Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 43

Curated by Advisory Company member Mike Fischer


Advisory Company member Mike Fischer is a dramaturg and former theater critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. This. Guy. Knows. Theater. We hope you'll enjoy his recommendations for the best arts-in-quarantine content.

VOLUME 20 | VOLUME 21 | VOLUME 22 | VOLUME 23 | VOLUME 24 | VOLUME 25 | VOLUME 26 | VOLUME 27 | VOLUME 26 | VOLUME 28 | VOLUME 29 | VOLUME 30 | VOLUME 31 | VOLUME 32 | VOLUME 33 | VOLUME 34 | VOLUME 35 | VOLUME 36 | VOLUME 37 | VOLUME 38 | VOLUME 39 | VOLUME 38 | VOLUME 40 | VOLUME 41 | VOLUME 42


VOLUME 43 (APRIL 7, 2021): HERE COMES THE SUN

Since I last wrote you, London’s Globe and the National Theatre have announced imminent reopenings. Pop-up performances have begun in New York. American Players Theatre has unveiled an in-person summer season. The Milwaukee Rep has indicated that in addition to its long-awaited return to live programming before audiences this month, there’ll also be outdoor performances this summer. And as I write these words, the mercury in Wisconsin is climbing toward 70°F.

Best of all: this Friday, my beloved Forward Theater opens its first fully staged production from its Playhouse home since prematurely scuttling its production of The Amateurs when the pandemic shut theaters down (I was packing a bag to return to Madison for tech when I received word). Even as the Playhouse remains closed for the time being to live audiences, Forward’s hard work on a Covid safety plan won Equity’s agreement to live rehearsals and filming, among creatives gathered together in one space to make art from the Playhouse stage.

True to the irrepressible exuberance of the moment, Samuel D. Hunter’s capacious Lewiston/Clarkston (see pick one, below) is really two plays made into one: both Lewiston and Clarkston originally debuted as one-acts. Together, they suggest that we might yet awaken from the nightmare of our collective history, acknowledging the sins of our nation’s fathers and our own familial ancestors while working to build a better and more inclusive America.

I can’t imagine a more spot-on message for our moment.

On the one hand, the recent upsurge in Covid cases (aided and abetted by an increasingly laughable Wisconsin Supreme Court and its indefensible decision to scotch a mask mandate), the Derek Chauvin trial, and ongoing incidents of anti-Asian violence are among the many reminders that we still have a long way to go.

At the same time, nearly one third of Americans are now vaccinated. Even as backward an organization as Major League Baseball has made clear, in pulling the All Star Game from Atlanta, that Jim Crow voting laws will not be tolerated. And in the performing arts and elsewhere, last summer’s long overdue moral awakening continues to manifest itself in decisions on hiring and programming, involving systemic commitments to a more inclusive future.

For me, that future will include speaking in person in actual theaters with those many readers among you who have written with recommendations or words of encouragement, throughout a year in which we’ve all tried to sustain a sense of community despite our enforced separation.

In the interim, perhaps I’ll see some of you during a virtual Forward talkback (the first one is this Saturday night). Those talkbacks are a harbinger of things to come. To steal a line from Jim DeVita’s Poet in An Iliad (a terrific production, returning this summer to APT): Can you see?

What about the live theater experience do you miss most? For those of you reading from places where live theater has resumed, what’s your first experience back been like? I’d love to know. You can reach me through Forward at info@forwardtheater.com or directly at mjfischer1985@gmail.com. And as always, both “theater” and “Fischer” are spelled with an er.

Bonus Selections:

First, how to better welcome this season of renewal than with Black Theatre United’s newly released Stand for Change, uniting 13 Broadway veterans singing the hope we all feel? - WATCH

Second, here’s Alexis J Roston, soon to be on stage at Milwaukee Rep singing to actual audiences in a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, riffing on Summertime: WATCH

Third, here’s a link for tickets to the first play in Spotlight on Plays’ Spring 2021 season, streaming from April 8-11: Pearl Cleage’s Angry, Raucous, and Shamelessly Gorgeous, featuring Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad, Heather Alicia Simms, and Alicia Stith: WATCH

Fourth and finally, from the reliably innovative Brit dance company Rambert, here’s a trailer for Rooms, a new show being staged live April 8-11 and featuring 17 dancers playing 100 characters in 36 scenes, all of them allowing us to look into those various confining spaces with which we’ve become all-too familiar during this past year: WATCH


Selections for Volume 43 (citations and links also included, in order, as endnotes):


1. North by Northwest (Lewiston/Clarkston; Forward Theater Company):

Pulling down statues honoring traitorous and racist Confederates is easy. Fully mediating our relationship with this country’s fractured past is hard. That challenge has increasingly preoccupied Samuel D. Hunter, whose recent plays explore the myth of American exceptionalism and the burden of American history.

