Monday, January 16, 2006

Cygnet’s Biedermann: Great Production, Great Play

Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger's Newsmagazine. All rights reserved.

Who would have thought that a little-known playwright like Swiss-German author Max Frisch (1911-1991) could do what “name” authors like Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson weren’t able to: give the Cygnet Theatre a first-rate script on which to lavish their excellent production style and skills? Frisch’s Biedermann and the Firebugs, playing at Cygnet’s space at 6663 El Cajon Boulevard in east San Diego (an unassuming venue from the outside — it’s part of a shopping mall and looks like just another hole-in-the-wall outlet — that opens up into a spacious and surprisingly well-appointed community theatre), is a mordant satire, at once hilarious and oddly dire, that offers Cygnet’s artistic director Sean Murray (who directed this production) and an excellent local cast the opportunity for an imaginative and wickedly entertaining theatre experience.

Written first for radio, then adapted for TV and stage, Biedermann and the Firebugs was premiered in 1958 but takes place 30 years earlier, in the waning days of Germany’s Weimar Republic five years before the Nazis took power. The play is essentially a reworking of Moliére’s classic Tartuffe, a story of an unscrupulous, exploitative houseguest in which the laughs are at the expense of his credulous host. In Frisch’s version, Biedermann (Tim Irving) is a typical middle-class head of a household in a German town that has been beset by an epidemic of arson. The pattern behind these fires is always the same: a seemingly harmless peddler comes to the door of someone’s home or business, pleads for help, is let in, settles himself in as an employee or guest and ultimately burns the place down over some imagined slight from the host.

Biedermann, his wife Babette (Laura Bozanich, who previously acted under Irving’s direction in Diversionary’s Valhalla, another loopy comedy tapping German history and culture) and their maid Anna (Lisel Gorell-Getz) find themselves confronted by the mysterious stranger Sepp (Daren Scott), who pulls enough of a variation on the firebugs’ usual routine — instead of a peddler, he bills himself as a wrestler who’s just walked out of a job at a circus — to get himself in the door. For most of the play, the joy of it is in watching Sepp and his confederate Willie (Joshua Everett Johnson) play the Biedermanns like an instrument, alternately appealing to their better natures (“The humanity!” is a frequent motif in the play’s dialogue) and intimidating them with veiled threats. Thus the Biedermanns look the other way and rationalize even as the strangers fill their attic with gasoline, build a detonator and, in one of the play’s most trenchantly ridiculous scenes, even enlist Herr Biedermann’s help in fixing the fuse that will ignite their home.

This being an Expressionist drama with overtones of Brecht (Frisch met Brecht in 1947 and they stayed friends for the nine remaining years of Brecht’s life), there’s also a “chorus” in the form of three firefighters (Joshua Harrell, Jerry Lee and Kim Strassburger) who issue dire warnings about the impending action but are powerless to stop the catastrophe. There are also several other characters, “doubled” by the chorus members: a constable (Harrell), a professor (Lee) who had something to do with the arsons early on but now frantically tries to dissociate himself from them, and Frau Knechling (Strassburger), widow of an inventor who claims Biedermann did him out of the royalties due him for his hair-restoring tonic. (“It’s just a commodity!” Biedermann insists, showing off his own bald pate as evidence that Knechling didn’t deserve royalties because his product didn’t work.)

Cygnet has given this loony play a first-rate production. Murray’s direction keeps the characters in the sort of constant motion any farce needs to get its laughs, and he also designed the effective set, which appropriately borrows from the eccentric Expressionism of Hermann Warm’s famous sets for the 1919 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Eric Lotze’s lighting design is strong throughout and at its best when suggesting the fires. M. Scott Grabau’s sound design is even more creative: from the recordings of Weimar-era music used to set the mood (some of which sound like re-creations from Frisch’s time) to the brilliant surround-sound effects used in the play’s most tense moments, everything we hear adds to the overall mood and power of Frisch’s script. The directional effect is aided by some of Murray’s blocking decisions — notably having Frau Biedermann make an unexpected entrance from the Cygnet’s lobby. Shulamit Nelson, whose costume design credits seem ubiquitous in San Diego theatre, has come up with some quite funny clothes, notably the shabby, torn red rag of a dress Biedermann has Anna wear in a misguided attempt to show his family’s “humility” by serving Sepp and Willie an “informal” dinner.

The cast is near-ideal. Tim Irving — who’s credited, along with Murray, with “adapting” Michael Bullock’s translation of Frisch’s script — is not only physically ideal for the comfortable middle-class German he’s playing (his resemblance to the famous German actor Emil Jannings helps a lot), he brings the same comic timing to his performance he has to his direction of Diversionary’s Valhalla and other local productions. Scott and Johnson make a marvelous comic team and hit just the right combination of sliminess and seeming honesty for the firebugs. Under Murray’s direction, Bozanich is calmer than she was as the two mothers from hell she played in Irving’s Valhalla production, but still funny, especially when she lets her husband talk her out of her glimmers of understanding. Of the choristers and supporting players, Strassburger’s Frau Knechling stands out: her impassivity as she sits in Biedermann’s living room and knits (someone even calls her “Madame DeFarge,” after the famous character who knitted during the French Reign of Terror while the guillotine did its thing) while waiting to confront him over her husband’s suicide adds to the piece’s grim humor.

Biedermann and the Firebugs — billed by Frisch as “a morality play without a moral” — can be enjoyed as pure farce without reference to its political allegory, though (as in some of Brecht’s plays too) the allegory does get a bit heavy-handed at times. But the cruel irony that the firebugs undo Biedermann precisely by appealing to the most noble parts of his nature — and their sheer obviousness about their intentions — make the play relevant far beyond the still-lingering debates that inspired it over how much, and to what extent, the German people were responsible for the Nazis’ crimes. At least one line in particular, obviously part of the Murray-Irving “adaptation,” hammers home its present-day resonance: when the firefighters buttonhole Biedermann on the street and try to warn him, he tells them, “You’re doing a heckuva job.”

Biedermann and the Firebugs plays through Sunday, February 12 at the Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Boulevard, suite N. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $26 for Saturdays and $22 for all other performances. For information or reservations, please call (619) 337-1525 x3 or visit