Wild Life Theatre Company
at Facets Multimedia, International Performance Studio
“Every citizen above a certain economic level is guilty of something,” observes Wilhelm Eisenring in Max Frisch’s The Firebugs, the reasoning he and his sidekick, Joe Schmitz, use to transform Gottlieb Biedermann’s residence into the tinderbox for a holocaust. The secret that makes the hair-tonic magnate vulnerable is his mistreatment of the inventor whose formula gave Biedermann his success–but whom he recently dismissed, answering the man’s protests with the suggestion that he go stick his head in an oven.
Eisenring and Schmitz, who are Biedermann’s guests, proclaim to his face, however, that he and his frivolous wife are paragons of charity and compassion. The gullible couple understandably become increasingly reluctant to oppose their guests, even after it becomes obvious that these strangers who intimidate as they flatter are the arsonists who’ve been terrorizing the city. Of course there is Mrs. Biedermann’s weak heart to consider, and the imposing size and strength (and virility) of ex-wrestler Schmitz, but more compelling is the Biedermanns’ desperate wish to protect their self-image as humanitarians. And so Biedermann preaches the virtue of trusting in one’s fellow man, lies to the police about the barrels in his attic, ignores the smell of gasoline that permeates his house, assists Eisenring in measuring the detonator fuse, invites his executioners to a sumptuous dinner, and even provides them with matches. Arsonists, no matter how cold-blooded, would not torch the home of their friend–would they?
Swiss playwright Frisch’s 1958 play can be read in any number of ways. It might be an indictment of the complacent citizens who turned a blind eye to Nazi atrocities in the naive hope of protecting their own interests. Or it might be a warning to the moneyed classes, whose insensitivity to the plight of the poor makes them easy targets for revolt. (In the rarely performed epilogue to the play, included in this production, Biedermann’s soul arrives in hell where he finds the devil piqued at the number of big-time sinners–warmongers, despots, mass murderers–who’ve somehow sneaked into heaven, while he gets only the petty criminals. This injustice so incenses the Top Firebug that he calls a strike and closes down the infernal factory altogether.) Or perhaps Biedermann is just a fallible human being like everyone else. At one point he addresses us directly, asking us what action we would have taken and when. And what are we to make of the professor who abets the arsonists but piously disassociates himself from the whole matter at the last moment? Director Ian Barford keeps all the options open in this Wild Life production, leaving it to each of us to draw what lesson we wish from this parable.
As the blustering Biedermann, Dean J. Lietzen turns his paranoid-hysterical bit to good advantage. Eric Winzenried, his rubbery face as mobile as a guignol’s, and Tim Kough, whose sharklike countenance changes from coldly menacing to winsomely cherubic in a split second, make an eerily vaudevillian pair of sociopaths as Eisenring and Schmitz. And the chorus of guardian firemen angels evoke our sympathy as they plead their helplessness to protect those who aid and comfort the enemy. But what brings the apocalypse right up to the doors of the Facets studio is the expertise of a top-notch technical team–in particular David E. Simpson, who contributes a segment from his film Dante’s Dream, and Rich Logan, whose inventive sound design blends the roar of flames and wail of sirens with the sinister strains of Tom Waits’s “Dirt in the Ground.”