SHITHEADS (Azuka): Nice ride

Shitheads Douglas Williams Toby Zinman review

Harry Watermeier and Charlotte Northeast in Azuka Theatre’s production of SHITHEADS by Douglas Williams. Set by Apollo Mark Weaver and props by Avista Custom Theatrical, LLC. Photo by Johanna Austin/AustinArt.org.

I love subcultures: all that arcane lingo to sling around, the gear, the handshakes, the obsessive devotion to detail, and the strenuous opinions about the best. Azuka’s terrific production of SHITHEADS, a new play by Douglas Williams directed by Kevin Glaccum, is about the New York bicycle subculture. It shows us the shops and the people who work in them—building bikes, fixing flats, and rhapsodizing about how the city looks if you’re riding instead of taking the subway.

As somebody who doesn’t ride, I can’t really judge the authenticity of SHITHEADS, but I was completely convinced that this funky world was the real deal. Mostly this was because the actors are terrific—endearing, funny, with a depth of character that is absolutely compelling.

There is a plot, but it’s thin: this is a play based on character, but if it has an theme, it is a lament for the way little businesses run with passion and specialized skill are being elbowed out by big, glossy stores. It’s an old story by now, but it becomes truer in the retelling.

The powerhouse of the show is Akeem Davis as Alex, who manages the shop for the absentee owner. Davis has just finished as Marcus Garvey in InterAct’s Marcus/Emma and he brings the same high energy and physical fuel to this role. He can talk on the phone and make it look like an Olympic event.  

azuka shitheads akeem davis

Akeem Davis in SHITHEADS. Photo by Johanna Austin/ AustinArt.org.

Equally engaging is Charlotte Northeast as Izzy, a tough, jokey, messy-looking woman whose skill set includes building a “6” from scratch. When you have seen Northeast before it has probably been in a production from Philadelphia Artists Collective, where she is elegant in diction as well as in Renaissance gowns.

The new hire in the shop is Brandon (Harry Watermeier), aka “College,” a young guy who knows nothing about bicycles but learns. I suspect he’s the stand-in for the playwright since Brandon is a writer and is writing a story about the shop.

Spider (David Pica) is the stoner bike messenger who drops in regularly and makes us wonder how anything ever arrives at its destination.

Apollo Mark Weaver designed the perfectly detailed grungy set while Avista Custom Theatrical, LLC provided the props, of which there are many. The costume designer, Natalia de la Torre, makes the clothes speak volumes: watch the khakis. Watch the cuffs. And remember (I just learned this): if you’re riding in the city, “ride steel.”

[Proscenium Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hick's Street] February 22-March 12, 2017azukatheatre.org.

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About the author

Toby Zinman

Toby Zinman is Professor of English at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was a Fulbright professor at Tel Aviv University and a visiting professor in China. She publishes widely and lectures internationally on American drama. Her fifth book, Replay: Classic Modern Drama Reimagined, was recently published by Methuen, and she has just finished an essay, "Visions of Tragedy in Contemporary American Drama," due out in 2017. Zinman is also the chief theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. She was named by American Theatre magazine as, “one of the 12 most influential critics in America.” Her travel writing has taken her all over the world, from dogsledding in the Yukon to hiking across England.