Photo: Ben Gunderson
Photo: Ben Gunderson

Trial By Fire: Woolly Mammoth Presents The Arsonists

The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire. What are you going to do about it? Catchy beat now stuck in your head aside, this is the moral dilemma audiences will face at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s production of The Arsonists, an adaptation of Max Frisch’s 1950s comedy.

In DC through October 8, the classic play tells the story of Betterman, or Biedermann in the original, which translates to “everyman.” Betterman is an upper middleclass business owner and respected citizen. When two people make their way into his attic, Betterman’s manners tell him to do his civic duty and be a polite host.

But when these two not-so-mysterious guests make it increasingly clear that they intend to burn down Betterman’s house and the city as well – using Betterman’s home to store their drums of gasoline – Betterman finds himself oscillating between not believing they’ll actually do it and thinking he’s too respectable to fall victim to flames.

Rather than skewering people who commit evil, The Arsonists paints a picture of complicity through complacency. Betterman isn’t a hero nor an outright villain – he’s just an everyman who hopes minding his own business will save him from the violence and chaos of the world.

Woolly Mammoth Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz will be playing the role of Betterman, his first performance in about seven years. According to Shalwitz, Betterman’s dilemma raises questions audience members may be battling in their own lives.

“I think he’s a truly human character who is trying at every point to figure out how to do the right thing,” Shalwitz says. “He doesn’t succeed, but I think the audience should identify with his attempt to figure out how to stand up to the evil that walks through the door.”

The Arsonists is often interpreted as a critique of the rise of Nazism and Communism in Europe. But relating the play directly to a certain historical period or movement may not give enough credit to Frisch – or to people’s capacity for complacency.

With the motivations of the arsonists remaining ambiguous, the play leaves room for interpretation. Director Michael John Garcés says he thinks Frisch himself would have pushed back a little on correlating The Arsonists directly with any particular movement in history.

“I think [Frisch] was writing about how society can allow the almost willful participants…or at least their blindness allows them to be active participants in the destruction of their society,” Garcés says. “Because of the constraints of politeness and wanting to believe everything’s going to be okay and all of the things that we do to keep the world together – I think that makes it a relevant play always, really.”

Leaving the period open to interpretation is what keeps the play so relevant, but that’s not to say there aren’t uncanny resemblances between the original play and today’s political climate. One of the arsonists reveals that he’s the son of a coalminer, a key segment of the population during the 2016 election in the U.S. The other arsonist, originally scripted as a man but played by a woman in Woolly’s adaptation, is a little more ambiguous as a member of the middleclass.

“We’re actually having a lot of dialogue about what [the arsonists’] motivations are and what their political alignment is, so sometimes the actors and the director have to fill in the interior story that’s not literally there in the text,” Shalwitz says.

Even though today’s social and political climate often feel like watching someone toss a lit cigarette into dry California woods in slow motion, this production is meant to be a provocation to reflect rather than a statement. No one wants to attend a performance that feels like a sermon, and the team at Woolly Mammoth are certainly not delivering one.

“[Frisch] talks about the goal of theatre as being to provoke conversation [and] struggle in the mind of the audience, but not to lead them or dictate to them any kind of specific meaning,” Shalwitz says.

And the play will give audiences a lot to think about, even if it doesn’t take a specific side or discuss a certain historical period.

“The conversation that we want to provoke is: what are the possibilities of intervention?” Shalwitz continues. “What alternative steps could Betterman have taken? If you choose to intervene today in what’s going on, how could you do it? We’ll be inviting a lot of people to contribute to that dialogue as well.”

A great performance prompts conversation, and the Woolly Mammoth team won’t leave audiences without an outlet. On September 12, audiences can attend the Burn Party. For a $20 ticket, you can enjoy a preshow party complete with cocktails, spicy snacks and ample opportunity to argue about interpretations of the play.

Performances of The Arsonists run from September 5 to October 8 at Woolly Mammoth. Showtimes vary, and tickets start at $20 and can be purchased online.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company: 641 D St. NW, DC; 202-393-3939; www.woollymammoth.net

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Reem Nadeem

Reem is a Cairo-DC transplant, teacher and journalist. She has a B.A. in English from George Mason University. If she isn’t writing, teaching or staring longingly into the cat shelter next to On Tap’s office, she probably has her nose in a book.