Thanks to director Morris Panych, The Arsonists is one blazing night at the theatre.
Panych’s production of this 1953 Swiss comedy is sharp and funny, as it should be with a cast of the country’s best comic actors such as Michael Ball, Fiona Reid and Sheila McCarthy on-board.
But it’s also gorgeous to look at due to Ken MacDonald and Charlotte Dean’s delicious and detailed design work, while the slightly repetitive nature of the satirical script has been turned from flaw into feature thanks to the interpolation of toe-tapping songs penned by Justin Rutledge.
Rutledge stars as the guitar-playing leader of a chorus of firefighters who arrive on the stage right at the start of the play, brandishing hoses at businessman Biedermann as he attempts to light a cigar in his living room.
“It’s not easy these days, lighting a cigar,” Biedermann complains confidentially to the audience. “Everyone thinks the whole world’s about to go up in flames.”
Biedermann – a man full of bluster and willful blindness as played by Ball – lives the good life in a city where there is a widespread fear about arson. Newspaper articles warn of men who will show up at your front door, ask to spend the night in a spare bedroom, then torch your house.
As Biedermann is discussing the need to “hang the lot of them,” a fellow named Schmitz (Dan Chameroy, busting out his biceps) shows up on his step. He’s a former circus performer whose former place of work burned to the ground and he’s looking for a place to sleep. Soon enough, the menacing man has talked his way into camping out in the attic.
Over the course of the rest of this one-act play, Biedermann and his bourgeois wife Babette – played by Reid, who as usual exhibits pinpoint comic timing – keep accommodating Schmitz and other potential arsonists despite their instincts. They feel too guilty about their own crimes, or they refuse to believe that the arsonists will do what they say they will, or – and this hits most close to home for a Canadian audience – they are simply too polite to throw them out.
Swiss writer Max Frisch penned the first version of The Arsonists in 1953, and the neutrality of Switzerland during the Second World War is often cited as his target. When this 2007 translation by Alistair Beaton premiered at the Royal Court Theatre, however, the London subway bombings by four home-grown Islamicist terrorists were still freshly in a British audience’s mind. Even the title Beaton has chosen for his version made his particular concerns clear (earlier translations were The Firebugs and The Fire Raisers).
“The timid are blind, more blind than the blind – hoping the evil is not really evil,” says the chorus leader. And, well, this kind of message has an entirely different texture coming out of the mouth of a songwriter in a fireman’s helmet and hipster mustache than that of, say, George W. Bush.
Staged in Toronto in 2012, the show seems slightly less inflammatory – though everything from the rising international tension over Iran’s nuclear ambitions to the Republican Party’s attempts to accommodate its political fringes come to mind.
Regardless of how you read it, Frisch’s parable is solidly and unsettlingly entertaining here. Physical comedy is pulled off with aplomb by Chameroy and McCarthy, while Shawn Wright burns brightest as an swishy ex-felon who makes no attempt to disguise why he’s filling Biedermann’s attic with oil drums. “In my experience, the best, the most reliable tactic is still the naked truth,” he tells us. “Because, funnily enough, nobody believes it.”
On opening night, The Arsonists fell a little off the beat in its final scene, while Ball kept speaking over laughs. And there’s no doubt that Rutledge’s strength is in singing rather than speaking.
But, ultimately, Panych has pulled this one off with panache, and Canadian Stage artistic director Matthew Jocelyn’s unorthodox programming in the Bluma Appel theatre has finally yielded a clear and present hit.