Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 11
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 11: JULY 29, 2020: THE FUTURE IS NOW
In my former days as a theater critic, I regularly praised Forward Theater for its brave and exciting commitment to staging new work. That commitment is among the many reasons why, in my current capacity as a dramaturg, I am proud to have become a member of Forward’s Advisory Company of artists.
I love our classics; the entire preceding edition of these picks was devoted to Shakespeare. But as Jonathan Miller suggested years ago in his magnificent Subsequent Performances, a classic can only enjoy an “afterlife” if it is made new by each succeeding generation that encounters it. And that can’t happen unless those classics are in dialogue with the new work that is theater’s lifeblood.
This week’s edition of picks – including the bonus selections – is entirely devoted to such work. Much of it is raw and visceral. Some of it hasn’t yet been seen; we’ll be watching world premieres together in the weeks to come. Much of it has been created by relative unknowns, which makes sense. Once upon a time, nobody in the theater world had heard of August Wilson; once upon a time, no one had heard of Will Shakespeare. If we spend all our time and resources staging works by theater’s titans – a disproportionate number of whom look like Shakespeare – we’ll never discover their far more diverse successors.
There’ll be an understandable temptation in the months ahead to go with the tried and true; theaters are hurting, and they’re rightly fearful of losing audience. But as Forward has always understood, one can’t go forward by moving backward; by embracing what’s new, we simultaneously ensure the survival of (and come to see anew) the old.
New work also engenders new, often unexpected conversation; there’s no script (and no reviews!) telling us what to think or feel. New work challenges us to leave our settled comfort zone and explore new crannies – and canyons – in the world and in our minds. I urge you to discover alongside me. And, as always, I encourage you to share what you experience. You can reach me through Forward at email@example.com or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
First, in honor of the many pieces included this week that see the world through the eyes of a child, here’s four-time Tony nominee Condola Rashad (Dola, here), performing in her just-released song and music video "Too Fire," from her EP Space Daughter: WATCH
Second, here’s British filmmaker Jonathan Glazer and five dancers from the Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch company in Strasbourg 1518, a ten-minute piece released last week that hearkens back to the dance mania that gripped a hungry, plague-ridden Strasbourg 500 years ago – while capturing our own pent-up energies in a time of covid-induced claustrophobia: WATCH
Selections for Volume 11 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. Manual Cinema Retrospectacular (Manual Cinema): During the bicentennial of Frankenstein, I saw five theatrical adaptations in three states plus Britain of Mary Shelley’s path-breaking novel. The one that excited me most? The world premiere of a joint production between Chicago’s legendary Manual Cinema and Chicago’s Court Theatre.
Straddling the line between theater and film, Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein features a quartet of musicians playing an original score – as a backdrop to live actors and more than 400 puppets making a silent movie in which we watch Frankenstein construct his monstrous double. Calling attention to how both art and our idea of the human are created, Manual Cinema de-natures and deconstructs our assumptions about both. It’s a thrilling and beautiful integration of artistic form and content that challenges us to rethink what it means to be human, as well as the relationship between humanity and technology.
Manual Cinema is celebrating its tenth birthday by offering free, high-quality streams of four of its productions, moving chronologically from 2012 (Lula Del Ray) through 2018 (Frankenstein). One show will drop every Monday for one week (Lula Del Ray is available now). You can read an overview of and watch trailers from each of the four shows at Manual Cinema’s Retrospectacular events page. Want more? Manual Cinema’s brilliant puppetry is on full display in the chilling puppet video teaser to Universal Studios’ highly anticipated sequel to Candyman (produced by Jordan Peele, writer and director of Get Out), in which the nightmare of slavery and racism comes home to roost in Chicago.
2. 846: A New Audio Play (Theatre Royal Stratford East): “The UK is not innocent,” says actor Will Edgerton, in one of the 14 short pieces by Black and Asian British writers brought together by Roy Williams to create this play. “Systemic racism in our country is real and needs to be owned.”
As its name suggests, 846 was triggered by the murder of George Floyd, who died when a police officer kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. But in a tacit challenge to American exceptionalism, 846 also drives home the scope and cost of Britain’s own brutally racist treatment of peoples it once oppressed as their imperial overlord.
Organized into three segments that take us from the Brixton riots to the London demonstrations following Floyd’s murder, 846 can be brutal; Stratford East warns that it “contains very strong language some may find sensitive and upsetting.” But that brutality exists alongside beauty, hope, and humor (especially evident in one of my favorites: the Nathan Powell play that kicks off the third segment).
846 covers the waterfront – from microaggressions to a memorial of the murdered, and from children playing to communities organizing – while taking on a host of issues: whether nonviolence is a viable resistance strategy in a police state; the blind spots afflicting avowed white allies; the pitfalls of cultural appropriation and political cooptation; and the intersection of race, class, and gender. It’s also accompanied by an excellent sound design.
Most of the writers contributing to 846 are unknowns; as well-known contributor Clint Dyer said in another context earlier this year, that’s as it should be, lest we somehow think we’ve “solved” racism in the theater just because we’ve staged August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry.
3. The Ninth Hour: The Beowulf Story (The Metropolitan Museum of Art): Joseph Campbell meets rock opera in this imaginative and moving retelling of Beowulf, in which we truly do meet Campbell’s hero with a thousand faces. Between the lines of this old English legend lies an anxiety that the hero and those monsters he (she, in one of this production’s many twists) slays are more alike than different. In The Beowulf Story, creators Kate Douglas and Shayfer James similarly suggest a text and world collapsing in on itself, as each of us confronts the monsters within.
