‘The Arsonists’ at Maryland Ensemble Theatre

Brilliantly directed by Gerard Stropnicky, The Arsonists at the Maryland Ensemble Theatre is a morality tale about how ordinary, everyday people can take part in evil acts without even knowing it. Originally written by Max Frisch and adapted by Alistair Beaton, the play was written in the 1950s as a metaphor for the gradual rise of the Nazis and focuses on the idea that people do not realize evil is taking over until it is already too late.

(l to r) Clay Comer, Tad Janes. and Tim Seltzer. Photo by Spence Photographics.
(l to r) Clay Comer, Tad Janes. and Tim Seltzer. Photo by Spence Photographics.

Set in a small town terrorized by arsonists, a businessman, Mr. Biedermann (a German name loosely translated to “Everyman”) and his wife live comfortably in an upper class home with their maid, Anna. The town is plagued by arsonists charming and conning their way into people’s homes, asking to stay for the night in the attic and then setting the homes on fire within a few days. Moments after saying this would never happen to him, Mr. Biedermann receives a rather large and intimidating guest who reveals he is homeless and requests to stay the night… in the attic… and soon invites his recently-released inmate friend to stay as well… and then his friend brings in about 15 oil drums of gasoline to the attic overnight. What could possibly go wrong?

The cast does an excellent job of portraying layered characters from varying classes and social stations. As the main character of the story, Tad Janes is excellent as Mr. Biedermann. He portrays just the right mix of a stiff, snobby businessman who truly is too kind-hearted and willingly blind to realize the sparking dangers just under his own roof. Janes had a wonderful moment in Act II where he was allowed to break the fourth wall and speak directly to audience members in the first row, asking them what they would have done in his situation, then improvising his conversations based on their responses. Lisa Burl is wonderful as Mr. Biedermann’s wife, Babette,  a fragile bundle of nerves and anxiety. Her upper-crust society voice and genteel demeanor are perfect for the role.

As the titular arsonists, Clay Comer and Tim Seltzer give phenomenal performances. With a powerful, deep voice and creepily expressive “crazy eyes,” Comer was excellent as homeless former wrestler (actually arsonist), Schmitz. His comedic timing was fantastic and put to extraordinary use in scenes with Janes and Burl as he milked plenty of awkward moments to let them allow him to stay in their home. As Eisenring, the partner in crime, Seltzer provided a wonderful contrast with a more refined manner and a fantastic dry wit. A particularly excellent scene occurred between Janes and Seltzer at the top of Act II, as both gentleman worked extremely well off of one another to make a pivotal moment which leads to Biedermann’s eventual downfall not tragic or dramatic, but incredibly hilarious.

Katie Rattigan as the maid Anna was spot-on in her role. With a fantastic combination of sly looks, a sharp wit and a combined spunky and quirky personality, she made what could have been an easily forgettable role into a stellar performance.

Only a few minor elements detract from the overall impressive production. The pacing in the opening of the show is rather slow and a stark contrast from the suspenseful, rising action and tension throughout the rest of the show. Epic sound effects of sirens in the final scene are also  imbalanced for such an intimate space and drown out some important final dialogue during the last scene.

However, the true scene stealers of the show are the ensemble members functioning as a Greek chorus of firefighters and the impressive rotating turntable set, featuring four distinct locations as part of the rotation. Members of the ensemble, Thomas Scholtes, Vanessa Strickland, Madison Sowell, Giovanni Kavota and Emily Bigelow, give fantastic performances. Each transition between scenes occurs as an acapella musical number which relates to fire. The songs range from showtunes to country to classic rock, but all include the mention of fire or burning as a lyric or title. The wonderfully inventive choreography meshes extremely well with the rotating set as it changes, with some actors dancing through revolving doorways onto another portion of the set. The incredibly imaginative musical numbers also showcase Caitlyn Joy’s lovely voice as the soloist on many of the musical numbers while she portrays Chief of the Fire Brigade. Tom Majarov also gives an excellent but brief performance as the Doctor of Philosophy.

As mentioned, the technical elements in the show are fantastic, especially the rotating set. For an intimate, small space like the MET, the revolving set is truly phenomenal. The set, designed by Ira Domser, features a city street scene in bright burning colors, like a demented version of Sesame Street, a richly upholstered dining room and parlor room in an upper class home, and the attic in the same home. The set revolves via a turn table (much like in Les Miserables) and is truly an imaginative marvel. Appropriate for a show about fire, the lighting effects, designed by Tabetha White, are astounding. Different portions of the theater are illuminated at appropriate points to mark the passage from day to night and to indicate which parts of the city are burning. Costumes, designed by Jennifer Adams, are thoroughly researched and well-matched to each character in the period piece. The fireman’s uniforms are particularly impressive.

For a unique theatrical experience with astounding effects and relevant (and controversial) views about our modern age, do not miss The Arsonists at the MET.

Lisa Burl and the chorus. Photo by Spence Photographics.
Lisa Burl and the chorus. Photo by Spence Photographics.

Running  Time: 2 hours, with one 15 minute intermission.

The Arsonists plays through March 8, 2015 at Maryland Ensemble Theatre – 31 West Patrick Street, in Frederick, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 694-4744, or purchase them online.

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