Someone is burning down houses.
In Aurora Theatre Company's outstanding, entertaining new staging in Berkeley of Max Frisch's The Arsonists, a sly fable about a town beset by an epidemic of arson, the playwrights (this version is a translation by British playwright Alistair Beaton) cleverly demonstrate the insidious banality of evil, and the ways in which good, well-meaning people often allow danger to exist and escalate, right beneath their noses.
While the town's firefighters patrol the streets, Mr. Biedermann (Dan Hiatt), a wealthy homeowner and unscrupulous businessman, is self-righteously convinced of his own invulnerability. Hearing that a band of anarchistic troublemakers have been setting fires in the attics of houses all over town—growing increasingly bold with each new act of arson—he smugly rails against the stupidity of all who would unwittingly invite such incognito firebugs into their homes.
Then comes the knock at his door.
Schmitz (Michael Ray Wisely) is a charmingly eccentric, unemployed circus wrestler, who drops by asking for a sandwich and a bed. Biedermann is initially suspicious, but whatever he expects an arsonist to look like, this unmenacing goofball is not it. In fits and starts, Biedermann gradually warms to the sweet-faced newcomer, his easily manipulated sense of decency tangled into knots by Schmitz's stories of his life as the orphaned son of a poor coal miner.
Biedermann's wife, Babette (Gwen Loeb), is also suspicious, resenting the presence of the strange man lurking in her attic, but despite the gut-feeling warnings of their no-nonsense maid, Anna (Dina Percia), and a chorus of resolute firefighters (Kevin Clarke, Tristan Cunningham and Michael Uy Kelly), she eventually consents to Schmitz's guilt-tripping guile.
Even after the arrival of the straight-talking, tuxedoed ex-con Eisenbing (Santa Rosa's Tim Kniffin, menacingly cordial), and the rapid accumulation of gasoline barrels, fuses and detonators in the attic, the Biedermanns are afraid of appearing judgmental, their self-justifications pushing them closer and closer to complicity in the disaster that seems to be formulating right in their home.
Brilliantly directed by Mark Jackson, with a tense and escalating sound design composed of ambient noise and overlapping melodies, The Arsonists is crisp, superbly performed and deliciously fun to muse over afterwards, at once challenging, playful, and thought-provoking.
As the firefighters ominously demand, in one plaintive voice, "If the odor of change frightens you more than the odor of disaster . . . how will you stop disaster?"
Rating (out of 5): ★★★★★