Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 15
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 15: SEPTEMBER 2, 2020: TWO BY TWO
When theaters went dark in March, I was working as the dramaturg on Forward’s about-to-open production of Jordan Harrison’s The Amateurs, in which actors on the run from the Black Death try to make sense of their broken world through the story of Noah and the biblical flood. That terrifying story’s compensatory promise – that the curtain would rise again and that our collective story would continue – is best embodied by Noah’s diligent attempt to include a pair of every living animal on board his Ark. Two by two, those creatures board Noah’s floating refuge, awaiting the day when they can be fruitful and multiply in a newly made world.
As our own flood continues well past Noah’s 40 days and nights, I’m heartened by the idea of these pairings onboard the Ark – each of them a reminder that none of us is ever alone. That good things happen when we work in tandem. That faith in the future matters. And that plays and books and music and ideas – much like people – make wholes so much greater than their distinct parts when they come together as part of our never-ending collective story.
Playwright Simon Stephens gets it exactly right, in a conversation included within my third pick this week. Describing his creative process, Stephens notes the ecstasy rather than the anxiety of influence: he feels excited rather than competitive when inhabiting others’ plays, novels, and music, because other artists are “opening doors I can walk through.”
Which is why all of this week’s picks involve a pairing, allowing one to see the constitutive parts of each combo in a new way. May they inspire (re)productive conversations among you or with me, as we await the day when the waters recede, allowing us to build stronger and better foundations for the art we will make in the (hopefully more equitable) world to come. You can converse with me, about these pairings or any other theatrical two-handers keeping you afloat, by emailing me through Forward at firstname.lastname@example.org or directly at email@example.com.
My bonus selection pairing involves clips from two of the recent Stratford Festival musicals through which director and choreographer Donna Feore is making theater history, one magical production at a time.
First, here’s a clip from Stratford’s 2018 production of The Music Man, involving a joyously acrobatic Seventy Six Trombones that I assure you is unlike any enactment of this famous number you’ve ever seen: WATCH
Second, from Stratford’s 2016 production of A Chorus Line – the first major production of this beloved musical to be presented on a thrust stage – here’s Cynthia Smithers leading the cast in the iconic What I Did for Love: WATCH
Selections for Volume 15 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. Samuel Beckett: No Country for Old Men (Jermyn Street Theatre):
Krapp’s Last Tape | The Old Tune
Trevor Nunn staged Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape and the rarely performed The Old Tune at Jermyn Street shortly before the pandemic hit. Both plays are prophetic of what was to come; the old men inhabiting them underscore how fragile our lives are and how easily they can come undone, as we draw on unreliable memories to make sense of lives that we never live as fully or well as we might have.
Krapp’s Last Tape is now rightly considered a major work in the Beckett canon, and James Hayes’ embodiment of a failed writer shows why: listening to diary-like tapes he’d made as a younger man, the 69-year-old Krapp winces at all his younger self left out and didn’t understand, overestimated about who he was and failed to appreciate in others. It’s a devastating performance that goes a long way toward explaining why Nunn’s production (which included a third Beckett one-act not made available here) was the hottest ticket in London this past winter.
Gentler and funnier, The Old Tune is a minor variation on some of the themes sounded in Waiting for Godot. Two septuagenarians (Niall Buggy and David Threlfall) wait for death; lost in a world they never made, their failing memories leave them unable to return to the world they’ve left behind. As with Didi and Gogo in Godot, their lone respite from existential loneliness is each other – even if their efforts to communicate miss more often than they land.
Through December 31, Jermyn Street is offering this twin bill for the equivalent of just over $10; one has 48 hours to watch it (as often as one likes) after purchase. And while it’s only a single-camera archival stream, that works just fine for two plays in which the characters are often literally as well as figuratively stuck in place, their movement increasingly restricted as the darkness gathers around them.
2. From California to the New York Island: BIPOC Play Festivals (San Diego REP; Amigos del REP; The Fire This Time Festival):
San Diego REP Latinx New Play Festival
San Diego REP’s fourth annual Latinx New Play Festival, being produced in conjunction with Amigos del REP, will feature four staged readings as well as Marga Gomez’s performance of Spanking Machine, Gomez’s award-winning and darkly comic memoir involving shifts across gender, latitudes, and generations, during which she recalls how her first sloppy kiss with a boy “made them gay forever.”
Each reading will be streamed live between September 4-6, with the first show getting under way at 7 pm CDT on September 4. Registration is free, although San Diego REP is suggesting a donation of $50 for those who can afford it. Gomez’s event on Saturday night is limited to 300 attendees.
