Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 12
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 12: AUGUST 5, 2020: THEATER PICNICS
As I was reminded from snapshots of picnicking theatergoers embedded within American Players Theatre’s Out of the Woods Zoom plays (for which free viewing has been extended, incidentally, through August 9), summer is the time for picnics and picnic baskets: those tastefully arranged bundles of goodness, often wrapped around a culinary theme, that allow us to gather and share and sustain. Even during a pandemic.
With Mike’s Picks on vacation hiatus next week – I’ll be back with Volume 13 on August 19 – I wanted to ensure you would have plenty of pick-nicks to tide you over (“picnic” comes from the French piquenique: piquer = to pick and nique = small thing). Hence this week’s five picks are arranged as gift baskets of yummy aesthetic comestibles: think the theatrical equivalent of what you’d purchase from a place like Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor (yeah, it’s the greatest deli west of New York, so shoot me). In each basket, an organizing theme will bring together various delicious items offering food for thought, good for multiple picnics. I’ve even thrown in an extra bonus pick to ensure you don’t go hungry over the next two weeks.
First, in a segment from the second installment of the Muny Summer Variety Hour in St. Louis (airing every Monday and Thursday at 8:15 CDT through August 20), here’s choreographer Chloe Davis in a stirring, gorgeously rendered tribute to the Black choreographers who’ve inspired her:
Second, here’s the reliably wonderful Chicago-based actor Jesse Fisher in an emotionally charged rendition of Crash Gulp Gasp, an original playlet from the prolific Lauren Gunderson, commissioned by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Look for the cameo from Forward alum Candace Thomas (Exit Strategy):
Finally, from her album Die Happy, here’s the amazing Shaina Taub (about whom I have more to say in Pick 2 below), with a thought or two on American immigration policy in Huddled Masses:
Selections for Volume 12 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. Forward West (The Road Theatre Company): For nearly 30 years, the Road Theatre Company has done for Los Angeles what Forward Theater consistently does for Wisconsin: it’s introduced a community to new plays that raise socially and politically relevant issues.
The Road Theatre’s Summer Playwrights Festival, now in its eleventh year, is among the largest and most prestigious theater festivals in the country. Having now watched the first of the Festival’s three weekends of plays, it’s easy for me to see why. The plays themselves – developed by a diverse group of playwrights, many renowned, pursuant to commissions from theaters throughout the United States – are quite good; some of them will surely be seen on Wisconsin stages in the years to come. The direction is sure and the acting (involving performers Zooming in from around the globe) is first-rate. Bearing in mind that this is Zoom, the production values are above average (one opening weekend reading, involving a real-life couple, actually unfolded in a single space!).
Weekends two and three of the Festival await, with the “curtain” rising on ten more full-length plays as well as five one-acts between now and August 16. Each play remains available for viewing for a full 24 hours following its scheduled start time. While donations to Road Theatre are encouraged, the Festival’s offerings are being presented free of charge.
2. Women Warriors (PBS; The New York Times; The Public Theater): 100 years ago this month, women won their hard-fought campaign for the right to vote. But in the years that followed, white movement leaders like Alice Paul failed to make common cause with Black women fighting for civil rights, even though Black women from Sojourner Truth on down had played an integral role in fighting for women’s rights.
This alternately inspiring and depressing story gets told in PBS’s gripping, recently released two-part chronicle The Vote, narrated by Kate Burton and featuring the voices of Mae Whitman (Alice Paul), Audra McDonald (Ida B. Wells), Laura Linney (Carrie Chapman Catt), and Patricia Clarkson (Harriot Stanton Blatch).
The intersection of race and gender is also front and center in Finish the Fight, a piece commissioned by The New York Times and airing at 6:00 CDT on August 18 – the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Written by playwright Ming Peiffer (Usual Girls) and directed by Whitney White (Our Dear Dead Drug Lord; What to Send Up When It Goes Down), Finish the Fight showcases some of those many activists fighting for the right to vote whose names we should know and often don’t. Attendance is free, but you must register.
