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Theater review: 'The Arsonists' at KOAN at the Odyssey

April 15, 2010 |  7:30 pm
IMG_3890 copy “The Arsonists,” Alistair Beaton’s rousing new interpretation of Max Frisch’s 1958 classic, more commonly known as “Biedermann and the Firebugs,” stresses the comically deadly plight of a mild-mannered man whose failure to acknowledge the presence of evil is, in itself, the ultimate evil.

A production of KOAN at the Odyssey, the play focuses on the distinctly unheroic character of Biedermann (Norbert Weisser), a prosperous functionary alarmed by a recent rash of arsons perpetrated by strangers who beg a night’s lodging, then leave their host’s home in smoking ruins.

Despite that knowledge, Biedermann permits the disreputable Schmitz (John Achorn) and his more dapper accomplice, Eisenring (Ron Bottitta), to weasel their way in for a prolonged visit. To the mounting anxiety of Biedermann’s wife, Anna (drolly dithering Beth Hogan), the despicable duo use Biedermann’s attic as a staging ground for a city-wide conflagration.

Swiss by birth, Frisch may have intended his work as a parable about the evils of neutrality in a time of sweeping crisis, but although Beaton has jettisoned some of the odder plot twists, the surreal tone lends to any number of interpretations.

In his sprightly staging of this American premiere, Ron Sossi straddles the psychic divide between the hilarious and the horrific, and a passionately committed ensemble, which includes Alan Abelew, Diana Dignoni, Chantal DeGroat, Eric Losoya) and Cary Thompson, plays for laughs and terror.

Among the first-rate design elements, Birgitte Moos’ striking set holds some real surprises. Suffice to say that a pre-show warning that an herbal cigarette will be smoked during the show is a real hoot, considering what will follow.

--F. Kathleen Foley

“The Arsonists,” 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A.  8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (except April 25 and May 23, 7 p.m.), plus May 5, 12 and 19, 8 p.m.  $25-$30. (310) 477-2055.  Running time:  2 hours.

Above: Norbert Weisser as Biedermann in "The Arsonists."  Credit: Ron Sossi.