Saturday, November 17, 2012


Special to TorSun
17 NOV 2012
R: 2.5/5

Dan Chameroy, Fiona Reid

Canadian Stage's Artistic and General Director Matthew Jocelyn is clear about the kind of theatre he wants to produce — edgy, cutting-edge stuff that pushes the envelope and establishes theatre as something far more that mere 'entertainment.' But, if his vision is both clear and commendable, it too often falls apart on the way to the stage. With the opening of Max Frisch's chillingly absurdist comedy THE ARSONISTS, written in the wake of World War II and informed by the rise of the communist party in Czechoslovakia, Jocelyn fails to deliver again.

Featuring an acclaimed new English-language translation by Alistair Beaton, Canadian Stage's production, directed by Morris Panych, opened in the Bluma Appel Thursday. The good news is Beaton's translation proves both easy and edgy — but sadly, Panych's interpretation of it, influenced by a too-literal definition of absurd, is far less so.

There is, of course, always an element of the absurd in absurdist theatre, but finally, if it is to be effective, it must be firmly anchored in some sort of reality too. But everything in this production — from Ken MacDonald's Barbie-does-Bauhaus set to Justin Rutledge's hugely intrusive and muddy score and the way it is used — is content to be merely absurd without ever achieving absurdist.

Set in an arson-plagued, un-named city, THE ARSONISTS tells the story of the Biedermanns, played by Michael Ball and Fiona Reid, comfortable members of the city's bourgeoisie, who suddenly find themselves playing host to a pair of thugs played by Dan Chameroy and Shawn Wright. Ensconced in the attic of the Biedermann home, the interlopers fill it with drums of petrol, and though their nervous hosts try to confront them, the thugs take refuge behind their hosts' liberal sensibilities, coercing the hapless couple into helping to set fuses and even supply matches to ignite a conflagration. Along the way, commentary is supplied by a chorus, led by Rutledge, and comprised of two musicians, Chameroy, Wright and Sheila McCarthy, who also plays Anna, the Beidermanns' maid.

Incorporating a chorus is often problematic — and here, Panych not only allows it to intrude, but often to overshadow the playwright's focus. He also fails to find a dramatic through-line of the tale, allowing each of the performers to inhabit their own world without connecting to the others. So while it all works, after a fashion —  Reid and McCarthy fall back on well-honed bags of tricks, Chameroy and Wright grasp wildly at the proper mix of charm and menace and Ball simply walks through it all, often merely reciting his lines — it never really gels.

In a world steeped in fractious politics, THE ARSONISTS has much to say to all the colours of the political spectrum and, as a result, it is hard not to be impressed that Jocelyn has the vision to program it. But finally, that just makes it all the more regrettable that too often his vision doesn't seem to make it all the way to the stage.

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