Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

The Arsonists
Woolly Mammoth Theatre
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Also see Susan's review of In the Heights

Howard Shalwitz and Tim Getman
Photo by Scott Suchman
When Swiss playwright Max Frisch wrote The Arsonists in 1958, he was examining the threat of then-recent Nazi and Communist ideologies and the people who try to pretend that everything's all right as society crumbles. In other words, it's the perfect time for Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company to put its own contemporary gloss on the work.

Director Michael John Garcés and the actors are not going for subtlety here; they want the audience to feel uncomfortable while laughing at other people's absurdities, but not by treating the characters as jokes. Audience members are invited to stay for post-show discussions after every performance.

The pre-show music has a distinctive theme ("Ring of Fire," "Burning Down the House," "Light My Fire") and Misha Kachman's scenic design gives corrugated metal exterior walls to the comfortable home of complacent businessman George Betterman (Howard Shalwitz, unrecognizable at first). The focus of the room is a wall-mounted television set, which showcases Jared Mezzocchi's video mashup of recent television news—notably, out-of-control wildfires and Donald Trump's threat of "fire and fury" against North Korea—with classic cartoons and other evocative images, eventually enhanced by Colin K. Bills' lighting design.

The city is under siege from arsonists who take over people's homes and businesses, fill them with flammable materials, then burn them down. (These attacks have no apparent political motive.) Betterman rails against the threat in the abstract, but when a down-on-his-luck fighter named Joe Smith (Tim Getman, intimidating with close-cropped hair and thick beard) tells him a sob story, Betterman takes him in to show he's an honorable person. Soon Smith is joined by his friend Billie Irons (Kimberly Gilbert), and together they're terrifying Betterman's wife Becca (Bahni Turpin) and ordering around Anna the maid (Regina Aquino) while Betterman refuses to accept what's going on.

Meanwhile, a chorus of firefighters (Akeem Davis, Peter Howard, Sue Jin Song, José Joaquín Perez, and Emily Townley) wanders in and out of the scene and the auditorium, ready for action in case another fire breaks out but unable to take preemptive measures against the arsonists.

Woolly is using Alistair Beaton's 2007 translation of Frisch's play, with some additional tweaks by Garcés to move the setting from a generic European city to present-day Washington. Some of the lines sound as if they were specifically written for this production (they weren't), such as the idea that class warfare wouldn't exist if less fortunate people didn't talk about it or, conversely, that any person with more than a set amount of money must be guilty of something. Betterman's apologia, "I can't live in fear all the time," encapsulates his character and serves as the key to the story.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
The Arsonists
September 5th - October 8th, 2017
By Max Frisch, in a new translation by Alistair Beaton
George Betterman: Howard Shalwitz
Anna: Regina Aquino
Joe Smith: Tim Getman
Becca Betterman: Bahni Turpin
Billie Irons: Kimberly Gilbert
Chorus: Akeem Davis, Peter Howard, Sue Jin Song, José Joaquín Perez, Emily Townley
Directed by Michael John Garcés
641 D St. N.W., Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-393-3939 or