Questionable truth, class division and manufactured fear have become overwhelming political themes of the day, but while the endless arguments and devious power plays are troubling, the lessons from these pointed battles can also produce great art.
Anyone exhausted by the national scandals played out on television, over Twitter and in the daily newspaper should probably avoid the Duluth Playhouse production of “The Arsonists.”
For the rest: Grab a seat at the dining room table, light up a smoke and watch the city burn.
Staged at The Underground theater through Feb. 29, “The Arsonists” provides an intense, powerful, but at times awkward look at the different faces of evil and the consequences of blind faith. The 80-minute production, directed by Mike Pederson, is billed as a “morality play without morals” and certainly presents few sympathetic or heroic characters.
Living in a time that includes professional firefighters, refined gasoline and hair care products for men, Gottlieb Biedermann is a slightly-built, successful businessman played by John Pokryzwinski. He is a blowhard, a ruthless coward unable or unwilling to throw two strangers out of his house.
But are they con men looking for a place to sleep or evil monsters bent on destroying the world?
Pederson’s well-designed, fire-roasted stage set and constantly tolling church bells help provide some answers, but the actors more than the script uncover the truth.
Robert Lee plays the devilish Schmitz, a circus wrestler in a striped muscle t-shirt and suspenders, who bullies and whines his way into the Biedermann home. Like a greasy William H. Macy, Lee generates a frightening chaos in every scene as he wolfs down food and dances on a dinner table.
“I have no table manners,” Schmitz tells Biedermann’s wife, played by the perpetually frightened Cheryl Skafte. “No manners. No culture. I’m used to it.”
Lee makes Schmitz a master manipulator with a violent head shake, a sudden fist pound or a jagged glare, loading every conversation with both self-pity and intimidation.
Action picks up when a Schmitz comrade, Eisenring, played by Rob Larson, appears in the Biedermann attic with gasoline barrels and a detonator. Eisenring is an ex-con waiter dressed in a black tuxedo, and Larson plays him like a smooth-talking game show host. It’s a difficult role. Frightening the weak, unethical Biedermann could scare him into action. But Eisenring must also be as unquestionably mad as Schmitz. Larson leans and twitches into his performance and creates a calculating voice of reason that is also somehow psychotic.
“Why wouldn’t he call the police?” says Eisenring. “Because he is guilty, too.”
Both Eisenring and Schmitz conquer the unwitting Biederman house in a climactic dinner scene, unfortunately tripped by an unexplained and distracting lighting trick.
Written in post-war Germany by Max Frisch, “The Arsonists” uses a Greek chorus dressed as firefighters in a nod to classical theater. But Pederson ties them down on stage, making them too blunt for a modern audience. While a confrontation with Biedermann has energy, other chorus scenes feel like lectures.
“The Arsonists” does have an unapologetic agenda. The play and its chorus successfully deliver a warning to societies unwilling to confront ugly truths, too selfish for others and ignorant of anything untoward. It’s a message that the audience is invited to discuss in a post-production gathering … because the message is still relevant today.
If you go
What: Duluth Playhouse presents "The Arsonists"
Where: The Underground, 506 W. Michigan St.
When: 7:30 p.m., Feb. 20-22, 27-29
Tickets: $20 ($18 for students) at duluthplayhouse.org.
Mark Nicklawske reviews music and theater for the News Tribune.
This article was edited at 4:58 p.m. on Feb. 22, 2020 to correct the title of the show. It was originally posted at 2:17 p.m. The News Tribune regrets the error.