On Fire

UnknownWhy is it so often the case that the most stimulating and beautiful works of art and the most creative and smart artists go relatively unappreciated while the people who do things that are altogether less inspiring reap wild favor and applause?

I’m thinking about this today in light of Mark Jackson’s bracing-taut production of Max Frisch’s The Arsonists (trans. Alistair Beaton) currently playing to two-thirds-full houses at The Aurora Theatre in Berkeley.

Every seat should be filled every performance during the run with someone leaning forwards, prickly, tense, and furrow-browed. That was me last night. But an actor from the production told me that the show is not selling well and won’t be extended. It pains me to think that this is the case.

Jackson’s take on Frisch’s Gogol-esque satire about a well-off family’s self-destruction as the result of their complacency and stupidity in the face of human disaster, is seat-of-the-pants stuff. Set in an unspecified time and place, and lacking any reason for the rampant arson attacks committed by a motley crew of renegades at the heart of the narrative, the drama purposefully avoids pointing a moral finger but asks the audience to be guided by its own sense of right and wrong. Jackson is clearly striking the perfect balance as according to the cast member mentioned above, audiences are labeling the play as being both a right- and left-wing parable.

This drama isn’t easy to pin down. Frisch, a Swiss native, wrote The Arsonists as a critique of his country’s neutrality in the Second World War. Experiencing this drama today in the wake of the Boston marathon bombings — an act of terrorism — and the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas — an act of corporate malfeasance — is utterly unnerving.

Jackson’s seismic pacing, tension-building use of sound and use of eye-popping imagery, balanced against the cartoonish performances from the brilliant ensemble cast, serves to discombobulate and arrest the viewer.

The most powerful of all the many vivid physical images occurs near the climax, when rows of metal oil drums descend from the rigging and ominously hang by ropes above the performance space, like so many dangling corpses. Dangerous stuff.

Only a lame-o quip referencing a couple of local theatre companies undermines the thrilling thoughtfulness of Jackson’s conception. Of course, this had to be the moment when the audience laughed the loudest at last night’s performance. I guess even a steely auteur like Jackson feels the urge to throw the groundlings a bone on occasion.

So why aren’t all the seats at The Aurora packed with bristling, sweating people all on the edge of their seats? One reason might be that the playwright and his play aren’t familiar names to Bay Area audiences, even though the drama, under its alternative titles of The Fire Raisers and Biedermann and the Firebugs, is very commonly produced in Europe. Another is the public’s scant appetite for really chewy food.

Here’s hoping people manage to find it in their hearts, minds and stomach to get to The Aurora before the run’s out on May 12. This play’s on a short fuse and to miss it is to commit an act of gross stupidity and complacency in my view.


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