Beth Cherne knew this was going to be her last year teaching in the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Department of Theatre Arts during the planning for this year’s theatrical season, and for her last show she was determined to go out with a bang.
Cherne had long wanted to stage “The Arsonists,” a German absurdist comedy from the early 1950s written by Max Frisch, in large part as a response to the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia. In the play, a town is plagued by arsonists who talk their way into people’s homes and take up residence in their attics, which the arsonists load up with barrels of fuel before torching the home.
So how Cherne finally get “The Arsonists” on the schedule?
“I played the retirement card. I said, ‘I want to do this play,’” she said with a laugh.
In the new translation of the play by Alistair Beaton, the action focuses on Biedermann, a pillar of the community who is well aware of the arsonists and the way they work. Yet, Biedermann has the same kind of cognitive dissonance that afflicted the Czechs ahead of the Soviet takeover. Despite the warnings from his family, he invites the strangers into his home, refusing to face the truth and admit that they are the thing he fears most.
“At the end of the play, the whole thing burns down,” said Cherne, not one bit remorseful for not offering a spoiler alert. “You can see it coming a mile away.”
Knowing that the play ends in a massive conflagration, the show’s lighting designer, junior Sarah Herkert went to great lengths to figure out how to best present the illusion of a fiery disaster. In addition to working out her plans on a scale model of the set in the university’s recently acquired lighting lab, she turned for ideas to a place where illusion reigns supreme: Walt Disney World.
Herkert applied for and won a research grant from the UW-L Foundation that allowed her to go to Disney World in January and study special effects and lighting, getting valuable help there from a Disney designer, Andre Appold, who did his undergraduate work at UW-L.
“I got inspiration when I was on ‘It’s a Small World,’ believe it or not,” Herkert said.
It’s not too hard to believe that she also got ideas from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride. As luck would have it, in fact, Herkert got stuck in a spot in the ride where it seems like the pirates have set the whole town ablaze.
With the ideas she gleaned from Disney World, “The Arsonists” promises to be a visually striking production, and Herkert said a big part of that also comes from the set design by Mandy Kolbe. “The way Mandy designed the set is like a lighting designer’s dream,” Herkert said. “So many spaces for shadows and light and patterns.”
Herkert has designed a big finish that, without divulging any of her secrets, will put an exclamation point on the production for the audience. “Hopefully, they’re left stunned and terrified,” she said. “I only hope that I can make it memorable.”
Although the audience knows from the start that Biedermann is doomed, “The Arsonists” is full of laughs, mainly stemming from examining what fools people can be, how they can ignore all the signs that they are being blindly led toward catastrophe.
“It’s a comedy with consequences,” Cherne said. “It’s like Keystone Cops meets Monty Python meets the Church Lady.”
While the play itself is roughly retirement age, too, Cherne emphasized that the message embedded in it — that one can’t stand meekly by while the world is being turned upside down — is as fresh and relevant now as it ever was.
“It’s definitely about this moment. It’s very timely and it’s very funny,” she said, adding that the ending will be thought provoking. “We don’t really get a period at the end of the sentence. “It’s more like a question mark, like, ‘What are you going to do?’”