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article imageReview: Canadian debut of 'The Arsonists' a mixed bag of musical satire Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Nov 16, 2012 in Entertainment
Toronto - It's hard to believe that Max Frisch's darkly comic parable “The Arsonists” has never been staged in Canada before. The Toronto debut of the 1958 play captures Frisch's absurdism nicely – but also adds a rock-and-roll edge that doesn't really fit.
It's that jarring clash of tones that makes this Canadian Stage production, which could have been excellent, a little unsatisfying. The Arsonists, as directed by Morris Panych, works best when it handles the story with a light touch. In this 2007 translation by Alistair Beaton, Frisch's short farce plays like an extended Python sketch, in which a naive bourgeois businessman named Gottlieb Biedermann (Michael Ball) allows a mysterious stranger, Schmitz (Dan Chameroy), to stay in his attic.
Although he knows that a pair of arsonists has been burning down buildings all over the city, Biedermann stays stubbornly polite and refuses to suspect the obvious – even when Schmitz' tuxedo-clad friend Eisenring (Shawn Wright) comes to stay, too. Even when Eisenring admits that he recently got out of jail. Even when the guests fill the attic with three piles of gasoline cans. Even when Schmitz keeps requesting matches.
“For the last time, he's not an arsonist!” Biedermann insists to his wife, Babette (Fiona Reid), adding: “I asked him.”
The premise has been interpreted as a metaphor for the blind acceptance of Nazism into German society, although parallels with Swiss neutrality or the rise of nuclear weaponry are also valid. Biedermann's bathetic need to trust Schmitz and Eisenring and their cleverly manipulative con game is funny on one level, but also inspires chilling messages about how we often appease evil by deliberately blocking it out of our minds. There's a fine line between well-meaning optimism and blatant denial. (The play gives no underlying reason or motivation for the arsonists' crimes; they just like burning down houses.)
Frisch's work is potent material, but Panych misfires by making a surreal musical out of it. The late Swiss playwright's original script (based on his own radio play) includes a parody of a Greek-style chorus that comments sardonically on the story. In this version, the chorus is played by an onstage band dressed in firefighter uniforms, headed by singer-songwriter Justin Rutledge, performing an original score and turning The Arsonists into a weirdly anachronistic rock opera.
The band adds a needless in-your-face flavour to a satirical comedy that should be approached dryly. The chorus' lines already spell out the play's themes very openly, but when Rutledge and company deliver them loudly in song, it makes Tim Rice look subtle.
The Arsonists scores better when Ball, Reid, Sheila McCarthy and the rest of the cast take over. That's when it becomes a quick-paced comedy of wits (and lack thereof), with Reid's nervous suspicion as a fine counterpoint to Ball's misguided good intentions. Wright, in particular, is amusing as an overly well-mannered arsonist (and former waiter); his Eisenring is a sort of Hardy to Schmitz' Laurel, occasionally landing an unexpected smack on Schmitz' face just for show.
Another asset is Ken MacDonald's set design. Split into two sections – a sparse triangular attic and a posh 1950s-style dining room – it combines both aesthetic appeal and practicality while often hiding guitarist Christine Bougie and drummer Sly Juhas, whose onstage presence sometimes distracts.
Panych and MacDonald previously teamed up for CanStage's brilliant 2009 production of Yasmina Reza's Art, a show that hit the right satirical note from the start and never lulled. This one doesn't work as well, although it has its moments. I hope Toronto gets to host a non-musical version of The Arsonists in the future, as I suspect that it would give a better idea of Frisch's intentions.
The Arsonists runs at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto's St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts until December 9.
More about Theatre, Comedy, Satire, Toronto, canadian stage
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