The Fire This Time Festival
On the other side of the continent, the 11th annual edition of The Fire This Time Festival – a showcase for emerging Black playwrights which, in years past, has given early exposure to artists including Aziza Barnes, Jocelyn Bioh, Katori Hall, Dominque Morisseau, and Antoinette Nwandu – has made archival recordings available for on-demand streaming of all seven shorts from this year’s Festival.
Many of these plays touch on a theme central to the Black experience in America: with one’s community constantly under siege, does one fight or take flight? And if one leaves one’s roots behind (literally, in Jay Mazyck’s If Men Were Flowers), how does one avoid becoming invisible, appropriated by a dominant culture’s continued campaign to whitewash Blackness? Can old alliances be saved (an express theme in both Tyler English-Beckwith’s Maya and Rivers and in Natyna Bean’s Assume Positions)? Might new ones arise (a topic explored in Deneen Reynolds-Knott’s Antepartum and Mario Wolfe’s Wish I Could P. (Pay it No Mind))?
All of these questions are on the table in the night’s longest and best piece: Niccolo Aeed’s One Morning Soon. Aeed’s play invokes and then bends Paul’s early Christian writings to explore how, in moving past the old order to create a better one, a culture might preserve all that’s best about where and what it’s been – while simultaneously ensuring that hate and oppression aren’t replicated, but rather vanquished by love.
3. The Woman Behind the Mask (Know Theatre of Cincinnati; Door Shakespeare):
In Beowulf, Grendel’s monstrous mother doesn’t even get a name. Megan Gogerty’s Feast, the poetic solo show opening Know Theatre of Cincinnati’s 23rd season, sets that and a great deal more straight. While upending Beowulf, Feast also riffs on the plight of native peoples, climate change, and what we’re going to do about the strong men and their billionaire allies who claim to speak for the rest of us while stifling our voices.
If we know all about the murdering Beowulf while knowing almost nothing about Agathe – for that’s Grendel’s mother’s name – it’s because the plundering winners write the histories. But as actor Jennifer Joplin drives home in her uncanny and charismatic performance – during which Agathe gradually grows into a new body and a new idea of who she is – we can still change the story and recover our true selves.
Even if Gogerty’s script and Joplin’s acting didn’t offer reason enough to watch this show (tickets are $20; performances run through September 20), Know Theatre’s production values would. The lighting (Andrew Hungerford) and sound (Douglas Borntrager) designs are particularly strong, augmenting a performance in which Joplin plays to the camera as though it were an actual audience rather than a recording device (kudos to director Tamara Winters). For one of the first times in my experience of the past six months, watching newly created material actually felt like watching a live play.
Door Shakespeare Artistic Director Michael Stebbins is promising a similar experience for viewers of J.M. Barrie’s Rosalind, a deliciously fun one-act play involving the plight of a middle-aged woman who, we’ll discover, isn’t quite who she initially seems to be. It wouldn’t be cricket to say more, except to suggest that Barrie named his play after Shakespeare’s greatest heroine for a reason. The Door Shakes production – for which set designer Jody Sekas has built three identical sets of props and furniture – will feature Kay Allmand, Rhonda Rae Busch and Alexander Johnson.
The Door Shakes production boasts a director (Stebbins) who fell in love with Barrie a long time ago and has been staging his lesser-known plays ever since. As with Peter Pan, Rosalind has a great deal to say about the relationship between time and art; true to its title, it does so with a feminist twist. The production runs from September 2-13; tickets start at $16.
4. The Heisenberg Variations: Two Theater Artists Chat with Simon Stephens (Veracity Digital; Atlantic Theatre Company):
When I first learned that Forward would be staging Simon Stephens’ Heisenberg in late 2018, I was thrilled; although Stephens is among the best British playwrights of his generation, he remains almost entirely unproduced in Wisconsin (conversely, he’s well known in Chicago thanks to Steep Theatre, where he’s an associate playwright and has received several productions – one of many reasons Steep should be on your bucket list once we can actually go to the theater again).
You may not be able to travel to London to catch the currently running production of Stephens’ new play Blindness at the Donmar Warehouse, where Blindness is the first indoor play to open in London since the shutdown (albeit with an actor’s recorded voice, as part of a sound installation playing before socially distanced audience members). But you can rent and watch phenomenal actor Andrew Scott – also working inside an actual London theater this week, in live-streamed performances from the Old Vic that I highlighted in Volume 11 – in a remarkable, 32-minute film of Stephens’ monologue Sea Wall (initially written for Scott). It’s infinitely better than the fraught and melodramatic Broadway production of this piece with Tom Sturridge that I saw last September.
The Sea Wall website also includes an insightful conversation between Stephens and Scott about making Sea Wall, although that conversation includes spoilers; watch it after viewing the film. Because I don’t myself want to spoil your experience, I won’t say anything more about Sea Wall, except to warn that you should have a handkerchief ready.
