Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 20

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.



Perhaps it’s because of the plummeting temperatures and falling leaves. Or the similarly autumnal psyche of our battered and troubled republic. It might have been triggered by the hauntingly beautiful novel I’ve been reading: Madison-based Amy Quan Barry’s She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, in which a character embodies Vietnam by giving voice to the dead (I’ve previously introduced the fabulous Barry, in Volume 6). Or maybe it’s a recently read play that just won’t leave me: Samuel D. Hunter’s poetic evocation in Greater Clements of how our collective past shapes our present (Forward will be staging two of Hunter’s plays this season).

In any event, my online theater viewing as well as much of my thinking during the past week have revolved around all we’ve lost and stand to lose – and how little time we take to engage the biggest questions involving who we are and where we’re going. That’s even proven true during this pandemic, as early calls for a “pause” and a “reset” have frequently devolved into business as usual, with the busy nothings of our blueprint lives – the striving and the shouting, the anger and the anxiety – gradually reasserting themselves.

As Mike’s Picks turns 20 – and as I pass along my 100th pick since I first wrote you in May – I want to swim against this remorselessly rushing current; as has been true for most of my life, I turn to theater to show me how. “The world of a play,” wrote Tennessee Williams in 1951, allows us “to view its characters under that special condition of a world without time.” Williams believed that theater fosters empathy by allowing us, however briefly, to enter the “created world of a play,” which “is removed from that element which makes people little and their emotions fairly inconsequential.”

There is nothing little about the people you’ll meet in this week’s picks; each of them is big enough to wrestle with daunting, existential questions of the sort none of us ask ourselves often enough. I’d like to think they’ll help remind you what a piece of work each of us is. How noble in reason and infinite in faculty, admirable in form and capable of being angelic in action.

At our best, we truly are the “beauty of the world” that Hamlet talked about – the “goodly creatures” described by Miranda in seeing the world as “brave” and “new” (see pick 5, below). At their best, this week’s picks remind us that even as we endure and then chronicle how we’ve failed and all we’ve lost, what we thereby learn of our ourselves and our world can make both better. As Barry’s novel demonstrates, it is through dying that we can be reborn so that we might move forward.

I’d love to hear how autumn is treating you. Feel free to share your reactions to these thoughts and my picks (or to offer recommendations of your own!) by emailing me 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, from Stan’s Cafe Theatre, here’s the two-minute Episode 11 from their ambitious 35-episode adaptation of Robert Burton’s stupendous 400-year-old The Anatomy of Melancholy (the production really takes off beginning with Episode 8). Episode 11 is as good as any modern screed on the narcissistic impulse driving so much social media: WATCH

Second, here’s Laurie Anderson, in a 2001 performance of her homage to Walter Benjamin’s profound meditation on the past, in which Benjamin dared to hope that a remembrance of all we’ve lost might inspire us to dream a better future: WATCH

Finally, here’s two David Bowie performances of Space Oddity: an almost fey take upon its 1969 release and a much darker version from 1972. The rhythmic and tonal distance between the two not only captures the ambiguities intrinsic to Bowie’s song (and Bowie himself), but also serves as a microcosm of life before and after the watershed moment of March 2020:

* Original Space Oddity Video (1969): WATCH

* Later Space Oddity Video (1972): WATCH

Selections for Volume 20 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):

1. Ghost Light (In a Nutshell; Ben Duke and Lost Dog): “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space,” Hamlet responds to Rosencrantz, “were it not that I have bad dreams.” For more than six months, that worst of dreams known as Covid-19 has stymied our ability to imagine our world from the vantage point of a theater seat; the longer our theaters stay closed, the more we realize how much we took that priceless nutshell for granted.

In a Nutshell

Writing a post card from the future, performer and choreographer Ben Duke’s 16-minute film tries to explain to an unseen audience what the experience of theater was like – from the casual touch of adjoining seatmates to the stifled sobs of a grandmother four rows back, watching that horrific scene in The Trojan Women when Talthybius brings Hecuba the body of her dead grandchild, after he’s been hurled from Troy’s crumbling walls.

What was it like to willingly suspend disbelief while watching scenes like this, created by actors so close that we could nearly touch them? Why did we bother to go, when we could have just streamed something else from home and thereby avoided the hassle of getting somewhere by an appointed time? What have we lost, when we’re no longer a captive audience but can instead hit pause – leaving an actor like Duke to wonder, as he speaks into a camera and looks into the void, whether anyone is even there, watching and listening?

Haltingly searching for words to describe what theater once was – while deliberately exploiting the pitfalls of a medium like film as he stumbles forward – Duke briefly vanquishes the distance that divides us. Even as he takes the measure of all we’ve lost.

2. Ground Control to Major Tom (Nightnight from Playwrights Horizons; The Dark Side of the Moon; from Original Theatre Company): To steal from Bowie, “sitting in a tin can far above the world” approximates what many of us have felt like during this pandemic; we float in isolation, wondering if we’ll ever make it back to the world we’ve left behind. Much like Bowie’s Space Oddity – which takes on new meaning in this moment – the pandemic lends special resonance to the two space-related pieces included in this pick.


When he was still relatively unknown, Lucas Hnath made a splash at the prestigious 2014 Humana Festival of New American Plays with Nightnight, a one-act play about a space mission that goes awry because of the conflicted loyalties and competing ambitions dividing the three astronauts aboard. Two of them are men; one of them is Russian. Who in this context does one trust? And what happens when nationalism conflicts with sexism?

This one has stuck with me since listening to it in late May; it was among the standouts in the first season of Soundscapes, the series of free audio plays from Playwrights Horizons released during the first months of the pandemic and mentioned in a Volume 2 pick featuring the phenomenal Heather Christian. Her piece and Nightnight make an excellent diptych; each offers a meditation on the choices we confront in moments like this one.

