Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 19

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.

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VOLUME 19: SEPTEMBER 30, 2020: FAMILY MATTERS

“In these trying times we live in,” says Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, “all that we have to cling to – is each other.” Amanda is speaking about family; one of the many reasons Tennessee Williams’ play is rightly considered among America’s best is because here and elsewhere, Amanda is both right and spectacularly wrong, a heroine and a figure of ridicule.

Family can’t possibly be and fulfill all that Amanda invests in it. But it’s also true, as Amanda recognizes, that family often offers a haven in a heartless world. All that family can be – as well as the many ways in which we ask far too much of it – has been driven home anew by this tumultuous year, in which most of us have necessarily spent so much more time at home.

In light of tomorrow’s submissions deadline for Forward’s 2021 monologue festival – which will focus on stories of home – this week’s picks explore why family matters, and why matters involving family can be challenging as well as rewarding, constricting as well as replenishing. In Williams’ words, “how beautiful it is, and how easily it can be broken.”

I’d love to hear about the family plays, among my picks or just generally, that most resonate with you. You can reach me via email through Forward at info@forwardtheater.com or directly at mjfischer1985@gmail.com. As always, both “theater” and “Fischer” are spelled with an er. And as always, I promise to write back.

Bonus Selections:

First, from Playbill, here’s a short piece (and fun promo video) for tomorrow night’s star-studded, must-see ¡Viva Broadway! Hear Our Voices, a concert extravaganza celebrating Latinx History Month. Yes, Lin-Manuel will be there. And so will Forward Advisory Company member Karen Olivo, as part of a live reunion of the original cast of In the Heights. If you can’t watch tomorrow, the program will remain available through 7 pm CDT next Monday, October 5: PREVIEW

Speaking of Lin-Manuel, here’s an ensemble of actors from various productions of Hamilton – and a cameo from Miranda himself – singing When We All Vote, a medley of tweaked Hamilton lyrics urging us all to do the right thing on or before November 3: WATCH

Finally, in celebration of its release today, here’s the Netflix trailer for the new filmed version of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band; the film reunites the entire cast of the 2018 Tony-winning revival, directed (as is the film) by Joe Mantello: WATCH

Selections for Volume 19 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):


1. The Family Under Siege (The Humans; Olney Theatre Center):

The Humans

In the program for Forward Theater’s 2013 production of Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet, Forward Artistic Director Jennifer Uphoff Gray skipped the customary director’s notes while offering two quotes from Chekhov, suggesting that because suffering is unavoidable and attempts to make sense of it probably doomed, we need each other more than ever.

That goes double for Karam’s masterpiece, The Humans; it’s a play I’ve dearly loved since seeing the world premiere production in Chicago six years ago. Under Madison native and frequent Wisconsin director Aaron Posner’s guiding hand, it’s currently streaming in a Zoom production from Maryland’s Olney Theatre Center, with a cast that had been in rehearsal for a planned spring production when theaters closed in March. Tickets are $35; it streams through Sunday.

Karam’s nearly two-hour, intermission-free play takes place on Thanksgiving Day, as the Scranton-based Blake family gathers in daughter Bridget’s garden apartment in New York City’s Chinatown. Dad means it when telling a mother afflicted with dementia as well as his wife, two daughters, and one of those daughters’ partners that family is what matters. But is it enough?

The Blakes clearly love each other, but they’re also living in a world of lost jobs, declining opportunities, inadequate healthcare and social services, and largely unacknowledged resentment, as prisoners of an American Dream that had promised so much more. Think Death of a Salesman, the 21st-century version. And just as devastating.

The reliably excellent Posner’s slow-burn direction is as good as you’d expect; the cast takes its time with Karam’s long dramatic arc and therefore sounds the silence between the lines. Having been spoiled by Forward’s innovative “staging” of The Lifespan of a Fact, I was less taken with the Olney’s Zoom-based design. That said, those confining boxes drive home how isolated we now are, even from those we want to hug most.


2. Interrogating Shakespeare (Othello; Red Bull Theater):

Othello

A world riven by hate frequently unravels families in Shakespeare; it’s Othello that most fully explores how mythologies of race aid and abet that destruction. Throughout October, New York’s Red Bull Theater has scheduled what collectively amounts to a festival of events taking a hard look at this troubling play.

When I wrote you about Red Bull two weeks ago in Volume 17, it had already announced a live reading on October 19 of Keene (a new play by Anchuli Felicia King about racism in academic Shakespeare conferences) and an October 5 podcast featuring Tony nominee Patrick Page talking about Iago’s chilling “I hate the Moor” speech from Act I of Othello.

Red Bull has now added an October 12 reading of Keith Hamilton Cobb’s American Moor, in which an actor channels his experience as a Black man in America while auditioning for the part of Othello before a white director; Cobb plays the lead, before appearing for an ensuing online conversation on October 15.

Finally, as the jewel in this October crown, Red Bull has also added a four-part event – unfolding over four successive Wednesday afternoons beginning on October 7 – during which a group of BIPOC actors (including King, Cobb, and Jessika D. Williams, herself fresh from a production of Othello in which she herself played the Moor) will read and discuss Othello alongside Shakespeare scholar Ayanna Thompson. You can find dates, times, and registration information for each event (all free) at the Othello 2020 page on Red Bull’s website.


3. Sophocles Finds His Funny Bone (Sophocles in Staten Island; Ma-Yi Theater Company):

Sophocles in Staten Island

Nobody understands family psychology quite so well – or conveys families’ frequent implosions quite so memorably – as the Greek tragedians. More’s the pity that so many of their plays are forever lost – and that those which survive often get lost in translation.

