In gearing up for The Horse in Motion's latest piece of immersive theater, The Arsonists by Max Frisch (translated by Alistair Beaton), director Bobbin Ramsey has been posing a moral quandary to her company members.
"You're holding a burning match in your hand," Ramsey says. "What are you going to do? Put it out? Point it out and do nothing? Ignore it until it burns you? Or are you going to hold it to a drum of gasoline and blow everything up?"
Each of the characters in Frisch's absurdist "morality play without a moral" assumes one of those positions in response to the incendiary activities of a group of political activists.
At the beginning of the play, this group is running around and lighting the whole city on fire. But Frisch is careful not to present them as either unequivocally good or evil. Wealth inequality is oppressing the masses, and the only way they feel they can level the playing field is by, well, literally leveling the playing field. Their motives aren't all that pure, though. The group members revel in the thrill of watching the buildings burn.
The central character, Biedermann (which loosely translates to "Everyman," and will be played by one of my favorite comedic actors in town, Mario Orallo-Molinaro), claims he'd show these fire starters what's what if he ever came face-to-face with one of them. But when he does end up meeting them, he can't believe what's right in front of his eyes. A chorus of firefighters constantly point out the dangers of the fire, but they take no action to stop it. The city is burning down and nobody knows what to do.
Decades before the phrase "burn it all down" gained a certain ironic popularity in social-justice circles, Frisch, a Swiss playwright who wrote The Arsonists in 1953, was putting the idea to the test. Ramsey says this play asks, "Okay, if we're actually going to burn it down, then how do we hold the responsibility of that?"
In many ways, Gallery Erato in Pioneer Square is the perfect venue for this performance. Pioneer Square, of course, burned to the ground in the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. The gorgeous, exposed-brick gallery sits on top of the original area's charred remains. "Was Seattle better off for being leveled? Would the city be where it is today if the fire hadn't torn everything down?" Ramsey asks.
And now (as in Frisch's drama) the neighborhood is a hotbed of income inequality. Homeless people camp in front of start-ups humming with venture capital. "It's important to us that audiences experience that tension as they're walking to the venue," Ramsey says. "And, not to give anything away, but we're going to remind the audience of that experience at the end of the play."
In case you're wondering: Yes, there will be actual fire during this performance. "I'm not going to tell you how much," Ramsey says. "But everyone will be safe."