Lewiston/Clarkston

Aggregating two one-act plays, Hunter’s Lewiston/Clarkston turns to the descendants of actual explorers Lewis and Clark to examine what we might salvage from our past so that we can make sense of who we are. What can we let go? What should we keep? Do we summarily erase Lewis, Clark and all they portend, as advance scouts for genocide? Or do we recognize that they and our own familial ancestors might be more complicated – embodying traits and ideals we want to emulate as well as many we ought to reject? Do we cancel the past? Or do summon the undaunted courage necessary to engage and remake it? When traveling north by northwest, can we tell the difference between a hawk and a handsaw? Shouldn’t we at least try?

As noted above in my Introduction, Forward itself will be exploring uncharted territory in this production, its first in the Playhouse since the pandemic began. Featuring two trios of excellent actors – Carrie Hitchcock, April Paul, and Jonathan Wainwright under the direction of Jen Uphoff Gray in Lewiston and Laura Gray, Josh Krause, and Jarrod Langwinski under the direction of Jake Penner in Clarkston, Forward’s filmed, fully staged production opens April 9 and continues through April 25. Tickets are $40, with discounts for artists, students, educators, and anyone age 42 or younger.


2. A Little Life (Underneath the Lintel; Milwaukee Chamber Theatre):

“What does my little life mean, asks playwright Glen Berger “when set against the backdrop of human history?” Berger asks himself that question in the Afterword to Underneath the Lintel, his extraordinary one-actor play about a librarian, an overdue book, and that librarian’s efforts to hunt down the scofflaw and simultaneously fathom the meaning of (a) life. It’s a detective story in which the answer has less to do with a single missing person than with what survives and why, as well as what it tells us about who we are and how resilient we can be.

Underneath the Lintel

When Milwaukee Chamber staged Berger’s play in a 2013 production starring James Ridge, I wrote in my review that it was “as good a one-person show as I’ve seen anywhere in a long time.” I still feel that way eight years later, as Milwaukee Chamber prepares to bring Underneath the Lintel back in a production opening this Friday and featuring Forward alum Elyse Edelman. An extraordinary actor, Edelman shines in roles like this one, involving unassuming and easily overlooked characters from Viola to Sonia who are eventually – invariably – revealed as their fully incandescent selves.

I take absolutely nothing away from Milwaukee Chamber’s excellent, season-opening productions of The Island and The Way She Spoke (you can still see Michelle Lopez-Rios’ riveting and wrenching performance in the latter, through Sunday) – or its upcoming production of The Thanksgiving Play (opening April 26; more anon) – when I confess that there’s no Milwaukee production this season I’ve more eagerly anticipated than this one. The crown jewel in a stellar Milwaukee Chamber season, it runs from April 9 through May 2; tickets are $35.


3. Bibliomania (Writers & Readers with Ann Patchett; Symphony Space):

Is there any better ambassador for books than first-rate novelist and independent bookstore owner Ann Patchett? Seriously, I’m asking.

While you ponder that question, let me introduce you to the latest virtual version of Selected Shorts, the longstanding alliance between short story writers and great actors that brings stories to life. Through April 14, a $15 ticket will give you access to a program curated and hosted by Patchett showcasing actors Michael Cerveris, Deborah S. Craig, Jane Curtin, Peter Francis James, James Naughton, Denis O’Hare, Anthony Ramos, and Rita Wolf as they perform short stories by Carlos Greaves, Souvankham Thammavongsa, A.A. Milne (yes, that Milne) and Ian McEwan.

Writers & Readers with Ann Patchett

Each story involves some aspect of the world of writing, including a Latinx send-up of cultural appropriation; an immigrant coming-of-age story about learning to read in a new language; an hilarious satire on book borrowing and its discontents; and a darkly comic riff on writerly rivalry. Patchett has chosen well (no surprise); you will, too, if you take time for this highly entertaining program.


4. The Darkness in Art (Artist Descending a Staircase; Remy Bumppo Theatre):

James Bohnen thinks so highly of Tom Stoppard that he named his fabulous Spring Green bookstore after one of Stoppard’s plays; I look forward to visiting Arcadia Books and chatting therein with Bohnen almost as much as I look forward to seeing what he has wrought at American Players Theatre, where Bohnen has helmed 21 memorable productions, including a 2016 Arcadia that I rated as my #1 Wisconsin production in my year-end review. Between APT and Chicago’s Remy Bumppo Theatre, where Bohnen is Founding Artistic Director, he has staged nine Stoppard productions.

