BWW Reviews: Kitchen Dog Theater's Must See Production of THE ARSONISTS is Riotous Fun Yet Prophetic
Based on the number of U.S. residents who participated in the recent midterm elections, the lowest turnout since 1942, Kitchen Dog Theater's recent production of "The Arsonists", written by Max Frisch in 1953 is a stark reminder the old adage "art imitating life" can easily be rephrased to say "art IS life." And the parallels between this play and the inertia of the American voting public, which seems to get worst, is a somber cue that if citizens don't take serious the business of their daily lives, individuals with misplaced and misguided intentions are more than willing to cajole them and turn their lives upside down.
Now to be certain, this story pulls you in IMMEDIATELY and you will laugh at what you see because it seems very 'familiar', and actually, it IS familiar. It is us. It is our story. We live it every day. As Americans, we love baseball, apple pie, cooing babies, and happy endings. You know, the perfect Norman Rockwell picture ending. We are nostalgic to a fault and want everything to blissfully continue without too much changing. In fact, we detest change despite our words to the contrary.
This sentiment is apparently the same impetus Frisch felt as he relived a pivotal time in his county's history and subsequently penned this piece. With World War II squarely behind him with over 7 years between him, his pen, and the havoc the war created, including one of the worst holocaust in the history of the world, I can imagine Frisch was eager to show what can happen when well-meaning people, even a country, lets their guard down and is complacent in the face of evil. Even if that evil smiles and sups with you.
The story line in "The Arsonists" is very simple and easy to follow, which director Tim Johnson executes very well, but within the simplicity of the tale lies the conflict, namely refusing to go against what you know isn't in your best interest so you do nothing.
We find a man by the name of Biedermann, portrayed by the exceptionally talented Max Hartman, who befriends a man named Schmitz who is supposedly homeless, played by the fabulous and entertaining Jason Kane, and invites him into his home temporarily for refuge after initially refusing to see him.
Biedermann is a man of means and according to himself, a good man with a conscience. Unknown to him, Schmitz is one of several individuals intentionally setting fire to buildings and habitats all over the city, which has residents in a panic. When the Schmitz reveals who he is and what he intends to do, through metaphoric speech and sometimes just outright, Biedermann decides to house him in his attic against his better judgment, which Schmitz stockpiles with barrels filled with gasoline through the assistance of comrade Eisenring, played with gritty flamboyance by the exceptional Michael Federico who simply commands the stage.
Biedermann's wife Babette, performed with delightful panache by Karen Parrish who delivers an outstanding performance, finds out about the two men living in their home and doesn't think it is a good idea to entertain strangers, but is so caught up with appearances and her own life that she feels powerless to do anything about it. Even the couple's maid Anna, played with ferocious spunk by the remarkable Jenny Ledel, has an issue with the presence of these individuals but helps maintain the façade they have built around their lives. However, in the end, they all fall victim to the whims of the men and meet the same fate being met by others across the city, which they are consistently warned about by a lively and energetic chorus appropriately disguised as firefighters (Ian Ferguson, Joshua Kumler, Chris Sykes, and Ledel) led by their very animated and funny ringleader Rhonda Boutté.
Three elements working in complete synergy make Kitchen Dog Theater's production of "The Arsonists" a MUST SEE EVEN, which can actually be considered a spectacle on a smaller, theatrical scale.
First, you have the set, which is abstract in design and played out on two levels with some actor entrances coming from the floor but actual set pieces giving it a formal yet contemporary feel. Set designer Jeffrey Schmidt and prop designers Jen Gilson-Gilliam and Kasson Marroquin should be commended for creating a 'play space' for these actors to have unrestricted fun and completely useable.
Second, music composition and direction through the leadership of Jon Schweikhard, with support from percussionist Mark Baker and sound designer Kellen Voss, helped to facilitate the storyline without overwhelming it. Every cue was on POINT, every note played PIVOTAL to helping build suspense, which allowed for a theatrical experience in which a patron is enveloped by the story at a visceral level.
Third, and certainly not least, the acting. Borrowing the often used (and over-used) acronym used in social media and personal communication devices - - O M G!!!!Hartman and Parrish, the latter whose acting style in this production is reminiscent of Hollywood actor Stockard Channing's early work, were phenomenal together, playing off each other with complimentary nuances that made their characters not only accessible but larger than life at times. Kane plays every manipulative impulse in Schmitz's character for maximum effect, whether employing comedy, drama, or dramedy to drive the story forward, like a fisherman drawing in a hungry fish with attractive bait and softly embedding the hook into his jaw until there is no escape. Federico is absolutely combustible as Eisenring, who you want to hug in one instance and retreat as soldiers at war in terror in the next. Stealing every scene she appeared, Ledel as the long-suffering maid Anna was absolute perfection. Snarky and pretentious in one moment, Insolent and condescending in another, or outright overcome with fear in the face of looming destruction, Ledel completely hammered her supporting role leaving the audience begging for more.
Likewise for the chorus team led by Boutté, which wasn't your ordinary Broadway musical type of chorus. Sure, they stayed in harmony and were synchronized with military-esque precision like figurines in the movie "Toy Story." However, the dramatic effect they brought in their performance regarding the impending doom was damn near flawless, as it was extremely entertaining and kept the audience in stitches up to the prophesized disaster, which when it occurs, there is no turning back.
"The Arsonists", by Max Frisch with new translation by Alistair Beaton, runs through Dec. 13, 2014. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with select Wednesday and Sunday evening performances at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary (The MAC), located at 3120 McKinney Avenue, Dallas, Texas 75204. A performance on Fri. Dec. 5 begins at 8:30pm. Running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes with a 10-minute intermission. This production contains smoking. If you have any concerns about content or age-appropriateness, please call the Kitchen Dog Theater Box Office at (214) 953-1055 or email: email@example.com.