Review: The Arsonists (Canadian Stage)

Toronto’s Canadian Stage production of The Arsonists features live original music by Justin Rutledge

If your town were in the middle of an arson epidemic and two strangers showed up at your house and started stockpiling gasoline in your attic would you hand them a match? For any rational person the answer would be “no.” Unfortunately, modern morality is never quite so straightforward.

The Arsonists is a dark comedy written by Swiss playwright Max Frisch in 1953 and translated from its original German by Alistair Beaton. The story centers on the character of Gottlieb Biedermann (Michael Ball). Despite living in a town in the midst of an arson epidemic Biedermann allows two strangers, Schmitz and Eisenring (Dan Chameroy and Shawn Wright), to talk him into spending the night in his attic.

As the strangers fill his attic with inflammables they keep their host in check by feeding him an increasingly surreal and outlandish series of ruses and Biedermann seems content to ignore what’s plainly happening in front of him as if he believes that by turning a blind eye he will avert the inevitable outcome.

The play is a social commentary and political allegory. Frisch wrote it as an indictment of the population’s complacency and ability to ignore evil acts in his native Switzerland and throughout Europe enabling the Nazis’ rise to power to go unchecked. The moral of the story is of course still relevant today as we collectively still choose willful ignorance and inaction on a range of issues from climate change to the conflict in Syria.

The Canadian Stage’s production is sleekly-designed; Ken MacDonald’s slightly off-kilter set featuring looming triangular roofs matches the outlandish tone of the play.

Toronto-based songwriter/musician Justin Rutledge composed original music and performs live on stage with band members Christine Bougie and Sly Juhas. Rutledge also appears throughout the play in minor roles and as the captain of the fire brigade who serves as the Greek-style chorus commenting on the action in the play through song. For the most part I thought the device of casting a musician to lead the chorus was interesting and worked well.

Director Morris Panych’s take on the script is pretty straightforward. I think I would have enjoyed it more if the tone of the comedy were a little darker. While it’s often clever, for a show marketed as a farce it’s not exactly a knee-slapper. The humour comes from the absurdity of the situation rather than through dialogue or physical comedy.

It’s a morality play and an allegory but I think we all get that point within the first ten minutes. The rest of the show sometimes feels like a comedy sketch that’s gone on a few beats too long.

The last few minutes, as the show ramps up to its inevitable climax, are deliciously awkward. The script is clever, the production is sleek, the cast members all turn in strong performances and I liked the music but in the end I thought The Arsonists was more academic than entertaining.

Details:

  • The Arsonists is playing at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts’ Bluma Appel Theatre, (27 Front Street E) till December 9, 2012
  • Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8 p.m. with additional matinees on Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. Matinee only on Sunday at 2:00pm.
  • Tickets $24 – $99
  • Tickets are available in person at the venue box office, by phone at 416-368-3110 or online at canadianstage.com.

Photo of Michael Ball, Dan Chameroy and Shawn Wright by Bruce Zinger.