The campaign for the right to vote is also profiled in actor and songwriter Shaina Taub’s much-anticipated musical The Suffragist, focusing on the split within the women’s movement between Paul and the more moderate Carrie Chapman Catt (a Wisconsin native). On August 13 at 6:00 CDT, the New York Times’ second edition of Offstage will feature Taub as well as members of her musical’s creative team and cast, addressing their show’s pandemic-related development challenges while sharing some of the show’s songs. (If you missed the first edition of Offstage, which opened with a 40-minute discussion featuring cultural critic Wesley Morris and four Black theater artists, speaking in the wake of the George Floyd murder, I provide a link below to this episode as well; while we’re at it, I highly recommend Morris’ outstanding article in this past Sunday’s New York Times, addressing what a reckoning with this country’s racist history might look like).
As a scrumptious dessert tucked into this particular picnic basket, you can partake of a Shaina Taub concert, given during that heady week when female politicians and voters led the way to the stunning rebuke of the Republican Party in 2018 (here’s looking at you, AOC). In this hour-long, 14-song set at Joe’s Pub in New York, Taub is alternately feisty and poignant as well as consistently warm, offering hope while staring down the darkness she’s too honest to ignore. “O cheerful fearful life,” she sings, of the “heavy lightness rising in my ear.” You’ll hear both – and feel her big heart – in this snapshot of a talented and rising star.
3. The Personal and the Political: (The Wooster Group; Play-PerView; Guild Hall): What happens when the way we live – and the relationships we fantasize – ignore the world beyond ourselves and our own needs? Can we live in a bubble? And what’s the price we pay when we do? Three vintage plays currently available for view – one each from the 1950s, the 1960s, and the 1970s, with each one working in a very different register than the other two do – pose such questions.
Courtesy of those legendary postmodernists from the storied Wooster Group, Harold Pinter’s The Room (1957) – his first play – is available for free streaming through August 10. Inhabiting a shabby room in post-war London, Rose and Bert indulge in the fiction that they’ve made it and can turn their back on the cold world beyond their doors. Until that world – whose representatives include an older Black man claiming to know them while they refuse to acknowledge him – comes calling.
Pinter’s play plumbs the relationship between race and class in post-war England. Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman (1964) famously explores the intersection of race and gender in post-slavery America – or, if you’d like, the collision between the two when white fantasies attempt to write themselves on Black bodies. When I reviewed this play six years ago – in a production that included a rising Marcus Causey, well-known to Forward audiences – I was surprised by its continued ability to pack a punch. You can experience Baraka’s explosive energy for yourself courtesy of Play PerView, which is bringing back the cast from the 2007 Cherry Lane production for a reading on August 8 at 6:00 CDT to benefit Newark Arts.
At first blush, Bernard Slade’s hit comedy Same Time Next Year (1975) – which ran on Broadway for four years and became a movie starring Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn (who had won a Tony for the stage version) – would seem to have little in common with Pinter’s and Baraka’s plays.
Au contraire. Slade’s deceptively simple piece – far better and more textured for my money than A.R. Gurney’s superficially similar and more popular Love Letters – is also exploring the thin line between romantic fantasies and the larger world. As we watch the adulterous Doris and George meet once each year for their tryst over the course of a quarter century, this deeply moral play explores how and whether we might reconcile our own needs with our personal as well as political obligations to others. You can explore such questions yourself through a Zoom reading of Slade’s play featuring Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore – reunited after being so good together in Still Alice (2014) – to raise money for Guild Hall, the visual and performing arts center in East Hampton. A donation of $9.99 will give you viewing privileges for 48 hours.
