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Illuminated with music, ‘Arsonists’ set for Philly debut — and far beyond

 Actors Sarah Gliko and Steven Rishard appear in 'The Arsonists.'(Photo courtesy of Azuka Theatre)

Actors Sarah Gliko and Steven Rishard appear in 'The Arsonists.'(Photo courtesy of Azuka Theatre)

A Philadelphia playwright will premiere her new work this week at the Drake Theater in Center City — and in four other cities. A network of small theaters across the country will give Jacqueline Goldfinger’s “The Arsonists” a “rolling premiere.”

Goldfinger is part of the younger generation of playwrights who are helping turn Philadelphia into a hub of new theater. She began writing a trilogy six years ago: “The Terrible Sisters (2012), “Skin and Bone (2014) and, now, “The Arsonists,” all developed and produced by Philadelphia’s Azuka Theatre.

While the characters and storylines do not necessarily connect, the plays are joined by a Southern Gothic sensibility. This final part of the trilogy concerns a father-daughter team of arsonists for hire, living outside the law in the Florida Everglades. The story is heavily influenced by the Greek tragedy of Electra and her dead father, Agamemnon.

“It digs very deeply, which is why we chose to incorporate music,” said Goldfinger. “There are places music can go emotionally that the best-written monologue can’t go. There are feelings, memories that music can evoke in us like nothing else.”

Goldfinger said she wrote a “play with music,” a theater format hearkening back to America’s Victorian era. It’s not a play with merely interstitial music, nor is it a musical with a plot driven by production numbers.

“The ‘play with music’ has fallen out of fashion,” said Goldfinger. “Music is played by actors in the play in the context of the story, that deepens the emotional moment, that connected them to a greater community, and deepens the feelings without having to have a 10-minute monologue.”

The characters in “The Arsonists” perform music onstage influenced by Appalachian folk music, but the script is flexible. When the play is performed in Alaska next year, that production can be adapted to accommodate the music of Alaska.

jacGoldfinger and her longtime collaborators at Azuka Theatre submitted “The Arsonists” to the National New Play Network, wherein small theater companies across the country can review and collaborate on producing new scripts. In the next 12 months it will be produced in Cincinnati, Ohio; Sacramento, California; and twice in Alaska — in Anchorage and Juneau. “Apparently they like outcasts on the edge of society out there,” said Goldfinger.

Aside from a free trip to the Land of the Midnight Sun, Goldfinger said the chief advantage in having several companies produce her play in one year is the opportunity to reassess her script in a variety of circumstances.

“I get to see this play five times in the next year, with five audiences, in five different communities, in five different spaces,” said Goldfinger. “I can see it scaled down, scaled up. There are moments that might work better in bigger houses, and there are moments that might get lost. I’m going to have opportunity to revise between productions.”

Of all the theaters in this nationwide rolling premiere, “The Arsonists” will play its smallest house in Philadelphia, at the Drake Theater’s black box in Center City. However, Azuka Theatre upped the ante by lining up a roster of local folk bands to play mini concerts immediately following all the Friday and Saturday evening performances.

Many of those bands are also included on a newly released CD of music from the play. Saturday’s performance will be followed by the CD release party, at Fergie’s Pub a few blocks away.

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