Staged last year in the Fuentidueña Chapel at The Met Cloisters, Douglas (Beowulf) and James (the tale’s three monsters) are joined by a troupe of dancers (evocative choreography by Troy Ogilvie) and a small orchestra (some of whose members double as characters) in a sonically sensual score featuring soul-stirring ballads and heart-wrenching lullabies, collectively suggesting how lonely and afraid we all are, as we create the bedtime stories that let us sleep at night.
The Beowulf Story reminds me of Macbeth, a man so deep in blood that he’s given up on ever finding his way back; losing his way, he forfeits his humanity. But as with that darkest of Shakespeare’s plays, this piece is also attuned to the redemptive promise that we can be more and better than our worst impulses, creating new stories rather than repeating old histories. All this in less than an hour, in a free Met stream into which I’ll surely immerse myself again.
4. Ice Factory Festival (New Ohio Theatre): New Ohio Theatre has long served as an incubator allowing some of New York’s most adventurous theater makers to present new work; its annual Ice Factory Festival, now in its 27th year, embodies that commitment. This first-ever pandemic version of the Festival is broadcasting four shows (live) over four weeks. This past weekend I watched the first: Mona Mansour’s Beginning Days of True Jubilation, which is a scathingly funny takedown of start-up companies and corporate-speak. It’s now done and gone, but trust me: it will be back.
The remaining three offerings await you in the weeks to come: they include an interdisciplinary and interactive exploration of the lost art of listening (July 30-August 2); a cross-cultural exploration of our shifting, marginalizing definition of what constitutes “the Other” (August 4-8); and a musical that comes our way in the guise of a virtual church service about how and whether we can make community (August 13-15). Collectively, this year’s entries offer a meditation on what such community might look like – and whether, in our angry and spiritually impoverished moment, genuine community is even possible (that’s my gloss, anyway; I offer it while still awaiting the debut of as-yet-unseen shows two through four).
You can learn more about the Festival’s entries (and make reservations) at the New Ohio website; Here's a link to my virtual playbill from the initial Ice Factory production I reference above (a link is also included in the References below). The final two pages of this playbill contain more information on each of the three remaining productions.
5. Three From Old Vic: Whether presenting archival film from past productions, exploring what theater in a pandemic might look like, offering an excellent podcast series in which theater artists discuss favorite plays, or presenting a stirring series of monologues commemorating each decade of Britain’s National Health Service, London’s Old Vic has offered some of the best and most comprehensive programing thus far during this pandemic. The Old Vic’s latest offerings are once again pushing the envelope.
From today through Friday, Old Vic is presenting the second installment of its Old Vic: In Camera series, in which we see actors performing live in – gasp – Old Vic’s actual storied theater. The first installment – a socially distanced production of Lungs by Duncan Macmillan (Every Brilliant Thing) – was, well, brilliantly staged as well as moving; it also sold out its entire extended run. In this second production, Andrew Scott (Fleabag, His Dark Materials) will star in the world premiere of Three Kings, a monologue play by Stephen Beresford involving a son trying to make sense of his father’s life and thereby get hold of his own. These productions aren’t free; you can purchase a ticket from the Old Vic website.
Old Vic offerings two and three are free.
The Greatest Wealth
At the beginning of July, Old Vic released the last of the above-referenced NHS monologues (curated by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Adrian Lester), which collectively offer a stirring defense of why national health care is indispensable (yes: here, too). Powerfully performed by Sharon D. Clarke (Dr. Who), this installment was penned by Bernardine Evaristo; her attention to the broadly inclusive nature of the NHS feels like a coda to Evaristo’s stunning Booker-winning novel Girl, Woman, Other, in which Evaristo offers a kaleidoscopic portrait of Black British women.
Jekyll & Hyde
Finally, on August 5 Old Vic will offer one week of free viewing of the third of its released archival streams of past productions (the quality of the first two was as good as the content): Olivier Award-winning choreographer Drew McOnie’s Jekyll & Hyde, a dance thriller in which Robert Louis Stevenson’s gothic novella is crossed with Little Shop of Horrors. You’ll be able to watch it until 1:00 pm CDT on August 12.
Like many of this week’s offerings, McOnie’s piece explores the monsters within all of us, while underscoring that there’s nothing like theater for helping us see who and what they are so that we can get in touch with ourselves, awaiting that post-pandemic day when we can again be fully in touch with others. In the interim, I’ll remain in touch with you through these weekly picks. See you next week.
References (in order of mention):
Jonathan Miller, Subsequent Performances (Viking Penguin, 1986)
* Dola (Condola Rashad), Too Fire:
* Jonathan Glazer, Strasbourg, 1518 (Artangel/Sadler’s Wells):
*Manual Cinema Retrospectacular Link:
* Nia DaCosta, Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld, Candyman (Puppet Video Teaser): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9O9_-bv5qE
* 846: A New Audio Play (Theatre Royal Stratford East):
* Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (New World Library, 1949, 2008)
* Kate Douglas and Shayfer James, The Ninth Hour: The Beowulf Story (Metropolitan Museum of Art: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhsynTXouIg
* Ice Factory Festival webpage (New Ohio Theatre):
* Ice Factory Festival Playbill (New Ohio Theatre):
* Stephen Beresford, Three Kings (Old Vic):
* The Greatest Wealth (NHS Monologues from the Old Vic):
* Bernadine Evaristo, Girl, Woman, Other (Black Cat, 2019)
* Drew McOnie, Jekyll & Hyde Trailer (Old Vic):