Benchmark’s Denver-bound playwright conducts a controlled burn between a father-and-daughter arson team
Like the Greeks, Philadelphia playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger believes the family that burns together, stays together. Maybe for eternity.
In The Arsonists, now in its regional premiere at the Benchmark Theatre in Lakewood, a father-and-daughter arson team — yes that is a thing — have just set their final “fire for hire.” You know this because as the play opens, the daughter is disposing of her father’s corpse. Tonight’s job apparently got a bit out of control. “It happens sometimes,” says the daughter. But that’s surely not the end of him.
The subtext of this fiery premise is the Electra tragedy. Electra remains one of the most popular (if that’s the right word) Greek mythological characters for her part in avenging the murder of her father, King Agamemnon, by her mother and step-pop. After all, how many gods have both plays and a parent complex named after them? (Well, two, counting Oedipus.)
Goldfinger’s 70-minute “play with music,” set deep in a Florida swamp and layered by an acoustic Americana folk score, is described as a lyrical Southern Gothic myth. The daughter, known only as “M,” sets off on a journey with her father’s ghost to deconstruct her demons and reclaim her life.
“I had the idea of a father-daughter arson team, but I didn’t know what to do with it until my own father got sick,” Goldfinger told the DCPA NewsCenter. “I was teaching Electra at the University of Pennsylvania at the time, and that made me think about what my father would want us to do if he were to pass away. Electra is this incredibly beautiful, dense and emotional theatrical journey told in verse. This idea of a father-daughter arson team came to me as a way to explore what could happen if a fire goes wrong and the father is accidentally killed — and I can bring him back.”
The plot comes from a true crime story about a family ring who basically hired themselves out as arsonists throughout the Midwest. “Literally, that was their family business, much like the mafia,” Goldfinger said. “They set fires and traded secrets and handed the profession down from generation to generation. That allowed me as a playwright to delve into ideas of family and legacy and how that can either propel us forward or hold us back.”
Goldfinger’s fascination with fire stems from her youth in rural Florida, near where her play is set. “Fire is a constant part of life there,” she said. “We do a lot of controlled burns. Lightning strikes and house fires are incredibly common. So fire is not necessarily such a scary thing.”
In addition to being a great plot device, she said, fire also makes for a powerful metaphor.
“When you think about going through the fire to get to the other side, and of course death by fire, you can see fire as both a literal killer — and as an instrument of purification and ritual,” Goldfinger said. “Every culture engages in some form of ritual when a person passes away. Ritual is how we work through these things. And fire is a common part of it.”
While The Arsonists takes place on several levels — perhaps the story is happening entirely inside the grieving daughter’s mind — Benchmark Theatre’s new staging is set to roots music that is performed live by actors Michael Morgan and Rebakah Goldberg (pictured at right). Goldfinger wrote four well-known American traditionals into the script, including the iconic “Wayfaring Stranger.” But each theatre company is encouraged add their own musical moments.
“We’re not like film or television that’s trying to appeal to everyone,” Goldfinger said. “In the theatre, we’re really only engaging with our immediate communities. So I wanted to make space for every company to individualize the production for their own friends and neighbors and families. And it’s been fascinating for me to watch what songs different companies around the country choose to include because it says a lot about who they are as a community.”
Director Stephen Weitz, also co-founder of the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, chose three songs to add: “Raleigh and Spencer,” Train on the Island” and “Nearer My God,” along with snippets from “The Cuckoo Song” and “You are My Sunshine.”
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‘Raleigh and Spencer,’ as performed by Clifton Hicks and Jake Book.
Knowing that The Arsonists will be a new play to virtually anyone who sees it in Lakewood, Goldfinger wants audiences to know going in that “there’s no right way or no one way to view this play,” she said. “Some people really connect with the father-daughter elements of the story. Some people who’ve lost a parent or sibling connect with the idea of grieving and moving on. Some people connect with the more spiritual aspect of what happens after we die. Every way of engaging with this play is right.”