All by way of suggesting that you shouldn’t miss #10: a rare production of Stoppard’s Artist Descending a Staircase, a 1972 radio play that looks back toward Jumpers while prefiguring Travesties.

Artist Descending a Staircase

Upon the death of an elderly artist, his two equally old chums travel back from 1972 to 1914 and then forward again, in a play that takes a time-out from debates about modern art to tell a haunting love story – while suggesting how readily the heart is fooled when the mind plays tricks regarding what it perceives and what it “thinks” those perceptions mean.

All of which makes Artist Descending a Staircase an ideal radio play, given how readily we’re led astray when deprived of sight (did I mention that this play’s lone female character is blind?) “Radio gave him a zone of free play within invented rules,” notes biographer Hermione Lee in her new Stoppard biography. “The listener has to be alert to the sound of silence, a person who isn’t talking or a missing piece of evidence.”

Which pretty much sums up in a nutshell what it means to be alert and alive. You can “tune in” through April 18 for free upon registering with Remy Bumppo.


5. The Heart of Darkness (Controversy; National Youth Theatre):

Controversy

Brit actor Maya Katherine wrote and stars in this six-part, 50-minute exploration of how we sell our stories and our souls for fifteen minutes of fame, hollowing ourselves out so that we can trend as Internet influencers. It’s well acted and crisply directed, with great attention to detail (from costuming to an evocative sound design)

Hayley is a typical teen with a loving family and girlfriend who’s just trying to find her way and hoping to be noticed – until she’s sucked into the social media vortex that’s destroying our society and ruining our lives, one dumbed-down and sensationalist video at a time. We go down the rabbit hole with her, finding our attention split between characters and screens, much as our erstwhile attention to flesh-and-blood human beings with beating hearts is being steadily eroded by our addiction to our infernal machines.

Sculpting a self that never was, Hayley will live all her life with the pixelated fictions she’s manufactured, the relationships she’s damaged, and the recognition that while we make sense of ourselves through stories, those stories’ relationship to truth ultimately does actually matter. Truth will eventually overtake every customized attempt to deny the ground on which we stand; while Facebook may not understand this, History most certainly does.

If you’re a Dear Evan Hansen fan, this one’s for you. It’s available for free on Scenesaver, the London-based platform that has played an integral role in making so much British theater available during this past year.



References (chronologically arranged, in order of mention):

* Phil Galdston and Dave Schroeder, Stand for Change (Black Theatre United):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NhLS1Ytl86I

* George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, and DuBose Heyward, Summertime (sung by Alexis J Roston; Milwaukee Rep):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u259Qqz7kHM

* First Lady of Song: Alexis J Roston Sings Ella Fitzgerald (Milwaukee Rep; ticket information for performances April 27-May23):
https://www.milwaukeerep.com/shows/show/ella-fitzgerald-first-lady-song/

Pearl Cleage, Angry, Raucous, and Shamelessly Gorgeous (Spotlight on Play):
https://www.stellartickets.com/o/spotlight-on-plays/events/angry-raucous...

* Jo Strømgren, Rooms (Rambert, trailer):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBWY1EFgCis

* Jo Strømgren, Rooms (Rambert, ticket information):
https://www.rambert.org.uk/whats-on/rooms/

* Samuel D. Hunter, Lewiston/Clarkston (Forward Theater):
https://forwardtheater.com/show/lewiston-clarkston.

* Arcadia Books (website):
https://www.readinutopia.com/?q=h

* Glen Berger, Underneath the Lintel (Milwaukee Chamber Theatre; trailer):
https://virtual.milwaukeechambertheatre.org/en/c/teaser-trailer-ae46b414...

* Virtual Selected Shorts: Writers and Readers with Ann Patchett (Symphony Space):
https://www.symphonyspace.org/events/virtual-selected-shorts-writers-and...

* Tom Stoppard, Artist Descending a Staircase (Remy Bumppo Theatre, registration):
https://www.remybumppo.org/shows/artistdescending/

* Hermione Lee, Tom Stoppard: A Life (Knopf, 2021).

* Maya Katherine, Controversy (National Youth Theatre; Scenesaver):
https://www.scenesaver.co.uk/company/maya-katherine-productions/