Chicago Theater Review: THE ARSONISTS (Strawdog)

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by Barnaby Hughes on August 26, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


“Ich bin ein Biedermann” isn’t what President Kennedy famously said in Berlin in 1963, but it’s something playwright Max Frisch might have said while writing Herr Biedermann und die Brandstifter in 1958. Now translated as The Arsonists in Alistair Beaton’s 2007 version, Frisch’s comedy explores the complex interplay between perception and reality. Or, to put it another way, we are all just like Biedermann. We want to believe that the arsonists aren’t arsonists, that they’re our friends. They can prepare to blow up our house right under our nose, but we won’t question them. The truth would be too awful. We would lose our faith in humanity.

Straw Dog

Strawdog Theatre’s decontextualized interpretation of The Arsonists flames with mounting intensity. From The Doors’ “Light My Fire” to James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain,” not even a chorus of firefighters can prevent the all-consuming climax. The play’s excitement lies less in the anticipation of an explosive ending than in the reversal of roles. The supercilious, bourgeois Biedermann (Robert Kauzlaric) finds himself powerless to throw out the vagrant Schmitz (Scott Danielson), despite an initial desire to do so. Is he one of the arsonists that have been torching buildings all over the city?

Straw Dog

In an utterly captivating performance, Danielson deftly manipulates Biedermann’s conscience with his expressive eyes and weepy tales of woe. Also taken in by Schmitz is Biedermann’s wife Babette (Sarah Goeden). From wild-eyed expressions of anxiety and discomfort in Schmitz’s presence, she finds herself sitting on his lap by play’s end. The only one who refuses to be taken in by Schmitz and his ilk is the Biedermanns’ testy maid Anna (Rebecca Wolfe). What she lacks in servility and docility she certainly makes up for in the quickness and keenness of both her mind and body. Thus Wolfe’s Anna is the perfect foil to the rest of The Arsonists’ double-dealing cast.

Straw Dog

From Director Matt Hawkins and Stage Manager Katie Adams to Lighting Designer Sean Mallary and Master Electrician Cypress Staelin, Strawdog has put together a set that truly comes alive with sound and fury. The experience is unsettling, by turns funny and frightening, but not to be missed.

Straw Dog

photos by Chris Ocken, Ocken Photography
poster photo of Scott Danielson by Jon Cole

The Arsonists
Strawdog Theatre Company
3829 N. Broadway St.
Thurs – Sat at 8; Sun at 4
scheduled to end on September 27, 2014
for more info, call 866-811-4111 or visit

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit

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