Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 17

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.



Other than the opening of Forward’s splendid production last Friday of The Lifespan of a Fact, the most welcome theater-related news last week was Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s announcement of its 2020-21 season, which promises to be what I’d called Milwaukee Opera itself in Volume 7 of these picks: “reliably inventive.” I’m especially excited about Milwaukee Opera’s season-opening collaboration this October with eight opera companies from around the country, in a new, operatic version of Boccaccio’s The Decameron.

Written during and in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death, The Decameron brings together ten people telling 100 stories, while daring to suggest that the magic and power of narrative can trump death itself. In remaking this 14th-century epic now, Milwaukee Opera is doing what Boccaccio himself did in drawing on stories, some of them already centuries old, from around the world. Like Boccaccio, Milwaukee Opera and its collaborators will be extending what brilliant director Jonathan Miller called a work’s “afterlife,” through which it is made new in each succeeding generation, thereby preserving the past even as it spirals forward into the future.

Miller, who died last November, outlines this concept in Subsequent Performances, a book I can’t recommend highly enough (which is why I am recommending it again, having previously done so in Volume 11). While Miller didn’t subscribe to the theory that anything goes – one must, he believed, pay attention to the dramatic text being reimagined – he did believe that plays are “open-ended, and that to pre-empt such open-endedness is perverse and would guarantee [a] work’s early death.” “The afterlife of a play,” Miller continued, “is a process of emergent evolution, during which meaning and emphases develop that might not have been apparent at the time of writing, even to the author.”

What Miller is describing is an actual conversation (remember those?). Truly listening to others – the dead as well as the living – is how we change and grow. It is how we make sense of our collective story. It is how we, like Boccaccio’s storytellers, make time our ally instead of our enemy. It is how we cheat death and enter immortality.

I’m dedicating this edition of the picks to such death-defying stories. Each involves a fresh, often startlingly original look at an older story (it’s not every day, for example, that you get to see a production of Richard II in which every cast member is a woman of color – or, to take a second example, a live production without social distancing during the middle of a pandemic). Each of them thereby defies the parental stricture of the life-sucking father who you’ll meet in watching the final pick below. He admonishes his child that “if you don’t do anything, nothing can go wrong.” As these stories make clear, that soul-sucking, life-denying injunction is itself dead wrong.

Unspooling in every century from the Renaissance through our own, the stories I’m sharing with you follow their own evolutionary track. For as I noted last week, plays don’t just talk to us. When juxtaposed, they inevitably begin speaking with one another; how they do so reflects the evolution of ideas while also reflecting our own concerns during the moment when we ourselves engage those ideas.

Many of this week’s selections involve derelict or demagogic parents and leaders, each denying the future while clinging ever more tenaciously to a deadening past. How did the men and women you’ll meet in these stories take back their lives and reclaim their future? How might we do so – not just on November 3, but on each and every day of our lives? The plays are the thing, wherein you’ll find answers suggesting how we might move forward, individually and as a country.

As always, please help extend the afterlife of these selections by sharing your reactions to them with me. You can reach me via email through Forward at or directly at As always, both “theater” and “Fischer” are spelled with an er. And as always, I promise to write back.

Bonus Selections:

First, a moment of silence for Diana Rigg, who died last week at age 82. Before The Avengers and Game of Thrones, Rigg was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Here she is in 1968 as Helena, opposite Helen Mirren as Hermia in Peter Hall’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (a production that also included Judi Dench as Titania): WATCH

Sticking with the Shakespeare theme, here’s another piece from the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s PlayOn series, which I first tapped in Volume 10; this one offers a smoldering take on the suppressed, ostensibly homoerotic passion between Orsino and “Cesario” in Twelfth Night: WATCH

Finally, here’s Jonathan Miller in 2017, recounting what it was like to direct Olivier in Miller’s legendary 1970 National Theatre production of The Merchant of Venice, which forever changed our understanding of this much-maligned play (Miller’s 1973 film – which, like the National production, starred Olivier and Joan Plowright – remains available): WATCH

Selections for Volume 17 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):

1. The 16th Century: The Breath of Kings (Richard II; Globe Theatre and Swinging the Lens):

Richard II

Richard II isn’t just one of Shakespeare’s most lyrical plays. With its trenchant, emotionally wrenching analysis of political corruption and the consequent decline of good governance, it’s also among the most relevant to our own moment, as we collectively wrestle with what’s next in a country that, to quote Gaunt, “has made a shameful conquest of itself.”

In Volume 10 of these picks, I praised the Public Theater’s newly minted radio version of this play, as presented by a majority BIPOC cast starring André Holland in the title role. That production follows on the heels of another groundbreaking production, featuring a cast composed entirely of women of color, that played to acclaim last year at London’s Globe under the direction of Adjoa Andoh (who also stars as Richard) and Lynette Linton. The entire production is available for streaming, in a top-notch archival recording.

