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Ripping Off the Mask


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The Firebugs


at Viaduct Theatre

By Jack Helbig

For many years Switzer-land--that clean, neat, neutral country nestled in the pristine Alps--seemed exempt from the collective guilt of World War II. The ultimate bourgeois country, a country of bankers and watchmakers and rational businessmen, it had weathered the war without taking sides, providing a safe haven for all comers.

That was its image, anyway. Think of the Von Trapp family singing "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" as they marched across the Alps from Nazi-dominated Austria to free Switzerland. But now we know that the Swiss did their share of dirty dealing during the war, hoarding Nazi gold and refusing to release Swiss bank accounts to the heirs of Jews killed in the death camps--or even to admit that the accounts existed. All in the name of good business, of course.

No one knows how Swiss playwright Max Frisch would have reacted to the news of how badly Swiss bankers treated their Jewish customers--he died in 1991. But I'm sure he wouldn't have been surprised. Frisch built his career revealing the hypocrisy, conscious and unconscious, of respectable citizens. In fact, like his friend Bertolt Brecht, Frisch took a positive delight in showing the world what worms we really are.

His 1958 play The Firebugs focuses on Gottlieb Biedermann, the embodiment of the Protestant work ethic. His very name, which literally means "God's love," evokes the Calvinist idea of "the elect"--the notion that those who are chosen before birth to go to heaven also prosper in this life. Biedermann runs a successful business, owns a house, and is married to a proper, fashionable wife. Then his life and home are invaded by the firebugs, a band of revolutionaries out to bring down the Biedermanns of the world by setting spectacular fires in residential districts.

For Biedermann's prosperity is not the sign of a moral life. One of his oldest employees has just committed suicide, in part because Biedermann refused to pay him royalties on a popular hair-care product he developed. But Biedermann doesn't feel any guilt about this. No more than Swiss bankers felt guilty sticking to the letter of the law about the secrecy of Swiss bank accounts--who cares if the person who opened the account died in a gas chamber? No more than upper-level managers of multinational corporations feel guilty about axing jobs or closing factories in the United States and moving operations to Mexico or Vietnam. It's just good business.

Not that Frisch's play is mere left-wing business-bashing agitprop. It can be played that way, but only if you distort his meaning. Like his countryman C.G. Jung, Frisch knows that all people have their dark sides, and again like Jung, he feels duty bound to break through the facades, short-circuit the denial mechanisms, and bring people face-to-face with their shadows. There are no angels in his world. The firebugs, for example, turn out to be simple pyromaniacs. And the firemen--who act as a Greek chorus of sorts, commenting on Biedermann's plight--behave like storm troopers in helmets and red suspenders when they're on duty. In their zeal to stop the firebugs, they're willing to trample every citizen's civil rights.

What makes the Hypocrites' production of The Firebugs so wonderful--and darkly funny--is how thoroughly they reproduce Frisch's world onstage. In Sean Graney's staging of this mock tragedy, there are indeed no heroes. Don Bender plays Biedermann as a pampered fool, more interested in correct form than in preserving his life, wife, or home. Even as the firebugs take over his attic and fill it with sawdust and cans of gasoline, Biedermann cannot bring himself to evict them because he cannot find a graceful way to tell them to hit the road. Likewise Christopher Cintron and Colin Milroy as the firebugs are feral weasels of the first order, willing to say or do anything to win sympathy, food, and free lodging even as they plot to destroy the people giving them handouts.

Particularly killing is the chorus of firemen, led by Christian Ginocchio. Speaking in stentorian voices, they parody both the overblown rhetoric of badly translated Greek tragedy and the flat, self-important prose of official pronouncements. Essentially puffed-up bureaucrats, Frisch's firemen clearly think of themselves as heroes on a par with Achilles and Ajax, but we see that they're so blinded by the pomp and power of their positions that they're as helpless as Biedermann at stopping the firebugs.

It isn't just the broad strokes that the Hypocrites get right. Frisch's absurdist play is full of tiny, hilarious parodic touches, moments when he borrows a page from both Brecht and Ionesco to deflate the pretensions of his own drama. One of the firemen's speeches, for example, pokes fun at the play for parodying Greek tragedy.

The Hypocrites cunningly heighten this comic effect by using props that announce their own absurdity. Lots of theaters use papier-mache food in dinner scenes, but the Hypocrites refuse to paint the food: it's obvious that the goose everyone is drooling over is made of newspaper and plaster of paris. Graney also uses real bottles of wine but never uncorks them; instead actors mime uncorking the bottles, then drink imaginary wine from real wineglasses.

Brecht relished such moments, when the play awakens the audience from its suspension of disbelief. Clearly, so do Frisch and Graney. And like Brecht, they have a good reason for employing what he called the alienation effect: they want to awaken us to the hypocrisy of the world and to the dangers of denying the darkness in our own souls.

We human beings are capable of anything. Just ask the Swiss.

Clearly, so do Frisch and Graney. And like Brecht, they have a good reason for employing what he called the alienation effect: they want to awaken us to the hypocrisy of the world and to the dangers of denying the darkness in our own souls.

We human beings are capable of anything. Just ask the Swiss.

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