4/10/2021 THE ARSONISTS Agnes Scott College Theatre
(Bias Alert: Over the past weeks, I have become Zoom-friends with actor Chris Kayser, and have always viewed his work through approval-tinted glasses.)
Tyger Tyger Burning Bright
Who I Ask Set thee A-light?
-- Richard Armour Punctured Poems: Famous First and Infamous Second Lines
In Jacqueline Goldfinger’s terse but layered The Arsonists, the answer to Armour’s tongue-in-cheek question is obvious – the nameless father and daughter arsonist team who comprise the roster of this elegant, evocative two-hander, being streamed this weekend by the Agnes Scott College Theatre as part of its 50th Annual Writers Festival (*).
Riffing on Sophocles’’ Electra, The Arsonists provides a deep dive into the mind of “M.” who has dragged her father’s charred remains to their Everglades hide-a-way. They were on a “job” that got “out of hand” (“It sometimes happens”). But the father (“H” in the program, but never explicitly named) won’t stay down, apparently too burned to stay alive and too ornery to stay dead. The ensuing brief encounter covers topics ranging from the mysterious death of wife/mother when “M” was a child, to why it’s better to leave the
body behind (the fire erases all trace), to tigers in their flame-like glory racing through the forest like a wildfire, to the best way to make fuses (as father and daughter do throughout), to the demands of the three fates (Clotho the spinner, Lachesis the weaver, Atropos – Morta in Latin – the one who cuts the thread and ends the life) giving the fuse-making motif a tidy allegorical spin (as it were).
And it is blindingly evident, both from Ms. Goldfinger’s dialogue and from the performances from Emily Parrish Stembridge and Chris Kayser, that they are more than just a crime family, they are a father and daughter totally devoted to each other. It’s no mystery why “M” can’t leave her father’s remains behind, no mystery why “H” can’t just fade away and “lay down the burden of life.”
What remains a mystery is what exactly happened to Mother when ”M” was a child (she spends a harrowing night with the body) – was is another “fire gone wrong” or was it something more sinister? How was this particular “Fuse of Fate” actually cut?
This is a terrifically atmospheric play, filled with silences and even occasional song, some traditional hymns, some written specifically for this production. It helps that both actors are terrific singers (Mr. Kayser was in Aurora’s Mamma Mia! and Ms. Stembridge was in Actors’ Express’ Company). The music gives the setting verisimilitude and provides welcome respite from the intensity of the action, much like Sophocles’ choral strophes and antistrophes do in Electra. The production opens with a moody juke joint ballad (“Ain’t No More Liquor in This Town”) and closes with the ironic “Small Town Penny-Ante Low Rent Blues” (written and performed by Mr. Kayser). And when (spoiler alert) “M” finally lets go, her rendition of “Nearer My God to Thee” is positively heart-wrenching.
The Arsonist is a wonderful play (I’ve already ordered the script to become part of my “permanent collection”) being given a wonderful production. Nicholas Ryan’s abstract virtual backgrounds fit the themes elegantly (even resembling a “Tyger Burning Bright” if you squint just so), and David S. Thompson’s direction perfectly balances pace, silence, song, and mood,
But it is the performances of Ms. Stembridge and Mr. Kayser that provide the true fire here. I doubt if they were ever in the same room together, but their well-tuned ensemble intimacies make it seem as if they were truly family, completely breaking down the virtual walls surrounding them.
To end on a literary note, the final irony is that William Blake’s original poem could have provided an equally relevant lead-in to this piece as Armour’s snarky rewrite:
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!
When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
-- William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience
The Arsonists is a wonderfully conceived, wonderfully produced, wonderfully performed work that suffers only in its brevity.
-- Brad Rudy ( @bk_rudy #TheArsonists #Agnes Scott College)
(*).Ms. Goldfinger is an Agnes Scott alumna.