All the more reason to celebrate the Ma-Yi Theater Company’s 33-minute Sophocles in Staten Island (streaming for free), in which actor Ron Domingo and his family (as well as quite a few stuffed animals) offer an ingenious and fresh take on Oedipus Rex and Antigone. It’s not only funny – a word rarely associated with Sophocles. It also simultaneously manages to capture much of what these plays are actually about.

The conceit: Domingo wants to make short films of these two Sophocles plays in order to help his high school daughter study for the SAT exam; he’s hoping they’ll be the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. But Dad can be as overbearing in his approach as the tyrannical fathers (Oedipus and Creon) he plays – thereby setting the table for a metatheatrical commentary on what these plays might still say to us and about our family dynamics.

The ensuing disconnect between Domingo’s vision and his kids’ needs is played for laughs. But this piece is also remarkably insightful and moving about all a younger generation might teach us – regarding the relevance of a play about plague and a second play about protest – in a year marked by Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter. Sophocles in Staten Island filled me with surprised joy and genuine hope – for all that theater continues to give when we least expect it, and for all the young women embodying Antigone’s passionate belief in a just and fair world.


4. Let Them Eat Cake (Women Laughing Alone With Salad; The Constructivists):

Women Laughing Alone With Salad

Sheila Callaghan is probably best known as a writer and producer for Shameless, the long-running Showtime hit involving a poor and dysfunctional Chicago family struggling with some of the same class-based issues afflicting the Blakes in The Humans.

But she’s also a wildly innovative, take-no-prisoners playwright whose Women Laughing Alone With Salad will offer plenty of food for thought, as served up in this weekend’s virtual production by Jaimelyn Gray’s Milwaukee-based Constructivists, a young theater company with an appetite for thorny and topical plays that are rarely on the menu for Wisconsinites to consume.

My food metaphors are deliberate, living as we do in a society where Callaghan’s title is taken from an actual meme, reflecting the shaming that treats women and their bodies as feared objects rather than self-realizing subjects. Callaghan’s play makes clear that the control patriarchy exercises over women’s bodies – and the way women turn on each other as they internalize those controlling mechanisms – hurts women most.

But Callaghan simultaneously drives home that patriarchy ultimately harms everyone. It warps our sex lives by distorting our fantasies, making us afraid and ashamed of what we want. And it distorts our family lives, as one sees in the relationship between this play’s primary male character and his mother.

Tickets for Salad – a play that is not only razor sharp, but also wickedly funny – are pay-what-you-can. There will be four live performances between tonight and Saturday night; ticket purchasers will also be sent a link to a recorded version enabling viewing anytime between tonight and Sunday night.


5. The Living and the Dead (Eurydice; Allens Lane Theater and Philadelphia Fringe Festival):

Eurydice

Sarah Ruhl’s best play was born at the Madison Rep 17 years ago this month; it received an unforgettable production directed by Tyne Rafaeli at American Players Theatre in 2016.

The virtual filmed production being staged (yes, staged) by Allens Lane Theater as part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival – available for viewing through October 4 for $15 – can’t match that APT highlight. But I recommend this new production all the same, both for the beauty and wisdom baked into Ruhl’s gorgeous script and for the way Ruhl’s play registers during this pandemic year.

Dedicated to the father she’d lost when young, Eurydice urges us to never take our families, loved ones, or love itself for granted; viewed from eternity, the time we waste with them on petty squabbles while distracted by busy nothings is, as Orpheus eventually realizes, downright “silly.”

What’s not silly is what this play’s father says to his famous daughter: “You should love your family until the grapes grow dust on their purple faces.” For it’s through our families (bearing in mind how many relationships and even organizations this word can encompass) that we learn what Eurydice’s father means, when he implores his daughter to “continue to give yourself to others because that’s the ultimate satisfaction in life – to love, accept, honor and help others.” Or, to return to Tennessee Williams, from a 1947 letter: “In this world the key to happiness is giving, more than getting.”

A family, Ruhl’s play suggests, shouldn’t be a nuclear fortress that narrows horizons while shutting out the world. At its best, families fuel an explosive and expansive expression of love, so great that it can harrow hell and awaken the dead. They offer us the chance to begin new and better stories – and imagine more hopeful and inclusive endings.

References (in order of mention):

* ¡ Viva Broadway! Hear Our Voices (Playbill):
https://www.playbill.com/article/9-time-grammy-winner-ruben-blades-2-tim...

* Lin-Manuel Miranda (and others), When We All Vote:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMmkXAIRXCU

* Mart Crowley, The Boys in the Band (2020 film trailer):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=862Pb9oDDAo

* Stephen Karam, The Humans (Olney Theater Center):
https://www.olneytheatre.org/whats-playing/humans-streaming

* Othello 2020 (Red Bull Theater):
https://www.redbulltheater.com/othello-2020

* Michi Barall and Sung Rno, Sophocles in Staten Island (Ma-Yi Theater Company):
https://ma-yistudios.com/video/sophocles-in-staten-island/

* Sheila Callaghan, Women Laughing Alone With Salad (The Constructivists):
https://www.theconstructivists.org/productions/2020-21-season/women-laug...

* Sarah Ruhl, Eurydice (Allens Lane Theater/Philadelphia Fringe Festival):
https://fringearts.com/event/eurydice-by-sarah-ruhl/