4. High Style and Great Standards (PBS; Irish Repertory Theatre; Carnegie Hall): While Noël Coward’s protagonists ostensibly epitomize imperturbable style, one never need look very hard to find the underlying panic and emptiness, consuming characters for whom impeccable performance barely holds darkness off at the edge of town. Coward thereby anticipates our own highly performative moment – in which the personae we project repress the realities we ignore. Cue the antics and underlying melancholy of Coward’s Present Laughter and the 2017 Tony-winning performance by Kevin Kline as protagonist Garry Essendine; it’s now available for free streaming through August 29 courtesy of PBS’s Great Performances series. Just for kicks, I’ve also provided a link to a clip from Kline’s turn as a seemingly different but actually quite similar character: the Pirate King he played in the 1983 film version of The Pirates of Penzance (Kline won a Tony in the role in 1981, in a production that also included Linda Ronstadt).
More Coward can be had courtesy of the Irish Repertory Theatre, which is offering a brief online reprise of its sold-out 2019 two-hander Love, Noël: The Songs and Letters of Noël Coward. Cabaret stars Steve Ross and KT Sullivan bring to life Coward and the luminaries around him (including Lynn Fontanne, longtime resident of Wisconsin’s Ten Chimneys) through Coward’s songs, stories, and letters. Love, Noël runs from August 11-15. Advance reservations are required; a $25 donation is suggested.
Coward’s Brit songs recall an era featuring some of the best American music ever written. The incredible Michael Feinstein has done as much as anyone alive to keep the flame burning for this Great American Songbook – not just because he is a prodigiously gifted interpreter and infectiously enthusiastic champion of this music, but also because he’s continually insisted that this big tent has plenty of room for performers who look nothing like the mostly white men who wrote it. As Laurence Maslon makes movingly clear in Broadway to Main Street: How Show Tunes Enchanted America, this great body of music has always belonged to all of us.
In three magnificent hour-long Live with Carnegie Hall segments released during the pandemic – one each devoted to the music of George Gershwin (May), Irving Berlin (June), and Cole Porter (July) – Feinstein’s always informative storytelling is accompanied by both historic clips and more recent Zoom performances championing some of the great non-white interpreters of this canon (alongside usual suspects ranging from Frank Sinatra to Kelli O’Hara).
5. A Chicago Sampler (Lookingglass Theatre; Porchlight Music Theatre; Steppenwolf Theatre; Court Theatre): During my years as a critic and throughout these weekly picks, I’ve made no secret of my immense love and respect for all things associated with Chicago theater. Here, from four of Chicago theater’s major players, are four bespoke artisanal offerings of a sort you won’t find elsewhere.
Lookingglass Theatre Company: Two years before the 1921 Tulsa Massacre invoked in HBO’s Watchmen, a full week of racial hatred was unleashed against Black Chicagoans in July 1919. Launching its Chicago Stories initiative, Lookingglass Theatre Company recently released J. Nicole Brooks’ alternately beautiful and haunting Sunset 1919, an eight-minute film honoring the Black Americans who lost their lives during that hot summer – and in too many summers since – because of race-based hatred.
Porchlight Music Theatre: As recently as Volume 10 of these picks and on our most recent Theater Forward podcast episode, I had occasion to celebrate the potential of radio theater in a time of pandemic. Radio theater isn’t new; as Porchlight Music Theatre notes in its recent launch of a new series dedicated to old radio theater broadcasts, abridged versions of Broadway plays and musicals were regularly performed over the airwaves during the golden age of radio. Fresh from its triumphant (and still available) Sondheim @90 Roundtable series (see Volume 1 of the picks), Porchlight is taking to the air with WPMT Presents: archived radio broadcasts (corny commercials and all) of classic musicals from a bygone era, introduced with informative commentary from our host, Porchlight Artistic Director Michael Weber. Early offerings include Anything Goes, Brigadoon, Lady in the Dark, and Strike Up the Band. A new show drops every Tuesday afternoon at 1:00 CDT.
