'Firebugs': The fire rages within

August 11, 1993|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Contributing Writer

Arsonists are burning down the civilized world in Max Frisch's "The Firebugs: A Morality Without a Moral," but the playwright doesn't exactly single them out for blame. Their victims may also be guilty of a thing or two.

This play has sometimes been interpreted as a specific political allegory, but it really has such a freewheeling allegorical spirit that we're encouraged to sort matters out for ourselves. After all, the setting is "western civilization now," rather than a particular country in a given year.

As the first production of a new Baltimore-based company, Mongrel Theatre, it's a promising start. Mongrel Theatre doesn't yet have a permanent home, so the company has transformed the Merrick Barn on the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus for the play's disturbing purposes. The stage has been extended all the way back to the rear brick wall and a few "rafters" have been hung overhead to make for an urban environment that seems bleak and threatened.

Protecting this arson-endangered place is a chorus of firefighters who address the "good people of our city." Accompanied by an onstage trio of oboe, bass and piano, the uniformed chorus describes its civic function while marching down the snug theater's aisles. They say they're protecting us, but when an ax-wielding chorus line heads your way, you can't be blamed for ducking. You also can't be blamed for wondering whether they resemble the henchmen of a police state.

That sort of interpretation is also encouraged by the original score of Paul Mathews'; it sounds like acerbic, German political cabaret punctuated by fire sirens and bits of Beethoven.

Among those protected by the firefighters is Gottlieb Biedermann (Brian P. Chetelat), a cigar-smoking businessman who worries over all the newspaper stories he reads about arson cases in his city. He says the firebugs ought to be strung up.

Mr. Chetelat does an excellent job embodying a bourgeois tycoon whose stated good intentions may mask less-admirable motives.

Biedermann's wife, Babette (Jacqueline Underwood), is a feather boa-wrapped society dame whose hoity-toity manner makes her seem every bit as materialistic as the household she runs. Their maid, Anna (M. Carmel Lewis), is a dutiful reminder that masters must have servants.

Jolting proof that Biedermann isn't as decent a guy as he claims to be comes in the person of the Widow Knechtling (Mary Ann Walsh). Biedermann is abrupt with this grieving widow of a former employee, going so far as to say of her husband: "I didn't know he was going to stick his head in a gas oven just because I gave him the sack."

The Biedermann household is really disrupted when it is visited by two strangers.

An unemployed and homeless wrestler named Schmitz (K. Marcellus Herring) and his sidekick Eisenring (Martin David Ruof) may well be firebugs. Should Biedermann kick them out and risk a retaliatory late-night torching or should he be nice to them and hope they'll respect his property?

As this dark comedy moves into seriously incendiary territory, poor bewildered Biedermann wonders how things could turn out so badly for a law-abiding citizen.

"All my life I've kept the Ten Commandments. I never made a graven image," he protests. "I never coveted my neighbor's house -- and if I coveted it, I bought it."

THEATER REVIEW

What: "The Firebugs"

Where: Mongrel Theatre in the Merrick Barn, Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus

When: Aug. 12-15, 19-21; 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday matinee

Tickets: $7, $5 for students and seniors

Call: 243-3676

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