In contrast to Holland’s contemplative and idealized Richard, Andoh gives us a petulant and narcissistic tyrant. Both interpretations are legitimate; as always, Shakespeare’s plays contain multitudes. And as this fabulous cast drives home, that goes for who can and should embody these roles, as well as for the plays themselves. Here’s hoping American Players Theatre returns to this great play – which hasn’t been performed in Spring Green in 20 long years – soon. And here’s hoping that it proves similarly audacious in its casting choices once it finally does.

2. The 17th Century: Political Chaos, Then and Now (The Revenger’s Tragedy; Red Bull Theater Company):

The Revenger’s Tragedy

Red Bull program note: Playing with the Dead in The Revenger’s Tragedy

It debuted during a moment of social and political upheaval, in which a corrupt and hypocritical government spawned vicious vigilantism. No, it wasn’t written in the Age of Trump but in 1606, by a playwright who doesn’t get his deserved props from most classical theater companies. In an adaptation by Jesse Berger’s Red Bull Theater Company, Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy – with linguistic assists in this adaptation from Francis Bacon, John Donne, Thomas Kyd, John Marston, Shakespeare, Cyril Tourneur, John Webster, and Berger himself – streams for four days, ending this Friday at 6:00 CDT. While it’s streaming for free, a donation of $25 is suggested.

True to my promise in last week’s picks to profile companies beginning new seasons, this week is Red Bull’s turn. Founded in 2003, Berger’s company showcases neglected Jacobean plays (i.e., any play by someone not named Shakespeare), while also performing some contemporary works. Its approach is subversive rather than fussy, with an eye on the present as much as the past. In October, for example, Red Bull will not only interrogate how race is encoded in Othello (see below), but also offer a live reading of Keene, a new play by Anchuli Felicia King about racism in academic Shakespeare conferences; it revolves around two students preparing dissertations about Ira Aldridge, the first Black Othello in England (Aldridge is also front and center in Red Velvet, a terrific Lolita Chakrabarti play).

Fall at Red Bull also brings readings of The Courage to Right a Woman’s Wrongs (an adaptation of Valor, agravio y mujer by Spanish Golden Age playwright Ana Caro) as well as Beaumont and Fletcher’s A King and No King. These readings are augmented by streaming Bull sessions; there’s one tomorrow, September 17, regarding The Revenger’s Tragedy. Red Bull also offers a robust series of RemarkaBull podcasts, in which acclaimed actors dissect Shakespeare’s speeches (past offerings, still available online, include Elizabeth Marvel on Antony’s funeral oration, Chukwudi Iwuji on Henry VI’s wish to be a “homely swain,” and Kate Burton on Prospero’s abdication). On October 5, Tony nominee Patrick Page will talk about Iago’s chilling “I hate the Moor” speech from Act I of Othello.

3. The 18th/19th Centuries: Passion and Principle (Pride and Prejudice; Lifeline Theatre):

Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice may have been published in 1813, but Austen’s huge debt to 18th-century novelists Samuel Richardson and Fanny Burney – with whom her fiction and outlook has a far greater elective affinity than with the 19th-century Romantics who were her nearer contemporaries – is my excuse for assigning her to two centuries rather than just one. (Well, OK: I also needed to squeeze six centuries into five slots).

The legion of Janeites out there would stake a claim that Austen also very much belongs to our own moment, and they’d be absolutely right – notwithstanding all those adaptations that risk reducing her coruscating comic satire to superficial costume romps. I’ve long loved Christina Calvit’s adaptation – which debuted at Chicago’s Lifeline Theatre in 1986 and has been reprised there twice since – because it fully captures the broader social dimension of Austen’s great novel through additions such as constantly gossiping townspeople. There’s more: Because Calvit’s Lizzy continually breaks the fourth wall in appeals to us rather than being channeled through Austen’s distancing use of a close third-person narrator, Calvit injects additional dramatic immediacy and raises the stakes.

Lifeline’s current virtual production of the Calvit adaptation – available for a four-day rental through October 4 for a suggested $20 donation – has its drawbacks. Some members of the young Lifeline cast overegg the pudding. And there is no scenic or costume design. But that second weakness is also a strength; rather than losing ourselves in well-appointed sets, elaborate costumes, and courtly minuets, we can focus on Austen’s words and her lead characters’ conflicting emotions.

Samantha Newcomb – an American Players Theatre apprentice last summer – is particularly splendid in deftly balancing Lizzie’s intoxicating warmth and self-involved conceit; it’s not hard to see why Andrés Enriquez’s priggish Darcy falls for her, losing his reserve while recovering his humanity. Meanwhile, Zoom makes us more aware than ever that even when we’re alone, others are watching, nattering, and judging – appealing to our pride and stoking our prejudice.

