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Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Torch Song

AS THE YOUNG WOMAN OBSERVES, it was Cousin Need, who “read all that Truman Capote all the time,” who told her about Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. They are identified with spinning, measuring, and cutting, an activity we witness in the form of fuse-making. The fuses are awaiting future torchings by a professional arsonist, an unnamed but memorable character in the latest offering by New Paltz’s Denizen Theatre, proving once again that a small cast, a poetic script, and excellent acting can pack a thought-provoking plenty into a short stretch of time.

Sean Cullen and Jenny Jarnagin
Photo by Bryan Godwin
Jacqueline Goldfinger’s “The Arsonists” is getting its regional premiere here, directed by Denizen co-artistic director Ben Williamson. The experience begins as you move from the lobby into the black-box space along an overgrown, verdant pathway. And then we’re in the Florida swamp, where M, who otherwise is referred to as “Littles,” cowers in a cabin, her latest job an out-of-control failure that cost the life of her father, who taught her the business.

Triumphing in this difficult role is Jenny Jarnagin, who brings to it a sense of sorrow that’s imbued with determination to continue to struggle against everything that weighs her down – and, in this case, it’s just about everything: father, mother, identity, future. Jarnagin is a member of Manhattan’s Flea Theater, but she’s also a very committed activist who is creating theater to effect social change.

While there are no such axes to grind in “The Arsonists” (despite M’s facility with a hatchet), I would argue that any desire for social change begins within, and this show demands that you reassess yourself. If it’s going back to the Greeks to find thematic resonance, that’s only because these issues have a profoundly long-ranging provenance, and we can’t move forward without knowing our cultural past.

Thus this notion of the Fates informing M’s illegal activity. She reviews her activity with her father, a presence in the cabin despite – or because of – the mishap, a man whose rough, incomplete psyche is mirrored by a literal incompleteness that underpins the struggle these two have to make peace with one another.

Sean Cullen plays H, matching Jarnagin in intensity, but refining that intensity into a more focused anger nicely touched with despair. Cullen has been seen on film in “Michael Clayton” and on Broadway in South Pacific,” with a host of movie and TV and stage credits besides.

It’s music that brings daughter and father together, beginning with an old incendiary song titled “Raleigh and Spencer.” M picks up a guitar and eases into the tune; her father soon joins in. You could argue that it summoned his presence. Later, as they’re winding saltpetre-soaked twine into fuses, the songs go from “Wayfaring Stranger” to “Ooh Baby Baby” to “Red Clay Roots,” all reinforcing the notions of loss and rebirth that have been growing.

“I’d lived all my life in the heat. A child raised in fire,” says H, as he launches into the story of how he met M’s mother, how it was more than a rebirth when “she knelt down with me and took both my hands and we breathed together. And that was my first breath. ... I was 16 and just born and that was it.” The classical roots of this story are reflected in the heightened language used throughout, which is so deftly applied that you never question its plausibility. The characters speak with North Florida accents, which right away sets them apart, and the poetry that ensues sounds right at home in the dialect.

The absent mother has as much of a presence as the two who are onstage, especially when M tells about sneaking into the funeral home where her dead mother lay, sneaking into the coffin, in fact, a terrified eight-year-old who wanted “to hold her face. To give her a kiss and say I love you and I’m sorry and if I did this, if I did, if this was my fault, I’m sorry, it was probably my fault.” Again, a sense of incompleteness is given literal form as the horrific recollection unfolds, and it’s another instance of Jarnagin’s skill that the monologue is never maudlin. It’ll move you to tears.

H won’t rest until he achieves a grisly form of completeness. “This middle, it’s torture, not being one way or the other,” he complains. “I feel my insides churning out.” Adding, later, “That’s probably why ghosts always so damn pissed off in all those stories.”

Goldfinger’s script raises more questions than it answers, which is as it should be – which is why it’s a magnificent piece of work. Williamson’s direction makes the most of the small stage, acknowledging that it’s a play about stillness and silence, even as the sound of owls and other nightbirds gently populate Mike Wood’s excellent soundtrack.

Ryan Finzelber designed both set and lights, with deceptive simplicity. We creep through the wee hours in this very rustic space in a way that makes the show’s seventy intermissionless minutes seem like an all-nighter. “There in my Father’s home, safe and at rest ... Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!” sings the daughter towards the end, a prayer that proves stunningly ironic as the play twists into its inevitable end.

This must-see production is enhanced by an art show in the theater’s lobby: “Mixed Messages” is the work of fourteen artists, each using a guitar as canvas, an excellent way to continue the thought-provoking nature of this show.

“The Arsonists” runs through February 24, 2019, with performances at 7 PM Wednesdays through Saturdays and 2 PM Sundays. Reserve tickets here, or by calling 845-303-4136 or emailing

The Arsonists
Written by Jacqueline Goldfinger
Directed by Ben Williamson
Denizen Theatre, February 3, 2019
Water Street Market
10 Main Street, Suite 501
New Paltz, NY 12561

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