ACT provides blazing night at the theatre

You can always count on Alpena Civic Theatre to keep things interesting. ACT recently dusted off “The Firebugs,” an absurdist comedy from its archives first directed in 1972 by the late Bill Maxwell, who had a particular penchant for that genre of theatre.

Dedicated to Maxwell by Pat Jacques, his long-time friend and the show’s current director, “The Firebugs” opened Thursday for a two-week run.

To those unfamiliar with the term absurdist comedy, when it comes to “The Firebugs,” it means at first blush some of what you’re hearing on stage doesn’t appear to make sense even if it is funny in the telling. Why would a respectable couple welcome two arsonists into their home at time when their city is systematically being destroyed by arson, then basically turn their heads when all signs point to an impending conflagration in their own home? And what’s up with the quartet of bumbling firemen who periodically provide commentary in unison?

A little deeper look beneath the surface, however, points to an underlying cautionary tale of how people can easily overlook evil intentions until it’s too late to do anything about them. Given the fact the play was written post-Adolph Hitler Nazism in 1953 by European playwright Max Firsch brings that message home even further. And as we continue to reflect, one has to wonder if that same message is just as valid in today’s landscape.

Serious ponderings aside, Jacques put together a powerhouse ensemble cast for “The Firebugs,” led by Derek Spack and Terry Carlson as the well-to-do couple who open their doors to a pair of suspected arsonists. Both actors bring years of experience and stage presence to their roles. Spack is pompous, blustery businessman Gottlieb Biedermann, who doesn’t want to appear unkind to his guests, and Carlson is his wife, the genteel Babette, who has major reservations about letting the supposed arsonists stay, but to no avail.

Matt Southwell and Joseph Rybarczyk got the plum roles of the arsonists. As brassy ex-wrestler Sepp Schmitz and sinister/charming ex-convict Willie Isenring, Southwell and Rybarczyk employ a comical mix of congeniality and intimidation to coerce their way into the couple’s home. Next thing you know, they’ve filled Gottlieb and Babette’s attic with large metal drums containing gasoline, and attached a fuse. Even so, they are invited to dine at the family table.

Actress Hannah Matzke, as the reluctant maidservant to the Biedermanns, brings an touch of humor when her character is forced to cowtail to Schmitz and Willie’s wishes for service. She’s very good at slamming doors and slinging food with displeasure written all over her face.

Veteran ACT performer Donna Gilmet appears as a widow, Mrs. Knechtkling. Though the cigar-smoking Gottlieb likes to view himself as kind and compassionate, she’s there to remind him that his firing of her husband led to his bizarre suicide by kitchen oven, so maybe Gottlieb’s not the decent guy he thinks he is.

Rick Mesler, another local actor who often takes on small supporting parts, plays both a policeman and a professor. Initially his character appears as an accomplice to the two firebugs, but then he develops second thoughts though much too late in the game for them to matter.

The four fireman, created in the vein of a Greek chorus that speaks rather than sings, also are well-known names in local theatre circles. Doug Niergarth, Randy Bouchard, Duane Beyer and Bruce Michaud fill these roles that parody how powerless bureaucratic figures become in times of crisis. They also are suitably outfitted with firefighter gear. Their costumes, as well as those of the rest of the cast, definitely fit the bill and are visually appealing, especially Carlson’s beautiful long dresses and robe.

Special effects stand out as a major element of the show with smoke, fire whistles, glowing lights and dozens of other light and sounds cues adding up to make “The Firebugs” quite the technical theatre experience, including the climactic ending.

In designing the impressive set, Jacques teamed up with another long-time collaborator of his, Gene Reimann, who also did the original set design for Maxwell. Thanks to their ingenuity, the action moves easily from dining room to attic to fire station and back again.

ACT typically likes to mix it up each season by offering a musical, a drama, a comedy and then something a little bit different or experimental. “The Firebugs” clearly falls into the last category, making for an interesting evening at the theatre.

Remaining performances are today through Sunday and March 20-23.