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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Arsonists

Many things burn, but not every fire is determined by fate—The firefighter chorus,
Norbert Weisser
Õ (Photo: Ron Sossi)
Overheard by the too chatty lady seated directly behind me Thursday night at The Arsonists "I don't get it. When are the Nazis coming in?" This unscripted observation wasn't quite the gut-bustingest line of an already quite comic evening, but it came damned close. Admittedly, perception is not every theater patron's strongest suit. And, granted, there's not a swastika or a goose step to be found anywhere within the landscape created by director Ron Sossi or his KOAN ensemble at the Odyssey Theatre.

But whether your sleep is interrupted by the Taliban, greedy bankers or evil scientists, you probably shouldn't be taking this play literally. This is Max Frisch's allegorical The Arsonists we're talking about. There is a fairly helpful director's notes section of the program that spells things out, not to mention the production's chorus of Keystone Kop-ish firefighters who talk quite a bit about determinism and fate. When they're not singing a capella Cat Stevens, that is.

We also have Schmitz the wrestler and Eisenring the waiter, a pair of cons who store giant drums of gasoline in businessman Biedermann's attic and use the arson-spooked Biedermann to measure detonation wire. Biedermann and his equally terrified wife, Babette, are too frightened to kick them out. They figure instead that by befriending their guests, they won't get hurt. Besides, reasons Biedermann in a bit of 11th hour irony, the cons can't possibly be arsonists since they don't even own their own matches. Ostriches everywhere would stuff their heads underground in appreciation.

Using a new translation by Great Britain's Alistair Beaton, Sossi and his KOAN clowns give Frisch's play (often titled The Firebugs) the jolts of farce and irony it richly needs. In Norbert Weisser's Biedermann, we see a fussy functionary who wouldn't recognize a danger if it jumped into his lap and waved a red flag in hisface. John Achorn, resembling a hobo clown, makes for a delightfully sandbagging Schmitz and Ron Bottitta's Eisenring is hucksterism &mdash and obviousness &mdash personified.

Biedermann's curtain-opening attempt to light a cigarette meets in failure as a cluster of six firefighters (costumed by Kathryn Poppen in yellow slickers and toy hats) blow out the flame. "It's not easy lighting a fire these days," says Biederman, purveyor of a hair rejuvenation formula that he apparently does not use. "Everybody thinks the world will go up in flames."

Indeed. Biedermann's wife Babette (Beth Hogan) can hardly sleep for fear of fire. The maid Anna (Diana Cignoni, put upon and quite wonderful) bustles around to fill every one of her employers' whims. Schmitz , when he arrives, has plenty of them. A homeless former circus wrestler with a knack for pushing guilt buttons, Schmitz begs a meal (which he devours in high comic grossness) and a bed in the Biedermann's attic.

Scenic designer Birgitte Moos has layered that second level attic atop a sterile white living room that looks like it might be a generic hotel room. Miniature houses representing the city float in space, and the firefighters scale metal towers to peek in the windows. Lighting designer Adam Blumenthal and sound designer Sean Kozma have figured out a clever way to make the whole thing end in a conflagration befitting the title.

No, the Nazis never arrive, but our petrol-toting con artists are just as grim. And, in this excellent rendering of a still timely play, they are just as delightful to watch.

The Arsonists By Max Frisch
Translation by Alistair Beaton
Directed by Ron Sossi
Cast: Norbert Weisser (Biederman), Diana Cignoni (Anna/Chorus), Schmitz (John Achorn), Beth Hogan (Babette/Chorus), Ron Bottitta (Eisenring), Eric Loysa (Policeman/Chorus), Cary Thompson (Policeman/Chorus), Chantal DeGroat (Mrs. Knechtling/Chorus), Alan Abelew (Professor of Philosophy/Chorus).
Scenic Design: Birgitte Moos
Stage Manager: Julie Simpson
Lighting Design: Adam Blumenthal
Costume Design: Kathryn Poppen
Sound Design: Sean Kozma
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes with one intermission
Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A. (310) 477-2055,
From April 3 to May 23
Wed.-Sat. @ 8pm, Sun. @ 2 pm.
Reviewed by Evan Henerson, based on April 8 performance.
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