Review: ‘The Arsonists’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

Woolly Mammoth’s The Arsonists is not so much an entertainment, even though I laughed frequently, psychotically–and loud, as it is a paratheatrical event during which an absurd play is presented.

Howard Shalwitz and Kimberly Gilbert. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The Arsonists is not so much a morality play, even though playwright Max Frisch called it “a morality play without a moral,” as it is a play about the difference between human agency and fate.

Rather, The Arsonists is about class, about the “haves” and the “have nots,” even though America claims “class” is not an American concept.

The Arsonists (at least this new translation by Alistair Beaton) is about privilege, class privilege, that special kind of privilege that comes with having enough money to buy your way out of or around life’s many potholes, or simply having enough money to afford a maid or a firefighter.

Most importantly, however, The Arsonists is about complicity, about how each of us in our own way contributes to the violence that besets us; thus making it impossible for any of us to escape responsibility for that violence.

And when there are no innocents, then there are no terrorists, for the definition of terrorists speaks to the killing of innocents.

Hence, the problem we face.

Tim Getman. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The Arsonists will leave each audience member with his or her own calculation: Who is the enemy invading their tranquility? What should be done about this enemy? And when should it be done?

Woolly Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz returns to the stage to play George Betterman, a proud member of the 10% with his silver finger bowls and stout silver candlesticks, his maid, and his tranquility. Shalwitz’s Betterman is all growl and no bite: he can spout the toughest of consequences when seated in front of the TV; but, when homeless Joe Smith, a husky Tim Getman, comes pounding on his door, Betterman is all guilty, liberal co-conspirator.

You see, there are arsonists loose in this fictional city. Fires are raging daily, in fact, and firefighters are working overtime.

Getman’s performance as the aggressive Joe Smith is stellar. From his opening appearance through the audience to his final embrace of George, his loveable psychotic is the perfect contemporary person of interest. It is Getman’s Mr. Smith that makes this Arsonists so compelling, for how exactly should we deal with this 21st Century ticking time bomb?

Smith’s accomplice is Billie Irons, the brains of the operations; well, not really the brains: we meet the professor (Peter Howard) later, in the attic, spouting his philosophy of revolution (or reactionary counter-revolution) beneath the roar of sirens. Kimberly Gilbert brings her own brand of psychosis to Billie: the cutest kind imaginable, with a sardonic grin.

Betterman’s wife is Becca (Bahni Turpin); his maid, Anna (Regina Aquino). As the Arsonists grinds towards a hilarious fatalism, both these women hem and haw obediently. If you’ve never wanted a woman to stand up for herself, this Arsonists will give you plenty of chances to yearn for that possibility.

The Arsonists’ paratheatrical element is created by the five-member chorus of firefighters, in name only: for these firefighters are really activists intent on convincing the audience that the time for action is now.

Led by Akeem Davis and Sue Jin Song, who take the stage before the curtain to warn us not to take pictures and, in case of fire, how to exit the theatre calmly, the chorus is the on-stage audience. Later, when joined by Peter Howard, José Joaquin Perez, and Emily Townley, they intervene on our behalf attempting to save the city.

Set Designer Misha Kachman has created a sleek two-story dwelling of angles. Lit by Colin K. Bills, the world glows with modernity. Costumes by Ivania Stack delineate the polarization. James Bigbee Garver and Chad Clark provide the sound and music that underscores this riotous apocalypse.

Michael John Garcés directs the madness, and he’s squeezed every bit of irony out of the lime of this story: we don’t want to enjoy this condemnation of our world, but the ovation we give at show’s end is a necessary show of appreciation.

What else is one supposed to do? Change the world?

Spotlight: Bahni Turpin; Background (from left): Sue Jin Song, Akeem Davis, Peter Howard, José Joaquín Perez, Emily Townley. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Everything about The Arsonists is a plea to do just that. What we consider inevitable, like the Great Depression, is not nearly as inevitable as we imagine. But it does require us to revisit fundamental premises about what is and what has to be.

The choices made determine the outcome, so it’s important to remember that we are co-conspirators. If we turn away the homeless man who comes knocking at our door, then we turn away ourselves. If we have him arrested, then we arrest ourselves. If we kill him outright, then we kill ourselves.

Such is the moral of this play without a moral.

Such is The Arsonists.

Running Time: 2 hours without an intermission.

The Arsonists plays through October 8 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939 or purchase them online.


Magic Time!: ‘The Arsonists’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company by John Stoltenberg


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