Intoxicating theater

A play following a prudish librarian and a small town dominatrix as they travel to the White House to rescue Laura Bush; A tale about a man who takes in a seemingly kind family that ends up refusing to leave, taking control of this innocent man’s life; A rock ‘n’ roll musical profiling an East German rock goddess who is the victim of a failed sex-change operation.

While the plots of the Azuka Theatre’s past musicals and plays might seem eccentric, the mission of the theater has always been to create a place where audiences can relate to even the most shocking of productions because of their basic, underlying themes about friends, family, life, death, and discovering one’s true self.

In 1997 and 1998, a group of young artists participating in the Arden Theatre Company’s Professional Apprentice program created the Azuka Theatre because of a collective desire to build Philadelphia’s artistic and intellectual community.

“We saw a need for theater that was quality and addressed subjects that were in the public mind but not discussed,” said Mark H. Andrews, co-founder and director of marketing at Azuka. “We wanted to discuss cultural differences and similarities, whether they be race, sexuality, religion, politics, relationship, et-cetera.”

Once the goals of the theater were established, it needed a name. Raelle Myrick-Hodges, co-founder of Azuka, named the theater after her niece Jane Azuka.

“Raelle was inspired by the community structure and the support they provided Jane – a community where differences were celebrated and every member was equal,” Andrews said. “Our work was and is a reflection of the importance we see in our community and the support we can provide one another.”

Indeed, Azuka sees itself more as a supportive cultural community rather than a theater company. Broadening the local theater scene and bettering the Philadelphia area have always been among the primary goals of the theater.

Azuka’s program “Stages in Education” is an effort to give schools in the Philadelphia region the chance to write, produce and act out their own plays. Established in 2005, Azuka Theatre’s Director of Education Steven Wright led this program first at William H. Bodine High School.

Participants are divided into the playwrights and the performers, who eventually combine their hard work to put on a production at the end of the program. Because of its initial success, Azuka hopes to continue encouraging creativity and talent at other local schools.

Azuka also makes it easy for those young, undiscovered playwrights to have their plays considered for production. Spotlight Series New Play Readings invites Azuka audiences or anyone interested to a presentation of scripts.

The best part about it? It’s free.

The next Spotlight event will take place May 12 at the Plays & Players Theater on 1714 Delancey St. at 7 p.m.

“It’s important for us to know our audience since they are the very reason we continue to do our work,” Andrews said. “We like to have our audiences involved in our work. We invite our patrons to [the Spotlight Series] and ask them to give us feedback. In turn, they give us insight into obstacles and connections we might not have noticed.”

Whiskey Neat, written by Philadelphia playwright Brush Walsh, is just one of the many plays that benefited from the Spotlight Series New Play Readings.

As their ninth season comes to a close, Azuka sets out to bring back this play that premiered as Dasein at the 2002 Philadelphia Fringe Festival.

“At that time, I hadn’t figured out how to write anything without the pressure of a physical performance planned for a specific date,” Walsh said in an e-mail interview. “Although it was a short play, the list of technical difficulties was impressive.

“We had no set. We used the door to the theater as an entrance in the play. It was all very ridiculous because there was supposed to be a television in the room in the play, but we had no way of cueing something like that, so people just sort of mysteriously pointed the remote toward stage right.”

But now the playwright hopes to have more luck with the revised version than with the original one. In fact, Whiskey Neat takes the same characters, but the script is completely different. However, the basic themes still linger beneath the surface.

Essentially, Whiskey Neat tells the story of a young car thief who, after reading Ayn Rand, decides to become a professional philosopher. With a new sense of self-confidence, he scores a highly enviable parking valet job at a posh restaurant. While he is there, he lends a compassionate ear to the troubles and desires of the violent young men around him and disturbs the fragile balance of power the characters have created in their workplace.

But director Kevin Glaccum, who is the producing artistic director for many of Azuka’s plays, said he hopes audiences are able to make a strong connection to the themes of the play no matter what the basic plotline is.

“Last year, we did Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which is a rock musical about an East German transsexual rock singer,” Glaccum said. “On the surface, almost no one would feel connected to this person. Then she starts to tell her story, and you realize she’s just looking for love and acceptance – something everyone feels at one time or another.”

Luckily, Glaccum and Walsh have known each other for a long time, and Glaccum was eager to finally work with Walsh on the play. Since the start, a lot of sweat and hard work has gone into the production, including three weeks of rehearsal, machinery work, set design, lighting, sound, equity rules, contracts and marketing.

Although Walsh is excited about the premiere, he also has his anxieties.

“I feel like I’ve got my arm around the prettiest girl in school,” Walsh said, “but I also know her boyfriend is unstable and owns a gun.”

But if Whiskey Neat turns out to be as exceptional, as previous Azuka productions have been, there shouldn’t be any reason to worry.

Laura Fanciullacci can be reached at laura.fanciullacci@temple.edu.

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