed around the characters, representing the mounting threat of fire. As more and more demands were made of the Biedermanns, the audience was both intrigued and resigned to the fates of the characters — everyone knew how this would end. 

The dinner scene that comes at the end of the play, however, deflated a lot of the tension that “The Arsonists” had built up. The conclusion of the play, a spectacle of fire and explosions, should have been a cathartic and climactic end. Instead, it came after a winding and slow scene, in which too few points were made and too many jokes were cracked. Unfortunately, the wind was taken out of the sails of the play’s central question, as the arsonists asked Biedermann to hand them a match. Still, the scene had some of the punch it wanted to have, and the production removed a scene at the end of the play, in which the Biedermanns go to hell, which probably would have dampened the dramatic conclusion further.

On the whole, the production was well done. Some of the blocking prevented the clarity of the visual comedy, but the arsonists’ use of proximity to intimidate the Biedermanns was a particularly strong staging choice. Music was rare and brief when it occurred, and a lighting color change was the only indicator of fire, which was slightly underwhelming for such an important element of the play. Still, TDPS put on an entertaining hour and a half of comedy, while also managing the play’s more serious themes and bringing together a cast that communicated those themes with a generally high degree of success, and an even higher degree of fire-based puns.

Contact Crew Bittner at [email protected]. Tweet him at @weakandrewwk.