Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 2
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 2: May 25, 2020
From decidedly different angles, each of this week’s five picks explores what it’s like to be a woman living in a man’s world. Trust me: I wasn’t aiming for such thematic coherence. But plays, like people, wind up talking to one another when thrown together; the result is richer conversation.
I hope these selections enrich your theater-related conversation. Feel free to include me in your dialogue by sharing your reactions and thoughts as well as any of your own streaming recommendations. You can reach me through Forward at firstname.lastname@example.org or directly at email@example.com.
Let’s get started by settling into our seats, thanks to this week’s bonus selection: an aerial tour of the Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis, accompanied by “We Look to You” from the Broadway musical, The Prom.
Bonus Selection: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oaOcTBH8uaA&feature=youtu.be
Selections for Volume Two (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. A Streetcar Named Desire (National Theatre/Young Vic): Each of the eight productions released by the National Theatre for free viewing during this pandemic has been special, but this Streetcar – directed by Benedict Andrews and starring Gillian Anderson as Blanche – is in a league of its own. Its abstract modern set and setting won’t appeal to purists, but that setting and some ferocious acting from Anderson, Ben Foster as Stanley and Vanessa Kirby as Stella drive home what’s at stake in one of the best plays by America’s greatest playwright.
Anderson traces as long an arc as any Blanche I’ve seen; she starts as one of strongest and ends as one of the most wrecked. And while Stanley delivers the final blows that bring her down, Foster nevertheless makes a play for our empathy, particularly in the early scenes, while he and Kirby together make sense of the Kowalski marriage. Calling to mind Ivo van Hove’s game-changing, Tony-winning production of Miller’s A View from the Bridge, this Streetcar strips bare the layers of melodramatic shellac and fussy period veneer that often keep us from seeing the play Williams actually wrote. Available until Thursday afternoon, May 28, and simply not to be missed.
2. School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play (Goodman Theatre): The title of Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls may suggest Tina Fey, but its initially broad comedy – set in Ghana in 1986 – takes a more serious turn as Bioh explores how racism and sexism pit women against each other. Think of it as a lighter variation on some of the themes explored in Lydia Diamond’s adaptation of The Bluest Eye or Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed. You’ll laugh, but this play also hurts.
As with the Milwaukee Rep production of Eclipsed, this Chicago production of School Girls was already on stage when the pandemic shut it down. While the show was still in previews when it was filmed and then closed, Goodman’s streaming version can hold its own with the production I saw in New York in late 2018. And the Chicago version includes a strong performance from onetime Milwaukee Rep company member Lanise Antoine Shelley. Already extended once, Goodman’s streaming version ($20) remains available until May 31.
3. To Master the Art (TimeLine Theatre): Many of us have been spending more time in the kitchen during this pandemic. That’s one of many reasons to watch To Master the Art, a smart and uplifting play tracing Julia Child’s transformation from cooking novice to master chef during her years in post-war Paris. Written by Doug Frew and frequent American Players Theatre director William Brown, To Master the Art also chronicles America’s post-war descent from internationalism into McCarthyism. Food, in this context, becomes means and metaphor for breaking through the boundaries that divide us to see all we share. Frew and Brown even extend this healing message to the Red State/Blue State divide (I’ll give you a hint: barbecue).
Featuring a standout performance from acclaimed Chicago-based actor Karen Janes Woditsch – who has not only performed in Broadway’s Harry Potter extravaganza but has also logged nine seasons with Wisconsin’s Peninsula Players – To Master the Art was a huge hit during its two Chicago runs, and with good reason. I’m happy to report that the quality of TimeLine’s recording is quite good; I also guarantee that after watching this production, a scrambled egg will never be the same – even for the most gifted culinary artistes among you.
To Master the Art runs through June 6; once you’ve purchased a ticket (for $15 or $25, depending on what you can afford), you have a full week to watch the show. And if you’re feeling really inspired, both volumes of Child’s masterpiece about French cooking remain in print.