One of the many younger playwrights Stephens has mentored and championed is Alice Birch, whose Anatomy of a Suicide – which closed during its Atlantic Theater run because of the pandemic – channels Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Virginia Woolf to offer an extraordinarily moving and compassionate look at three generations of women wrestling with mental illness.
Conversation With Playwrights Simon Stephens and Alice Birch | Royal Court Podcast Interview
As part of the Atlantic’s robust pandemic programming, which includes numerous conversations involving theater artists talking about their work, Stephens and Birch have joined forces for a fascinating hour-long conversation covering topics such as their writing processes, the relationship between their art and parenting, and what theater might look like after the pandemic. Stephens, incidentally, had interviewed Birch in 2017 as part of his consistently excellent Royal Court Theatre podcast series of interviews with playwrights; listening, one learns a great deal about Birch’s life and plays (I provide information below on purchasing three of them, including Anatomy of a Suicide, that I’ve particularly liked).
5. Celtic Power (Abbey Theatre; National Theatre of Scotland):
As I noted in Volume 9, there’s an elective affinity between Irish playwrights and the monologue form. Hence it’s no surprise that early in the pandemic, Dublin’s storied Abbey Theatre commissioned 50 Irish playwrights to create monologues, all of which remain available for on-demand viewing through the end of October. First airing at the end of April, they capture what those early moments in the pandemic were like, from the nostalgia for simpler times (Enda Walsh’s plangent Walk) and longing for people and places left behind (Nancy Harris’ Dear Ireland, An Unreliable Ex-Lover Suddenly Writes) to the sense of frightening and crushing isolation we felt and feel (Sarah Hanly’s Shower, enacted by an excellent Denise Gough).
One month later, the National Theatre of Scotland (creator of the magnificent My Light Shines On, highlighted at the top of Volume 13 of my picks and still available on the NTS homepage) began issuing the first installments in Scenes for Survival, which is projected as a series of more than 50 monologues (the 47th is going online today).
Scenes for Survival
Reflecting our evolving reactions to the pandemic – and theater companies’ evolving mastery of the technology used to convey it – these pieces are generally of a higher quality, thematically and technically. They don’t feel quite as bound and determined as Dear Ireland often does to the exigencies of the moment, and they reflect a greater breadth of subject matter. If you’re feeling daunted by the prospect of working your way through more than 100 monologues, I’d start with Scenes for Survival before crossing the Irish Sea and visiting Éire. But do make that journey westward (and yes, I am consciously echoing Joyce’s The Dead, which is the greatest short story ever written). Both of these collections offer plenty of excellent writing and acting.
Among my many Scenes for Survival favorites: Douglas Maxwell’s wickedly humorous Fatbaws, in which Peter Mullan plays both a man and the birds upset that he isn’t feeding them as handsomely as he once did; Johnny McKnight’s Out of the Woods (in three parts), a darkly humorous piece featuring Alan Cumming; and Blackburn-winning Tena Štivičić’s Wednesday, about a feuding couple trying to transcend their differences through the art they make together.
Wednesday underscores why we’ve never needed theater more than we do now – and why I am so grateful to the incredible theater artists who somehow continue making it. Under supremely challenging conditions, they’re finding their way forward – and helping us do the same.
That’s an appropriate thought with which to leave you, just over one week before Forward unveils it’s season-opening The Lifespan of a Fact. More on this exciting production at the top of next week’s picks. Until then, may the theater you consume give you the sustenance you need, as we hunger for the days when we can gather again.
References (in order of mention):
* Meredith Wilson, Seventy Six Trombones (Stratford Festival):
* Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban, What I Did for Love (Stratford Festival):
* Samuel Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape and The Old Tune (Jermyn Street Theatre):
* Latinx New Play Festival (San Diego REP):
* The Fire This Time Festival (home page and trailer):
* Fire This Time Festival (link to All Arts stream):
* Megan Gogerty, Feast (Know Theatre of Cincinnati):
* J.M. Barrie, Rosalind (Door Shakespeare):
* Simon Stephens, Sea Wall (with Andrew Scott):
* Alice Birch and Simon Stephens in Conversation (Atlantic Theater Company):
* Simon Stephens Interviews Alice Birch (Royal Court Playwright’s Podcast, Season 2):
* Alice Birch, Many Moons (Oberon, 2011).
* Alice Birch, Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. (Oberon, 2016)
* Alice Birch, Anatomy of a Suicide (Oberon, 2017)
* Dear Ireland (Abbey Theatre):
* Scenes for Survival (National Theatre of Scotland):