Oxford College’s production of “The Arsonists,” which ran from Oct. 18 to 20 at the Tarbutton Theater, tells the harrowing story of a town that fears nothing more than fire.
The bustle of the theater died down as Mr. Bledermann (Erin Eben (19Ox, 21C)) casually and slowly crossed the stage to wind up a phonograph, swaying to the crackly, old timey music that gurgled out the wide opening. Picture your stereotypical “get-off-my-lawn” old man and give him a submissive, yet quick-thinking mind that despises arsonists, and you have Gottlleb Bledermann. He unfolds a newspaper as he reflects on the crime that is about to make his life a living nightmare. An arsonist comes to the door, asks for food and shelter and will leave the house in flames by the next morning.
Bledermann’s wife, Babette (Cassie Petroff (20Ox, 22C)), is a welcoming hostess whose energy often matches the what-the-heck mentality of the audience, with her blunt, witty comments that always came out of nowhere, and at other times reflects the family’s atmosphere. The deviance from their normal routine is prompted by Scmitz (Jack Wolfram (20Ox, 22C)), a man posing as a wrestler with a troubled past, and Eisenring (Rupert Le Cren (19Ox, 21C)), a waiter of an old, burned down restaurant who seeks solace for the night. The arsonist duo of destroys the house in a jarring finale, leaving the audience in stunned silence and forced to continue their evenings after enjoying the din of a burning house occupied by a family with whom they just had the opportunity to connect.
The plot moves quickly and lacks the dull moments often associated with character development or growth. This pace is accomplished by the periodic interruption of the fire brigade, led by the Chief (Talyn Fan (20Ox, 22C)), which speaks only in unison with the dangers that plague the characters. Because the fire brigade both delivers the play’s narrative and speaks in riddles, its members inform and confound the audience as they dramatically travel throughout the theater.
The set, costumes and lighting kept the audience immersed in the show throughout the entire 90-minute performance. The stage was split into two floors: the bottom floor made up the dining and living space of the Bledermann family home and the top floor was the platform for the dastardly deeds of the arsonists. The lighting, combined with seamless stage transitions, effortlessly moved the audience’s attention between the different scenes. The costumes were bizarre but they added character to the show. Babette wears flamingos patterned on a neon green dress and one of the arsonists wears a wrestling unitard pulled straight from a 1900s-era summer catalogue.
Performing in this play was clearly a daunting task, for the characters’ personalities range from Eisenring, a psychotic man-child posing as a waiter, to Scmitz, a wrestler who bounces from being kind to almost snapping someone’s neck; the actors convincingly played these outlandish personalities. While quirky, there isn’t a moment where the characters are overbearing; despite the variety, the dialogue’s tones are consistent with the play’s message that one should be wary of strangers in one’s home.
The nuance to the themes communicated by the plot, such as trusting those around you and having confidence in yourself, occurs largely in the interactions between the arsonists and Bledermann. Each action supports the arsonists’ presence in Bledermann’s home, and the good-natured banter was met with guffaws from the audience because of the arsonists’ obvious attempts to fool their gracious hosts. As the final supper is prepared and Bledermann fetches his finest bottles of wine, he addresses the audience directly, simply asking, “What would you have done?” The tone shifts, as the dramatic irony of the audience knowing the true identity of the arsonists is stripped away. Bledermann becomes a man who is too afraid to protect his family and his home. The sound of crackling fire grows more and more present throughout the end of the show, consuming the theater in the final moments.
“The Arsonists” came across as a truly passionate performance, with the actors and actresses clearly giving the performances their all. The story of a family overwhelmed over the series of a few days, with obstacle after obstacle being thrust upon them, caused personal reflection as well as visible contemplation on the faces of those surrounding me. While quirky at times, the performances’ quality kept the audience engaged from the first moment to the closing curtain.