4. The Twentieth Century: Race, Class, and Gender (My Beautiful Laundrette; Curve Theatre):

My Beautiful Laundrette

Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette was justly acclaimed when it arrived in the cinema in 1985; it movingly captured the fault lines involving race, class, and gender, as played out within a Pakistani family in London led by an entrepreneurial Thatcherite and his alcoholic, socialist brother. Overlaying that conflict was the seemingly star-crossed romance between two young men – one of Pakistani descent and the second an English skinhead – trying to overcome ethnic hate and homophobia.

Last year, Kureishi’s stage adaptation of his screenplay (with linking music from Tennant/Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys) debuted at Leicester’s Curve Theatre; Curve has now given us the tremendous gift of a captioned archival stream of the final (public) dress rehearsal before previews for this well-reviewed 2019 world premiere. It’s very good (and the captioning helps with occasional sound issues). It will remain available for on-demand streaming until Curve reopens.

Dare I say what I’m about to say about this “subsequent performance” of a justly beloved and iconic 20th-century film, for which I’ve always had a soft spot?

The play is even better, retaining the film’s original 1980’s milieu while speaking directly to the current moment, in ways that not only implicate British politics but also indirectly indict the radioactive, anti-immigrant racism spawned and spewed by 45 and his lackeys. While Kureishi’s original takedown of Thatcherite capitalism remains intact, he has simultaneously sharpened his focus on anti-immigrant hysteria – and on how women of color are especially victimized by a politics of race hatred (the uncle’s mistress is now a woman of color rather than a white woman, which helps drive this home).

Incidentally, Curve is making this stream available in the same month in which playwright Ayad Akhtar has published his hard-hitting Homeland Elegies, a novel exploring similar tensions between race, class, and gender involving Pakistani immigrants here in the United States (Akhtar was raised in Wisconsin, which plays a large role in the novel). Akhtar will discuss his new novel with Milwaukee Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements, in a virtual event being sponsored by Milwaukee’s consistently wonderful Boswell Books. The event will be held on September 22 at 7 pm; you can register at Boswell’s website: REGISTER

5. The Twenty-First Century: First Kiss (Romantics Anonymous; Wise Children):

Romantics Anonymous

Have you seen a live onstage kiss in the past six months? Or live onstage singing? I didn’t think so. But you can once again do so starting next Tuesday, when creator and director Emma Rice’s Wise Children theater company (introduced in my final selection to Volume 6) brings us a remount of Romantics Anonymous. A musical comedy adaptation of the 2010 French film “Les émotifs anonymes,” it was a huge hit when it debuted in 2017.

It’s the story of two shy chocolate makers who overcome parental inhibition and a few of their own, finding an original recipe for sweetness by learning to take risks. In her 2017 review in The Guardian, Lyn Gardner wrote that “nobody presents sexual desire and the transformative joy of love on stage quite as well or with such febrile intensity” as Rice.

Rice’s cast, which has been in a quarantine bubble throughout the rehearsal process, will give five live performances (without social distancing!) from the stage of the Bristol Old Vic between September 22-26. Proceeds from each performance will be split between Wise Children and sponsoring theater companies around the world, including Chicago Shakespeare Theater. (There’ll also be a final live performance before a socially distanced audience in Britain).

Like Rice (a onetime Artistic Director at London’s Globe), Chicago Shakespeare has a well-established reputation for championing new, frequently gender-bending work. Under Barbara Gaines’ inspired leadership, Chicago Shakes has long practiced what this edition of the picks preaches: we best honor the past by simultaneously embracing the future – itself one big subsequent performance, through which we try to make sense of all we’ve been and might yet be when we play on together. Let the show(s) begin.

References (in order of mention):

* Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s 2020-21 Season:

* The Decameron Opera Project:

* Jonathan Miller, Subsequent Performances (Viking Penguin, 1986)

* William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (featuring Diana Rigg):

* William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night (Milwaukee Repertory Theater):

* Jonathan Miller, discussing his production of The Merchant of Venice:

* William Shakespeare, Richard II (Globe Theatre/Swinging the Lens):

* Thomas Middleton, The Revenger’s Tragedy (Red Bull Theater Company) (registration):

* Tanya Pollard, Playing with the Dead in The Revenger’s Tragedy (Red Bull program note):

* Lolita Chakrabarti, Red Velvet (Bloomsbury/Methuen, 2012)

* Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (Lifeline Theatre Company):

* Hanif Kureishi, My Beautiful Laundrette (Curve Theatre):

* Ayad Akhtar, Homeland Elegies (Little Brown, 2020)

* Ayad Akhtar and Mark Clements in Conversation (Boswell Books) (registration):

* Emma Rice, Romantics Anonymous (Wise Children, Chicago Shakespeare Theater):