There are certain things in life and art that are simply not meant to be understood. I don’t understand why Steve Buscemi’s character always died at the end of Coen brothers movies. I don’t see the purpose of a Spider-Man musical. I have seen “Biederman’s Match” almost four times now, but every time I leave the HSSB Performing Arts Theater, I have no idea what I’m walking away with.
“Biederman’s Match,” apparently set in the same time period as Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, tells the story of strung-out salesman Jack Biederman (UCSB senior Julian Rubel). Biederman lives with his wife Babs (UCSB senior Courtney Salvage) and his maid Anita (UCSB junior Hasmik Saakian) in a town that has been ravaged by terrorist explosions. Though this fuel’s Biederman’s bigotry, he must suppress his prejudices when two Middle Eastern men, Said and Willy (UCSB juniors Jordan Holmes and Andrew Fromer), who may or may not be (but probably are) terrorists, decide to live in his attic. As he blindly accepts their stay in his home, a chorus of firefighters (UCSB students Brittany Carriger, Emily McKeown and Chase O’Donnell) follows him, warning him of the obvious danger that lies in front of him.
The absurd plot of “Biederman’s Match” is compelling and Director Risa Brainin’s pacing provides a lively flow, but the play sends several mixed messages. During the first act, it seems to warn the audience against prejudice and racial profiling; but the second act shifts gears and portrays the consequences of nihilism and ignorance toward obvious dangers, which may confuse viewers already invested in the message of the play’s first half. Since we never learn of Said and Willy’s motives, little is done to alleviate this confusion. Viewers can pay close attention to the songs (music and lyrics by Michelle DiBucci and Portia Kamons) for guidance, since the lyrics are written to throw the play’s themes in the audience’s face, but their own narrative culminates with a song that describes the entire play as “useless.”
But few people attend musical theater to learn a lesson; they usually just want to have a good time watching a fun play and listening to a catchy soundtrack. In this respect, “Biederman’s Match” delivers. The original songs, not present in the play’s source material, have a ’20s-style jazz feel that immerses the audience in the play’s absurdity. An impressive live band of UCSB music students backs the chorus’s strong performances.
The students do an incredible job portraying the Brechtian characters who keep the play interesting. Though his performance does little to attract sympathy toward the character, Rubel’s neurotic portrayal of Jack Biederman is fun to watch and even better to watch fall apart during the tense and ridiculous climax. Holmes and Fromer skillfully switch the respective attitudes of Said and Willy between silly banter and passive aggressiveness. As the amusingly helpless maid Anita, Saakian rakes in the laughs with her excellent Peruvian accent. These performances and the groovy soundtrack make the message of the play irrelevant. Take what you will from “Biederman’s Match.” When you walk out of the theater, you may not know what just happened to you, but you will have enjoyed every moment of it.
“Biederman’s Match” premiers Friday at the UCSB Performing Arts Theatre.