The stage is pitch dark when a fireman walks onto stage. A light comes on. Other firemen troop in through unusual entrances (the side and top audience exits), take position, and the spotlight moves to another part of the stage .
When a surprising declaration is made, the moment is emphasized by abrupt darkening. When there is confusion, the lights quiver gently. When alarm, the curtain behind rises to reveal a wall-sized screen with a huge red silhouette. At the end, what remains is darkness broken by candlelight.
Fire spells destruction in the hands of arsonists who plague the unnamed city in this play, but the brilliant use of lighting serves to remind that fire can also mean light; we choose what it will be.
Just as we choose whether or not to take in a ragged stranger on a rainy night, whether we let kindness prevail over practicality. The city is rife with news of arsonists on the prowl: could this stranger be one of them? Gottlieb Biederman (Karn Malhotra), despite his reluctance, allows Joe Schmitz (Nilanjan Choudhury) in and houses him in his attic. He watches with growing desperation his worst suspicions coming true, yet refuses to believe them.
When faced with imminent disaster, what are the choices we make? The Fire Raisers is a satire on the human folly of turning a blind eye to troubles till they snowball out of control. And there I had a problem with the modelling of this message. There is a kind of satire that hits right home, that gives us parallels to identify with. In The Fire Raisers, the characters’ motivations and actions are so far removed from anything I would do in the same situation that the Gottlieb Biederman’s plea to the audience "what would you do?", instead of making me ponder and speculate, left me unaffected. I could take the absurd on its own; mapping it with real-world meanings seemed unnecessary and contrived.
The play does deliver a message to characters like Happy Singh of Singh is Kinng (pardon the reference, reruns of the film on TV have made a deep imprint on my mind) who believe that Love can reform Evil. Don’t you bet on it, says The Fire Raisers.
Of the actors, Elina Da’Silva makes for an engagingly campy Babette, the high-strung wife who could purportedly have a heart attack any minute. The other actors don’t really stand out except in the dinner party scene that comes together extremely well, when Joe wears a tablecloth pretending to be a ghost.
The portions with the firemen had them all speaking in chorus and rhythm. Those felt disjoint from the rest of the play. The firemen were probably actors new to the stage, and it showed. Since they spoke together, the dialogue would get garbled at times and one had to strain to follow what was being said.
In its original form, The Fire Raisers (by Max Frisch, 1958) was written as a bleak parable about German society in the post WW-II era. Beidermann’s response to the arsonists was symbolic of the gullibility of people in their embrace of Nazism. Phyllis Bose’s spin on the play shears it of its darker tones and stresses on its goofiness. It also projects the metaphors as universal and contemporary rather than specific to a place and time, which does not translate too convincingly.
The genre of "comedy" covers wide ground, and it is shaky ground. Emotions like happiness and sorrow are universal, amusement is not: what will make one rock with laughter will leave another cold. This one’s is the old-fashioned style of physical comedy, replete with characters that break into song-and-dance and talk in singsong, high-pitched voices (a far cry from say, Elling, in which the humour came from clever dialogues delivered deadpan-style). If that suits your palate, you will laugh along with The Fire Raisers.