Play with fire
Mr. Biedermann and the Firebugs
After seeing Brüka Theatre’s opening night performance of Mr. Biedermann and the Firebugs, about a thousand cliché openers popped into my head. For instance: “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.” Then there was, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” and “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”
But not wanting to be hackneyed, I like the comparison my husband came up with: “That was like using a giant hammer to pound a really tiny nail.”
Because, yes, Max Frisch’s 1953 political satire about Hitler and the rise of Nazism, from beginning to end, belabors its point: Don’t think that if you placate the devil, he might spare you from his evil plans. He’s still the devil.
Often called simply The Firebugs, and occasionally The Arsonists or The Fire Raisers, the play takes place in the home of Gottlieb Biedermann (played by Dale Fast) and his wife, Babette (Kathy Welch). Mr. Biedermann is a businessman who is so self-assured he believes he can safeguard his home from the rash of fires being set throughout his town. So despite warnings that abound about “firebugs” posing as peddlers who invade and destroy homes, Biedermann is taken in when Sepp Schmitz (Howard Sternberg) comes knocking. Schmitz identifies Biedermann’s biggest weakness—his ego—early on, and uses flattery to worm his way into Biedermann’s home, into a full-time occupation of the man’s attic, even convincing him that it was the homeowner’s idea all along. Schmitz is so good at the smooth talk that he’s soon able to move his seedy partner, Willi Eisenring (Wolfgang Price), as well as several barrels of gasoline, into the attic.
Meanwhile, Biedermann has convinced his maid, Anna (Rachel Sliker), Babette and himself that, certainly, the more hospitably he treats his guests, the less desirable it will be for the two men to actually go through with lighting the man’s house on fire—regardless of all the despicable evidence to the contrary.
In the manner of a Greek morality play—the play is often referred to as “a morality play without a moral,” although, if you ask me, the moral is crystal clear—a chorus of three firemen (Lew Zaumeyer, Bob Barsanti, Rodney Hurst) presides over the action. They constantly weigh in on Biedermann’s ignorance and denial, and though they may or may not have been intended to be funny, they nonetheless provoke laughter from the audience when they repeatedly chant “Whoa! Woe is me. Woe, woe, woe is me,” and march across the stage chanting “Hup!”
If the symbols and signs weren’t already clear, there’s also the professor (James Miller), an observer of the arsonists who, in typical flaccid academic fashion, enters too late with remarkable insights that are by then of no help. To me, his presence is puzzling, uninteresting and fairly useless.
However, cool pyrotechnic effects aside, some other things make this show fun. Eisenring is completely, perfectly menacing, thanks to Price’s big, crazy eyes and a voice that both laughs and threatens. Toward the end, a monologue from Biedermann not only makes his ridiculous denial almost understandable, but it also points a finger. Who among us, after all, hasn’t just stood by, hoping things will get better, while doing absolutely nothing? Ultimately, it’s the numerous parallels to events throughout history that will keep your mind churning long after the lights come up. Two days later, I’m still exploring them, which keeps Mr. Biedermann from being merely a cliché.