Goldfinger does not want audiences to come in with any set expectations. “I want them to come in with love,” she said. “I want them to not worry about whether or not they get every reference and every poetic verse. You’re probably not going to understand every word — and that’s OK. This is about opening yourself up to the possibilities.”
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
Jacqueline Goldfinger: In the Spotlife
What’s the last thing you saw that just blew you away? I recently re-watched “Deadwood.” And holy (bleeping) (bleep). Sorry, I shouldn’t curse, but “Deadwood” brings it out of you. It is stunning. It’s the closest any American has ever come to Shakespeare.
What bugs you most about what you see happening in the American theater right now? We’ve got problems in the American theatre, and it bugs me that people can’t just be honest about that. We have a problem in terms of how we behave toward one another. I mean, if Hollywood can be honest about its sexual-harassment scandals, and we can’t be honest about what’s been happening in our own theater communities, then that’s saying something, right? We also have a problem with our theatre criticism. Here in Philly, everything’s either a rave or total pan. There’s no in-between, and there’s no nuance. We have a problem with what we are putting onstage. There are certain plays that absolutely should still be studied in 2018, but they shouldn’t be staged because they’re racist or sexist or just plain awful. We don’t need to put museum pieces onstage and then use, “Oh, but it’s a classic,” as justification. We’re going to keep making mistakes, but let’s make better mistakes. Let’s make different mistakes.
Who should we be keeping an eye out for? R. Eric Thomas, who writes a humor column for Elle Magazinecalled “Eric Reads the News.” He’s also a phenomenal playwright, but because comedy is not always treated as legitimate in the American theater, people look down on it. But he just wrote a play called Mrs. Harrison that blew the roof off a theatre in Philly. You should also look out for a woman named Erlina Ortiz (pictured at right). She wrote a play called Las Mujeres, where she took the structural ideas of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls and brought in Mexican-American female heroes. Those two are both super fun, exciting and fresh new voices.
What are you listening to on your Spotify right now? I am listening to a lot of Beatles because I have 5-year-old twins, and they love The Beatles. I just picked up my iPhone this morning, and my son had managed to delete my entire library and load up every Beatles album in its place. So apparently, all I will be listening to is The Beatles all summer long.
So what do you think of the trend toward the 70-minute, no-intermission play … like, say … The Arsonists? Guess what? I love it! Theater was always meant to be part of the natural rhythm of people’s lives. This idea that theatre is this special, rarefied thing that’s only for people who have a lot of money and can dress up is (bleep).
The Arsonists: Ticket information
- Presented by Benchmark Theatre
- Through July 21
- Written by Jacqueline Goldfinger
- Directed by Stephen Weitz
- Featuring Rebakah Goldberg and Michael Morgan
- At the 40 West Arts District, 1560 Teller St., Lakewood
- Performances 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 6 p.m. Sundays; and 8 p.m. Thursdays, July 12 and 19 only. (No performance on Friday, July 6.)
- Tickets $20-$30
- Go to benchmarktheatre.com or email inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org
Jacqueline Goldfinger in-person reception:
- Informal meet and greet with light appetizers and libations
- Presented by The Dramatists Guild and Benchmark Theatre
- 4:30-5:30 p.m. Sunday, July 1; performance follows at 6 p.m.
- At the 40 West Arts District, 1560 Teller St., Lakewood
- Free, but please RSVP to Josh Hartwell at email@example.com
- Half-price tickets to the performance that follows the reception are available by visiting benchmarktheatre.com and using the discount code DG2018 at checkout
About Jacqueline Goldfinger
Jacqueline Goldfinger teaches playwriting at the University of Pennsylvania. She won the Yale Drama Prize for Emerging Playwright, Smith Prize for Political Theater by an Emerging Playwright, Virginia Brown Martin Award for Social Justice, Barrymore Award for Outstanding New Play and Philadelphia Critics Award for Best New Play. She has been nominated for the Weissberger Award, Blackburn Prize and Foote Prize. Her plays include Babel, Bottle Fly, The Arsonists, Click, Slip/Shot, The Oath and The Terrible Girls. She holds an MFA in Screen and Television Writing from the University of Southern California, and a BA in Theater and English from Agnes Scott College.