Wednesday, January 25, 2006 | Editor’s Note: Voice of San Diego is embarking on a new effort to cover the arts in San Diego and give theater patrons the opportunity to provide their own reviews of shows. If you have seen this play, please e-mail us your review at
Every story has a point. Even ones that claim to be without one.
Although it calls itself a morality play without a moral, “Biedermann and the Firebugs” employs irony and dark humor to illustrate – without being overtly preachy – how a person’s complacency can lead to tragedy.
So, despite its claim that it doesn’t have a point, the play, which opened Jan. 14 at the intimate Cygnet Theatre, actually does.
Written by Swiss playwright Max Frisch in 1952, “Biedermann” takes place in a small German town under frequent attack by a band of arsonists, or “firebugs,” who finagle their way into people’s homes and shortly thereafter torch them.
Anyone in the audience – including this reviewer – who has read a synopsis of the play beforehand pretty much knows how the play will unfold. There aren’t any surprises or plot twists, calling to mind playwright – and Frisch’s friend – Bertolt Brecht, who coined the concept of an “epic theatre” in which ideas are more important than just plot and character development. However, the enjoyment comes from seeing the seemingly defiant title character battle with himself as he turns a blind eye to the truth that is spelled out clearly before him.
Thanks to the strong comedic performances of the cast, the one-act play remained engaging and entertaining throughout the 80-minute performance – with no intermission – though it did feel a bit slow at times, with long-winded dialogue that could have benefited from a second edit.
The play opens with a chorus of three firefighters, dressed in bright yellow uniforms and tinted sunglasses, who set the stage for the audience while standing vigilant over the charred town.
Biedermann (played by Tim Irving) is a happy-go-lucky, affluent businessman who, while reading the newspaper headlines reporting the town’s latest arson attacks, smugly declares that he will never be a firebug victim. Shortly after he puts down his paper, the fun begins when he is visited by a peddler named Sepp (Daren Scott) who quickly convinces Biedermann to let him stay in his attic.
Wanting to believe that not everyone is a firebug and that good can come of good nature, Biedermann next allows Sepp’s accomplice, Willie (Joshua Everett Johnson) to also stay in his home. In one stark example of the play’s dark humor, the two houseguests brazenly move in large oil barrels and explosives into the attic, making no attempts to disguise their pyromania.
Sepp and Willie often wryly drop many obvious hints as to their true identities as firebugs, but Biedermann and his neurotic, paranoid wife, Babette (Laura Bozanich), don’t catch on … or do they choose not to? Biedermann even participates in his own eventual downfall by holding the fuse in the attic so Willie can measure it.
A self-proclaimed honest wrestler, Sepp perhaps best encapsulates the main message of the play, when he tells Biedermann, who either can’t or refuses to see the truth laid out right before his eyes, “A joke is good camouflage … so is sentimentality. But the best camouflage of all is to tell the plain and simple truth because no one believes you.”
“Biedermann” was first performed as a radio play and later adapted for the stage. Cygnet’s resident sound design artist M. Scott Grabau expertly captures the feel of old-time radio plays through the use of lively, quirky sound effects and musical interludes, ranging from early big band jazz to oompah, beer hall songs.
The simple, single-set stage recalls the early days of sitcom television, when entire episodes were shot against one backdrop. Even Irving’s performance as Biedermann and Bozanich’s performance as Babette are reminiscent of “The Honeymooners” Alice and Ralph – minus the blue-collar lifestyle – and Lucy Ricardo through occasional slapstick humor and ’50s dress.
With “Biedermann,” Frisch took inspiration from his travels through post-World War II Europe, writing the play as an allegory for the rise of Nazism, though the play is still relevant in today’s culture of fear and reality-TV apathy.
At the end of the play, the chorus of three firefighters declare, “Arson is as pointless as this story.” The ending, as it unravels on stage, is somewhat open to interpretation (and I won’t give it away) … though, personally it could have used more explosions.
For those who enjoy theater that not only entertains but also sparks some thoughtful post-performance discussion, it wouldn’t be pointless to go see this play.
“Biedermann and the Firebugs,” directed by Sean Murray, runs 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 12 at Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd., Suite N, College Area. Info: (619) 337-1525 or www.cygnettheatre.com.
Please contact Claire Caraska directly at
Everyone’s a critic. We asked theater-goers to send us an e-mail with their thoughts. Read audience reviews:
Two Thumbs Up
I saw the play on Sunday and loved it. Thanks for sharing your review. Fine writing – right to the witty end! I hope it
“Firebugs” was a great production and reinforced why it’s important to support great talent in our community and explore where it leads us. The Cygnet Theatre delivers handsomely.
– Cheryl Brown, San Diego
We didn’t like the play nearly as well as you did.
– Joe and Maria Penny, San Diego
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