Steppenwolf Theatre: Now six episodes young, Steppenwolf Theatre has launched Half Hour, a podcast in which ensemble members from one of the most storied companies in American theater history talk to each other about a host of topics, ranging from their artistic processes and their work at Steppenwolf to what drives them to create and the relation between their personal and artistic lives. As Steppenwolf members Caroline Neff and Audrey Francis have noted in introducing the past two episodes, Half Hour continues to evolve, with this country’s racist pandemic playing an integral role in how the podcast might change – much as Steppenwolf continually has, in relation to the world around it.
Court Theatre: Last and definitely not least, here’s a pick unlike any I’ve hitherto offered; it comes from my favorite Chicago theater company. Launched in late June, Court Theatre’s The Liminal Space provides a 24-hour live feed from its Hyde Park theater space, with props and a circle of chairs left exactly as they were when the actors went home in March, on the cusp of opening Court’s production of Ibsen’s The Lady From the Sea starring the divine Chaon Cross.
When I need a break, I regularly repair to this site and spend some quiet, meditative time in Court’s ghost-lighted space, where one is occasionally treated to sound (Andre Pluess) and light design (Paul Toben) elements from the canceled Ibsen production (the seagulls and crashing waves as well as the cool blues are particularly soothing).
In the months to come, Court is promising a second phase in which it will fill this space with videos from approximately 200 past productions; it will then introduce a third, future-oriented phase involving multimedia artists exploring what theater might look like on the other side of the pandemic. It’s an ideal space for contemplating what we’ve lost – as well as all we still have, as we carry on within our current liminal space, poised between the old world we’ve left behind and the new one struggling to be born.
References (in order of mention):
* Zingerman’s Deli (Ann Arbor, MI):
* Muny St. Louis Summer Variety Hour (8:15 CDT on Mondays and Thursdays through 8/20): https://muny.org/
* Chloe Davis honors Black choreographers (Muny St. Louis):
* Lauren Gunderson, Crash Gulp Gasp:
* Shaina Taub, Huddled Masses:
* Summer Playwrights Festival (Road Theatre Company):
* Michelle Ferrari, The Vote (PBS, trailer):
* Michelle Ferrari, The Vote (PBS American Experience):
* Ming Peiffer, Finish the Fight (rsvp):
* Profile of Shaina Taub’s Suffragist (New York Times Offstage, Episode 2, August 13, 2020; rsvp):
* Opening Night: Exploring Broadway As It Was, Is, and Will Be (New York Times Offstage, Episode 1, June 11, 2020):
* Wesley Morris, The Reconciliation Must Be Televised (New York Times, 8/2/20):
* Shaina Taub, Joe’s Pub Concert (Public Theater, November 2018):
* Harold Pinter, The Room (The Wooster Group):
* Amiri Baraka, Dutchman (Play-PerView):
* Bernard Slade, Same Time Next Year (with Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore):
* Still Alice (with Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore), Trailer:
* Noël Coward, Present Laughter (PBS Great Performances):
* Gilbert & Sullivan, The Pirate King (featuring Kevin Kline):
* Barry Day, Love, Noël: The Songs and Letters of Noël Coward (Irish Repertory Theatre):
* Laurence Maslon, Broadway to Main Street: How Show Tunes Enchanted America (Oxford: 2018)
* Michael Feinstein, ‘S Wonderful: Celebrating the Music of George Gershwin (Carnegie Hall):
* Michael Feinstein, America’s Schubert: The Songs of Irving Berlin (Carnegie Hall):
* Michael Feinstein, It’s De-Lovely: The Songs of Cole Porter (Carnegie Hall):
* J. Nicole Brooks, Sunset, 1919 (Lookingglass Theatre Company):
* Decisions, Decisions (Theater Forward podcast, episode 37):
* Sondheim@90 Roundtable (Porchlight Music Theatre):
* WMPT Presents (Porchlight Music Theatre):
* Half Hour Podcast (Steppenwolf Theatre):
* The Liminal Space (Court Theatre):