Theatre @ York launches its 2008-2009 season with The Fire Raisers, Swiss playwright Max Frisch’s biting black comedy about humanity’s complicity in its own calamities. Directed by Heather Davies, in a translation by Michael Bullock, this rare Toronto production of The Fire Raisers opens Nov. 4 and runs to Nov. 8 in the Joseph G. Green Studio Theatre at York University.
Right: Heather Davies directs The Fire Raisers
Written as a radio play in 1953 and first produced on stage in Zurich five years later, Frisch’s play is a parable about fatal complacency in the face of a social menace. With great wit, humour and heart, the play offers the spectacle of a self-satisfied, prosperous bourgeois who allows himself to become the culpable dupe of the agents of mayhem.
Displaying a mixture of anxious timidity and fatuous short-sightedness, the protagonist, Biedermann, willfully shuts his eyes to the activities of the arsonists who are literally installed under his roof. His strategy of appeasement plays right into the hands of the demonic plotters who scarcely bother to conceal their sinister intentions.
"Frisch believed that we all have moments when we are Biedermann – when we don’t stand up against evil that is right in front of us," says Davies. "We may do this out of habit and self-protection, but often we’re not even aware that we’re doing it. We also want to believe that we’re still good people; we somehow manage to justify our choices."
Left: Standing, from left, are fourth-year acting students Adam Kolozsvari (Mr. Knetchling/chorus member), Courtney Brown (police officer/chorus member) and John Fleming (chorus leader). Director Heather Davies is seated.
"Frisch was deeply uncomfortable with this aspect of humanity," Davies says. "He’d witnessed his own country, Switzerland, turn away Jewish refugees during the Second World War because of concerns over Swiss food stocks. But he believed that denial and justification are universal human traits."
Born in 1911 in Zurich (where he died 80 years later), Max Frisch worked as a journalist before turning to full-time writing in the years following the Second World War. He became one of Europe’s major literary voices, widely honoured as a novelist, social commentator and diarist as well as playwright. Seminal novels include I’m Not Stiller (1954) and Homo Faber (1957). Among his other stage works are Andorra (1961), When the War Was Over (1949) and The Chinese Wall (1946).
Right: From left, students Joe Bucci (Gottlieb Biedermann) and Lindsay Stone (Mrs. Knetchling/chorus member), receive direction from Davies
Davies is currently completing her master’s degree in directing in the Department of Theatre at York University. She has worked extensively in England, including two-and-a-half years with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). At the RSC she directed a number of her own projects (Lope de Vega’s The Capulets and Montagues, co-produced with the University of Warwick’s CAPITAL Centre; Stratford Talking on the RSC Main Stage; and Desire Under the Elms at RSC’s The Other Place). She worked as associate director on projects including The Jacobethan Season (which included The Malcontent, The Roman Actor, The Island Princess, Edward III and Eastward Ho!), for which the RSC won an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement.
Davies has numerous other directing credits for plays staged around the world. At York, her directing projects have included Titus Andronicus, Book of Days and Beowulf.
Working with Davies on The Fire Raisers is a cast of 11 fourth-year acting students and a creative team of undergraduates handling all aspects of the production design and execution. The set features an 18-foot house which undergoes a remarkable transformation in the last act, and (fittingly for a play about arson) the staging includes numerous occasions of fire.
Previews are Sunday and Monday, Nov. 2-3, at 7:30pm, while the official opening is Tuesday, Nov. 4, at 7:30pm with nightly shows at the same time until Saturday, Nov. 8 . There are also two matinees – Wednesday, Nov. 5, and Friday, Nov. 7, both at 1pm. Admission is pay-what-you-can for the Nov 2 preview and $5 for the Nov. 3 preview. It is $15 for the regular run, students/seniors $10.