The Performant: Burning down the haus

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Tim Kniffin, Dan Hiatt, and Michael Ray Wisely
PHOTO BY DAVID ALLEN

The Arsonists at Aurora Theatre crackles and sears
 
If there was ever a time to revive a play best known for its condemnation of the silent complicity of the comfortable classes in times of civil unrest and encroaching disaster, this might well be one of the best. And Max Frisch’s 60 year-old classic Herr Biedemann und die Brandstifter, newly translated (in 2007) by Alistair Beaton as The Arsonists, might prove to be one of the timeliest of cautionary tales to revive. Currently playing at the Aurora Theatre, two years after its bang-up American premiere at the Odyssey Theatre in LA, this Mark Jackson-directed farce might play on the surface as a cheerfully absurdist comedy of manners, but the pointed cultural critique that underlies it is deadly serious.

“It’s hard just lighting a cigar,” observes Biedermann (Dan Hiatt) plaintively at the top of the show, as a trio of uninvited firefighters (Kevin Clarke, Tristan Cunningham, Micheal Uy Kelly) menaces him into putting said cigar and lighter away, before introducing themselves as the “guardians of the city,” and its unacknowledged conscience.

The brilliance of Biedermann, whose very name can be alternately defined as “upright,” “honest,” or “conservative,” is how well his character skewers expectations of his supposed role as the play’s protagonist, even when it becomes clear that he is also its biggest dupe. His classist hypocrisies and dogged belief in keeping up appearances paves the road to his undoing, as surely as if he had set a noose around his own neck. Flanked by his appropriately haughty Hausfrau, Babette (Gwen Leob) and his harried serving-girl, Anna (Dina Percia), and bolstered by his inflated sense of personal worth, even as he is gradually revealed to be an amoral bounder, Biedermann manages to encompass the most troubling elements of both the belligerent right and the ineffectual left, defending, above all else, his right to “not think anything at all,” under his own roof.

By far the most fun characters to watch on the stage are the titular Arsonists, played respectively by Michael Ray Wisely and Tim Kniffin. Wisely’s Schmitz, the very picture of a gone-to-seed wrestler with his softening bulk encased in an immodest tank top and a spiky Sonic-the-Hedgehog hairdo, appeals to Biedermann’s vanity by praising his humanity and acting the role of a borderline mentally-incapacitated buffoon, even as he deftly manipulates the hassled homeowner into letting him stay in the drafty attic—and fills it with drums of gasoline. Meanwhile Kniffin’s Eisenring at turns obsequious and shrewdly blunt, subtly flatters Biedermann by pretending more than a passing familiarity with Beidermann’s social ranking, even as he gleefully maneuvers him into physically assisting in his own destruction.
 
The insistent rumble of Matt Stines’ sound design at times overwhelms the fragile human element onstage, but the action is well-served by the incomparable Nina Ball’s graciously appointed set, and Mia Baxter’s perfectly-detailed props. And while the humor in the script does provoke its share of laughter, much of it is the kind of horrified laughter emitted by an oddience that reluctantly recognizes its own complicity in its perhaps inevitable downfall. But there is hope too, lodged within this “moral play without a moral,” as right from the beginning the firefighters remark that “not every fire is determined by fate,” meaning preventable, so long as inaction and passivity do not carry the day. Think on it. And see the play.

Through May 12

Aurora Theatre

2081 Addison, Berkeley

$32-$50

(510) 843-4822

www.auroratheatre.org

 

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