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The Firebugs by Max Frisch (4th Street Theatre, St. Paul)

L to R: Willy Ironbar (Brian O'Neal), Christian Betterman (Bob Hammel), Joe Smite (Jeremy Wendt), Babette Betterman (Pam Kaufman), Anne (Deanne McDonald) - Photo courtesy of nimbus

Directed by Josh Cragun
a nimbus production

February 26th, 2005

running time: approximately two hours with one intermission

Review by Miguel Trejo

A match is lit; smoke fills the air. Christian Betterman scowls at the audience, his face aglow with self-righteous indignation. Like alchemists, the members of the nimbus theater group (yes, that’s a lower case “n”) turn an ordinary looking building in downtown St. Paul into a fiery hell of comic, thought-provoking theatre.

The Firebugs is a sometimes cynical, sometimes hopeful look at a post-WWII Germany. Mr. Betterman, an angry hair tonic salesman, and his wife must cope with a world in which fires run rampant and people live in fear of “firebugs”. When a homeless ex-wrestler/orphan/son of a coal burner and his ex-convict/waiter partner smooth-talk their way into the Betterman’s attic, the couple must decide whether their paranoia is clouding their judgment as it becomes obvious that there is something not quite right with their guests. Will they face the truth or turn their heads away, unwilling to act as everything goes up in flames?

As in a medieval morality play, the character names describe what the characters symbolize. Betterman wants to be morally superior to others, at least in appearance. Ironbar is unforgiving and condescending. Underling never appears on stage, so low is his status. Overall, the actors do well in representing these aspects of their roles.

Bob Hammel, who plays Christian Betterman, our 20th Century Every Man, did a good job of portraying Frisch’s blustery, guilt-ridden protagonist. Hammel exceled when Betterman soared into his tirade against those responsible for the bad shape of the world -- and against those who might imply he is one of them. However, sometimes in his enthusiasm he lost focus and stumbled through some of Betterman’s quieter reflective moments.

The character Joe Smite, the boisterous firebug, played by Jeremy Wendt, calls for a light-hearted treatment, which it gets. Wendt made Smite immediately likeable, albeit unsettling, as he congenially shames Betterman into offering him shelter. The audience could tell that Wendt was thoroughly enjoying himself as the jovial Smite. However, although Wendt played this aspect quite well, there were times when his character touched a farcical note which did not always mesh with what the rest of the actors were doing.

The role of Smite’s counterpart, Willie Ironbar, was taken on masterfully by Brian O’Neal. He played Ironbar’s smug superiority and bold-faced contempt for Betterman with a cool hand. As soon as he enters the scene, Ironbar asserts his control over the house, Betterman, and even his partner, Joe. His status is further enhanced, quite diabolically, in the second part of the play.

The other dominant force in The Firebugs is the Chorus of Firemen which breaks the action of the plot to inject bits of humor, foreshadowing, cross-examination, and introspection. Under their watchful eyes nothing is missed, all is judged, and very little is forgiven. With them blocking his way, Betterman can try to rationalize but his empty lies fall upon unsympathetic ears. From time to time, the Chorus’s serious air was broken by its swaggering search about stage for smoke and fire. However, I feel that the choreography could have been explored a bit further, because, although the chorus served its main function, I don’t think it was optimized to its full potential. Regrettably, I have only seen a couple of productions in which the chorus overcame the tendency to speak in a monotonous drone or to move rigidly about the stage.

All in all, the actors gave many solid individual performances. However, as an ensemble there was an initial lack of synergy-- or better yet, resonance. For the first quarter of the show the actors did not always support each other that well. Eventually, the cast warmed up and achieved a better focus as they got into the rhythm of the play. After the intermission especially, the play picked up in energy, as was evident in a fast-paced and funny dinner scene in which, without mincing words, the firebugs state their devious intentions while Betterman and wife do their best not to believe them.

If you haven’t seen The Firebugs, I strongly recommend it. It is a darkly comic look at the manner in which people rationalize away responsibility for their actions or lack thereof; how in a morally ambiguous world where Nixons are pardoned, Enrons are slapped on the wrist, and lying liars are re-elected, the Devil can’t help but feel cheated and Hell must go on strike. However, I would be remiss to only recommend The Firebugs in this review and not the wonderful theatre group called nimbus. They are doing great work in the heart of the Twin Cities and you should check them out.

Miguel Trejo is at migueltrejo00[at]hotmail.com



The nimbus theatre company is a local, grassroots group devoted to producing non-mainstream work. Through the unusual pieces they work on, nimbus strives to challenge both audiences and artists alike. To learn more about nimbus, visit www.nimbustheatre.com.

The Fourth Street Theatre is a nice little hole-in-the-wall venue that is comforting in its unassuming atmosphere. The sandwich-board sign which stands outside the building says much about the simplicity of the space, but can’t do full justice to the activity which goes on inside. The space is small but suitable, private but welcoming. The platforms on which the audience sits are not painted and a curtain lies against a wall waiting to be used. There are very few pretensions to be maintained in such an honest space, and the audience can rest assured that they won’t be bamboozled into forgetting what is at the core of good theater. More information about Fourth Street Theatre, including future events, can be found at www.theaterspaceproject.org.