Review: ‘The Arsonists’ at Azuka Theatre

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Haunting and primal, Azuka Theatre’s rolling world premiere of The Arsonists, the final installment in Philadelphia playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger’s “Southern Gothic Trilogy” (following the terrible girls and Skin & Bone), re-imagines the ancient Greek tragedy of Electra, the myth of the Three Fates, and the classical concept of the Four Elements deep in the swamplands of Florida in the 1990s. The affecting story is seen through the eyes of a doleful daughter and the ghost of her father, accidentally burned to death with the shifting of the wind in their latest arson-for-hire, while leaving their mark on life and setting the world on fire in the only way they know how.

Under Allison Heishman’s indelible direction, the play with music is at once earthy and otherworldly, acutely poignant, at times comic and often hair-raising, as the desperate characters struggle with letting go and moving on, after releasing their demons and reaffirming their love and concern for one another in an emotion-filled post-mortem vision. Goldfinger, who was just awarded the prestigious Yale Drama Series Prize for her play Bottle Fly, employs language that strikes a balance between the profane and the poetic, punctuated by pregnant silences, expressive breathing, and plaintive folk and gospel songs.

Sarah Gliko (in background) and Steven Rishard. Photo by Johanna Austin/AustinArt.com.

Sarah Gliko (in background) and Steven Rishard. Photo by Johanna Austin/AustinArt.com.

Sarah Gliko as the daughter M and Steven Rishard as her father H deliver a full range of powerful feelings and soulfully-sung lyrics, accompanying themselves on acoustic guitar and ukulele (on such traditional songs as “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” “He Walks with Me,” “Train on the Island,” and “Nearer My God to Thee”), as she reflects on the key points in their life together and the lessons he taught her, exorcises the mysterious damaging hold of her deceased mother, and muses on the deeply-held sentiments she and her father have for each other for one last time before their ultimate physical separation. He explains the unpredictable strength of the natural elements over human life, advises her on the past and future, and writhes in pain before taking his final departure. She curses and cries, sits in stunned silence, battles and embraces him, and prepares the flammable cords for their metaphorical business, while professing “a fire so deep inside yourself . . . it takes somebody else’s love to ignite” and intoning the names of Clotho (who, according to Greek myth, spins the thread of life), Lachesis (who measures its length), and Atropos (who cuts it).

Dirk Durossette masterfully captures the lowly down-home environment in a broken-down wooden set with walls askew, looming windows, and an outdoor side space covered in mud and rows of dried-out swamp grass. Grimy costumes by Becca Austin are appropriate to the characters’ situation, and moody lighting by J. Dominic Chacon is dark and spooky, as is Andrew Nelson’s original music and creepy sound.

The Arsonists is an impactful spine-chilling meditation on the age-old themes of life and death, the power that nature holds over humanity, and the ties that bind father to daughter. That’s a lot to think about in just over an hour, and to continue to ponder long after you leave the theater. To supplement the show and the release of Fly Bottle Records’ related CD, Azuka is also offering an “extras” series of concerts and special events.

Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes, with no intermission.

The Arsonists plays through Sunday, May 21, 2017, at Azuka Theatre, performing at the Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake – 302 South Hicks Street, in Philadelphia, PA. To reserve pay-what-you-will tickets, call (215) 563-1100, or go online.

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