4. Ghost Quartet, by Dave Malloy: When the Drama Desk Awards ceremony streams live at 6:30 CDT on May 31 from New York, the prodigiously talented Dave Malloy’s Octet will be up for eight awards, including Best Musical (its New York production was the best musical I saw anywhere in 2019). And when Chicago’s non-Equity Jeff Award ceremony is streamed live at 7 CDT on June 8, Malloy’s Ghost Quartet – which received an excellent production in the Windy City last year, courtesy of Black Button Eyes Production – will be up for six awards, again including Best Musical.
Best known for his fabulous Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 (12 Tony nominations in 2017), Malloy’s work has received little attention in Wisconsin – an additional reason to mourn the loss of a joint production by All In Productions and Milwaukee Opera Theatre of Malloy’s Preludes, which was in rehearsal when the pandemic shut it down.
But thanks to Malloy – who has now voluntarily placed a complete 2015 performance of Ghost Quartet online for free viewing – you can experience the mesmerizing power of one of the most exciting new voices in musical theater since Sondheim (yeah, I just went there).
A song cycle which explores the power of ghosts – and all we lose as we grow into blueprint, gadget-obsessed lives and a diminished sense of the possible – Malloy takes us to 14th-century Persia, 17th-century Germany and Japan, 19th-century England, 20th-century Sarajevo and today’s New York City through an equally wide range of musical influences ranging from Celtic folk to Thelonious Monk. I’d loved it last year in Chicago; watching it in the context of the pandemic makes it even more moving and relevant. It drives home the power of story, while reminding us, as the brilliant Hilary Mantel writes in Wolf Hall, that “it’s the living that turn and chase the dead.”
5. Prime: A Practical Breviary (Playwrights Horizons): Two weeks to the day after theaters went dark, I’d planned on being in New York City’s Greenwich House Theater for Ars Nova’s world premiere production of Heather Christian’s Oratorio for Living Things, billed as a “classical oratorio with blues, gospel, jazz, and soul set against the vast scope of cosmic time” and offering “a reflection on the mystery of human experience.”
As with Malloy, Christian goes deep, connecting us with the subterranean ghosts in the machine through which we learn who we are. Christian talks about this netherworld in a PBS profile featuring her piece Animal Wisdom: a musical séance in which she channels the mysterious voices we’ve forgotten how to hear.
How appropriate, then, that Prime – Christian’s gorgeous ten-song cycle exploring our daily emergence from night into a new dawn – kicks off Soundscapes, a first-rate audio series from Playwrights Horizons featuring theater for the ears; a new piece drops every other Thursday. And it’s free.
I’ve enjoyed all four of the initial offerings, but it’s Prime to which I continually return and which I can’t get out of my head. While composed before this pandemic, Christian’s meditation offers an inspiring antidote to the fear and depression the pandemic has fostered.
Christian acknowledges the looming darkness and death, biding its time on the edge of town. “I’m not going to lie,” she tells us in the final song, “and tell you it will be OK.” “But if we can get through today,” she continues, “it just might.”
Which is a fitting message with which to leave you until next week. Stay safe. Watch (and listen to!) theater. And dream of the day when we can again be together in one – in cities like Madison and Milwaukee, New York and Chicago, London and Los Angeles – forging impromptu communities, every night.
References (in order of mention):
* “Only Intermission” (Fabulous Fox Theatre, St. Louis): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oaOcTBH8uaA&feature=youtu.be
Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire (National Theatre): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJEpYaD3yTw
*Jocelyn Bioh, School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play (Goodman Theatre): https://www.goodmantheatre.org/
* Doug Frew and William Brown, To Master the Art (TimeLine Theatre): https://timelinetheatre.com/events/to-master-the-art-remote/
* Julia Child, with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Knopf 1961, 1970)
* Drama Desk Awards Live Stream on May 31: https://www.dramadeskawards.com/.
* Jeff Awards Live Stream on June 8: https://www.jeffawards.org/
* Dave Malloy, Ghost Quartet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJSaEJm8pCE
* Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (Henry Holt, 2009)
* Profile of Heather Christian and Animal Wisdom: https://www.pbs.org/video/house-seats-animal-wisdom-todp4e/
* Heather Christian, Prime: A Practical Breviary: https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/watch-listen/soundstage/soundstage-e...