Gottlieb Biedermann has a problem.
Despite his prosperous business selling “hair rejuvenator,” his well-appointed house, and delightful name that’s fun to say, there’s danger lurking in his attic.
Or is there? He can’t quite make up his mind about the two homeless people (one ex-wrestler for a circus, one ex-head-waiter at a fancy restaurant) who’ve wheedled their way into the Biedermanns’ bourgeois home and may or may not be the dreaded arsonists who, according to the newspapers, have been setting fatal fires all over town.
Biedermann (played with bellowing bluster by Mario Orallo-Molinaro in The Horse in Motion‘s lively production) might be confused, but we are not. Among the arsonists’ previous targets: a circus and a restaurant. His guests are stockpiling gasoline in the attic. And we have a handy chorus of firefighters who surveil both us and their fellow actors throughout, occasionally chiming in with portentous hints like: “Woe unto us! … The timid see dangers with no danger there. They fear their own shadows. Brave when it’s only a rumor, they stumble through life filled with fear, till one day the rumor walks in through the door.”
That reads like an indictment of corrosive Facebook culture: We’re quick to tremble or howl with outrage over nothings, then eagerly repost dangerously ginned-up content from Russian bots and trolls posing as rightists or leftists, per their tactical needs. But Max Frisch wrote his first sketch of “The Arsonists” in 1946, then finished it in 1958.
The play has lived several lives with several interpretations, according to the threat du jour. People have read “The Arsonists” as a warning about the spread of Soviet-style communism, or as a critique of Swiss neutrality (which also happened to be profitable) during the rise of Nazism. London’s Royal Court Theatre revived it (featuring Benedict Cumberbatch) during the George W. Bush years. Woolly Mammoth staged it in Washington, D.C., during the first several months of the Trump presidency.
Frisch might have liked that prism of readings. An early devotee of Bertolt Brecht’s Marx-flavored theater, he later decided that approach was too didactic and he gave “The Arsonists” a helpfully cryptic subtitle: “an instructive play without a lesson” or, as Alistair Beaton wrote in his new translation, “a moral play without a moral.”
So where’s the danger in 2019? And which side are you on?
The Horse in Motion asks us to decide as soon as we walk into Gallery Erato in Pioneer Square, a long space with red-brick walls, high ceilings, and a conveniently visible balcony (sporting a simple but elegant wooden balustrade) for the action in the attic.
On the table when you check in: three programs to choose from, each with a bold logo asking us to join a team. One: “Tired of the way things are? Burn it down!” Two: “Serve your community — keep this town safe. Join the firefighters!” Three: “In a world on fire, protect your family, protect your home.”
Director Bobbin Ramsey (who directed “The Nether” at Washington Ensemble Theatre last year) said she hopes people will pick a preference before the play begins, then wonder afterward if they should’ve chosen differently. “The big question we want people to ask,” she said, “is what will you do when the match is lit?” (The “burn it down” programs go fastest, she said, but laughingly acknowledged that nowadays, a pro-status-quo stance is a little gauche.)
This “Arsonists” feels self-conscious and artificial, though it’s written in that Brechtian, the-audience-shouldn’t-pretend-they’re-anywhere-other-than-in-a-theater style. The play doesn’t expect us to suspend disbelief and imagine our local firefighters chant like a Greek chorus, so the production tries to win us over with big gestures.
Orallo-Molinaro is fun to watch, stretched to panic by the battle royale of his vanity. He doesn’t want to be seen as cowardly or credulous or henpecked — spoiler alert: he’s all of those things — and the supposedly homeless houseguests merrily play on his shallow motives like a xylophone. Biedermann lets them stay, even though his suspicions and his wife (Tatiana Pavela, who performs the big-pearl-wearing lady of the house like a nervous, shrill bird) demand otherwise.
The arsonists are fun, too. The ex-wrestler (Jordan Moeller) looks and acts like a lumberjack with his big beard, leather suspenders, and boorish table manners. The ex-waiter (Amber Tanaka) is nimbler and more clever, brazenly asking Biedermann to help her measure a fuse while he pretends to not care that his attic is full of gasoline barrels. “In my experience, the best, the most reliable tactic is still the naked truth,” she tells him with a wry smile. “Because, funnily enough, nobody believes it.”
“The Arsonists” doesn’t stick every landing, and some of that is the play’s fault. It’s tough to keep an audience hooked with a parable, following the blow-by-blow moments when we know where the tragicomic farce is going — but that’s also the point.
We can see what Biedermann refuses to acknowledge but, “The Arsonists” asks, can we see what’s happening right now, in our collective attic, once the applause is over and we walk back into the world?
“The Arsonists” by Max Frisch, translated by Alistair Beaton. Through June 3; The Horse in Motion at Gallery Erato, 309 First Ave. S., Seattle; $17-$28; 800-838-3006, thehorseinmotion.org