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A CurtainUp Review

I don’t technically have a bike.— Brandon
Charlotte Northeast, Akeem Davis, Harry Watermeier (Photo: Johanna Austin)
With the fast-growing bike culture in Philadelphia, this is a fine moment for Shitheads to hit the stage. At the Proscenium theatre in the Drake we await the play’s start as music-forward sound design by Larry D. Fowler puts us in the right frame of mind for something different.

The story transpires in a beautifully realized bike rider’s dream shop in New York City. Bert’s Bikes looks like part of the nostalgic and vanishing New York that’s become overrun with skyscraper condos and chain stores. Azuka Theatre champions underdogs, and this brand new play by one of our town’s most promising young playwrights addresses economic realities through the world of the little bike shop, and it works incredibly well, until the denouement.

Apollo Mark Weaver‘s set is on the diagonal, with the sales counter up front, bikes in a rack overhead, and a repair shop toward the back. J. Dominic Chacon‘s mellow, expressive lighting shifts into various gears, and Vista provides good, credible props. The funky little place looks like it’s been there forever.

Unlike employees of major bicycle retailers, like the massive new store across the street, the staff of this little gem of a shop lives and breathes its calling. After awhile it comes to feel like we are included in the goings-on. And I start to think that I, too, understand things about bikes, which, believe me, I don’t. But with all the tech talk, atmosphere, and cool music, I’ve been sucked into their world. They’re not doing too well against the competition, they need bigger sales. They have hope, but they’re worried. It would be tragic to see them go under.

Alex (Akeem Davis) has just been appointed manager by the shop’s disengaged absentee owner. Akeem Davis is an engine, one of those rare actors who burns with energy even when he’s standing still. Offsite, the owner has hired a totally unprepared new guy who shows up at the shop. Brandon is a desperate sometime-writer, played nerdy by Harry Watermeier. Not so squeaky clean as he looks, he has a touch of the Trump relationship with the truth. He’s bike-less, and also clueless with his clothes. Natalia De La Torre‘s costumes speak volumes about who is “in” and who is not.

Alex decrees that employees must ride their bikes to work. Izzy, an expert bike mechanic played tough and sentimental by Charlotte Northeast, is a marvelous piece of work. She orients the newbie and also craftily takes the opportunity to pawn off her old bike on him. Brandon works hard to fit in with the cool guys and he does become an insider, an official Shithead. David Pica is Spider, who’s not quite trusted by the others. A bike guy and hanger-on, he’s a bike messenger who favors getting high.

Director Kevin Glaccum’s successful modus operandi appears to be something like: guide like a midwife, find the pulse of a piece, channel it to the actors, and let them make choices and work their moments. In the show’s program he shares the thought that being in theater is like working a skilled job site, “Your job isn’t just a job but a lifestyle-- a particular way of looking at the world.” The guys and girl in this struggling shop are a very funny, close, and sometimes realistically dysfunctional family.

Just one thing: An abrupt incident occurs that has been marginally foreshadowed. The well-rounded play quickly loses pressure and threatens to flatten like a tire. It could be by the design of the play’s trajectory (bad things have transpired). Or it could be a structural issue. A new character appears, there are two phone calls, and the coda of this fully realized work looks like a quick sketch that wants filling out. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, the play is quite wonderful.

We all know the dictum for writers: Write what you know. Playwright Doug Williams, in residence at Azuka, does just that to great effect. His know-how gained from working in bike shops informs this work. Shithead is a unique theatrical experience. It has real characters, it has tech, it has bike romance, and it has heart.

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Shitheads by Douglas Williams
Directed by Founding Artistic Director Kevin Glaccum

Cast: Akeem Davis, Charlotte Northeast, David Pica, Harry Watermeier
Scenic Design: Apollo Mark Weaver
Lighting Design: J. Dominic Chacon
Costume Design: Natalia De La Torre
Sound Design: Larry D. Fowler, Jr.
Feb 22 – March 12, 2017
90 minutes with no intermission
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 03/01/2017 performance. Azuka Theatre Proscenium Theatre at The Drake. Philadelphia

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