The Dark Side of the Moon

For purposes of this pick, however, I’ve paired Nightnight with a new play being released tomorrow by Britain’s Original Theatre Company: Torben Betts’ look back at the aborted Apollo 13 mission, on its 50th anniversary. Original Theatre promises a timely exploration of “the outer limits of faith, hope and the power of the human spirit.” After watching a compelling trailer, you can strap in and lift off for roughly $23 in American currency; a few more dollars will net you a souvenir program. The Dark Side of the Moon runs through December 31.

3. Rocky Mountain High (I Wish I Was a Mountain; Theatre Royal Bath): Herman Hesse wrote Faldum – his classic fairy tale about how we degrade our humanity when we’re consumed by our needs – in 1916, during the middle of a bloody war that was all about money, and that was as much of a watershed as is 2020. In Hesse’s tale, the townspeople of Faldum are each granted one wish; predictably short-sighted, they wish for wealth and fame – altering the circumstances of their lives without ever truly changing themselves. In all of Faldum, there are only two exceptions; one of them chooses to be a mountain, so that he might live free of the wants and needs that remind his fellow townspeople each day how much they lack, thereby leaching joy from life.

I Wish I Was a Mountain

As adapted and performed by poet Toby Thompson in a 40-minute piece designed for young people ages seven and up, Hesse’s cautionary tale loses its harsh edges, becoming playful and musical (both recorded and performed) as well as philosophical. Without ever hitting the nail too hard, Thompson asks whether we’ve lost sight of what’s important: friendship and music, love and understanding, freedom from one’s endless wants and the potential happiness that results. Thompson taps our inner child, allowing us to breathe crisp and clean mountain air – while once again hearing the twangling instruments of a music suggesting that we might remain forever young, if we’d only bother to look up and see the sky. An archival film of a 2018 performance in Bath, I Wish I Was a Mountain is streaming for free.

4. I Tweet, Therefore I Am (User Not Found; Dante or Die): Terry learns that Luka, his onetime partner, is dead. He’s been appointed executor of Luka’s online assets: all those tweets and posts through which we sculpt the personae pretending to tell the world who we are.

But can our social media accounts ever really capture or define us? What happens when this trove of information contradicts or flat-out ignores our most intimate memories? Are we the sum of what we keep and record? Or are we best understood by all that we live offline and eventually let go? Has social media changed the way we grieve? What can death teach us about life?

User Not Found

These are among the many heady questions given poignant expression in this tender and beautiful hour-long monologue by Chris Goode, first staged in Britain two years ago and then again in Brooklyn last fall. Now reimagined as a video podcast, it’s performed (as were the live productions) by the incredible Terry O’Donovan. Streaming for free, User Not Found captures how alone we always already were together, long before the pandemic drove home how isolated we often are, even when – perhaps especially when – our loved ones are ostensibly only a click away. If you were a fan of Forward’s 2018 production (and/or liked the film version) of Marjorie Prime, this one is for you.

5. Fantasy Island (The Tempest, Stratford Festival): Among the many Shakespeare productions I’ve watched during the pandemic, none has more fully captured our current moment – or better accords with the reflective tone of this week’s column – than the 2018 Stratford Festival production of The Tempest, starring the legendary Martha Henry, then 80, as Prospero.

The Tempest

“Henry was ironic and wry about the foibles of a humanity which has long ceased to surprise her,” I wrote in my theater journal two summers ago, of what I described as “the gentlest Prospero I can recall.” Watching her performance again this weekend (it can be streamed for $10), I stand by that assessment.

But Henry’s great performance hit me even harder this time. As Stephen Greenblatt points out in one of several free-to-watch Tempest-related conversations that Stratford has posted, Shakespeare’s late play is about how we move forward after our lives have been shipwrecked, leaving us on an isolated island confronting all we’ve lost.

As Henry’s Prospero makes clear, part of what so many of us had lost – amidst blithe pre-pandemic illusions of control and all we’d once taken for granted – is our full humanity, particularly toward those many others who make our daily existence possible. Watching Henry’s Prospero rediscover who and what is truly important in life offers a way forward, toward forgiveness. As Prospero tells us when seeking such forgiveness in the play’s last lines, all-encompassing mercy can “free all faults,” allowing us the priceless opportunity to start over and make something better as we play on into our uncertain future.

References (in order of mention):

* Amy Quan Barry, She Weeps Each Time You’re Born (Vintage, 2014)

* Samuel D. Clements, Greater Clements (2019; rept. American Theatre Magazine, 37:4, 2020)

* Tennessee Williams, The Timeless World of a Play (1951) (rept. Tennessee Williams Plays, 1937-1955, Library of America, 2000)

* Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (a selection, as adapted by Stan’s Cafe Theatre):

Laurie Anderson, Progress (a.k.a. The Dream Before):

* David Bowie, Space Oddity (1969):

* David Bowie, Space Oddity (1972):

* Ben Duke, In a Nutshell (The Place; Lost Dog):

*Lucas Hnath, Nightnight (Playwrights Horizons):

* Heather Christian, Prime: A Practical Breviary (Playwrights Horizons):

* Torben Betts, Apollo 13: The Dark Side of the Moon (Original Theatre Company; trailer and ticketing):

* Toby Thompson, I Wish I Was a Mountain (Theatre Royal Bath):

* Chris Goode, User Not Found (Dante or Die):

* William Shakespeare, The Tempest (Stratford Festival, 2018):

* Stephen Greenblatt and Antoni Cimolino Discuss The Tempest (Stratford Festival):