Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 21
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 1 | VOLUME 2 | VOLUME 3 | VOLUME 4 | VOLUME 5 | VOLUME 6 | VOLUME 7 | VOLUME 8 | VOLUME 9 | VOLUME 10
VOLUME 11 | VOLUME 12 | VOLUME 13 | VOLUME 14 | VOLUME 15 | VOLUME 16 | VOLUME 17 | VOLUME 18 | VOLUME 19 | VOLUME 20
VOLUME 21: OCTOBER 14, 2020: AMERICAN DYSTOPIA
528 years ago this week, an Italian adventurer crashed ashore in the Bahamas, where the native Arawaks greeted him and his men with food, water, and gifts. They were “so naive and free with their possessions,” Christopher Columbus reported, “that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone.” Columbus, who’d been promised 10 percent of the profits of this expedition, responded by taking some of the Arawaks prisoner, “in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.”
And so it’s ever been, for more than half a millennia during which utopian dreams of a new beginning have consistently unraveled, undone by greed and racism and so much more than I have space to recount here. America long ago forfeited the promise of a new Eden; instead we paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
Appropriately enough for the month that gives us Halloween, this week’s picks focus on the dystopia we’ve made. I might have directed you to more generically creepy fare, channeling primordial archetypes – the excellent Old Gods of Appalachia podcast, say, or Lifeline Theatre’s just-launched podcast, which is devoting October to Edgar Allan Poe.
But in a week that commemorates both Columbus’ genocidal invasion of America (October 12) and the release of the Spike Lee film capturing David Byrne’s inspiring and hopeful American Utopia (October 17), this week’s picks explore the double-sided nature of contemporary dystopia.
Yes: these picks are filled with images of hell on earth. But many of these picks are simultaneously and paradoxically hopeful: when read between the lines, they’re portraits of artists who envision the worst with the hope that it might spur us to do and be better. Picasso didn’t paint the horrors of Guernica to celebrate war. Writing during the same tumultuous decade, Sinclair Lewis most certainly didn’t unspool his fable of fascism in America as a piece of right-wing propaganda (see pick 3). History may indeed be a nightmare. But like many scary stories, it’s one from which our best artists fervently hope we might awake.
In his most political play, Tennessee Williams brought to life a parched hellscape of a town that captured American life during McCarthyism: conformist, intolerant, and violent. But the romantics in Williams’ Camino Real never surrender their dream of something better. Williams’ dystopia is, at the same time, an impassioned cri-de-coeur that invokes all of America’s promise. In the play’s famous final image, redemptive violets don’t just bloom. They’re also strong enough to break rocks.
It may seem as though we’re living through an endless night of the long knives. But it truly is darkest just before dawn; staring into the abyss can remind us that we’re so much better than what we see there. As the reliably wise Marilynne Robinson suggests in a beautiful piece in this past Sunday’s New York Times, life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness are always worth fighting for. Confronting all the ways we’ve collectively failed to achieve them isn’t cause for despair. It’s a call to action. And a reminder that no matter how scary the stories are, we can still come in out of the dark, to light and warmth. We can still come home.
I’d love to hear about the plays going bump in your night. You can reach me via email through Forward at email@example.com or directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. As always, both “theater” and “Fischer” are spelled with an er. And as always, I promise to write back.
* First, as an amuse-bouche for Anne Washburn’s play (see pick 2 below), here’s the official trailer for The Comey Rule, featuring Jeff Daniels as the beleaguered FBI leader (Brendan Gleeson plays Trump): WATCH
* Second, here’s the official trailer for the filmed version of Heidi Schreck’s Tony-nominated What the Constitution Means to Me, which was among my viewing highlights last year: WATCH
* Third, here’s the official trailer for the above-mentioned American Utopia, which is being released at 7 pm CDT this Saturday: WATCH
* Finally, even as Broadway was announcing it would now stay closed through May, a star-studded ensemble that included Kate Baldwin, Gavin Creel, Brandon Victor Dixon, Norm Lewis, Kelli O’Hara and Bernadette Peters gathered in Time Square last week to sing an inclusive version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday, in an arrangement by James Sampliner, Billy Porter and Broadway Inspirational Voices founder Michael McElroy: WATCH
Selections for Volume 21 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. The Only Thing We Have to Fear . . . (Far Away, PTP/NYC):
Nature at war with humans and itself, in a time when light and gravity have become weapons. Caged, beaten, and dying children. A world where even work serves death. A fear-mongering government. As is so often the case with the brilliant Caryl Churchill, what once read as dystopian fantasy now feels prophetic; Churchill’s hour-long Far Away is 20 years old but so much younger now.
Churchill is the greatest living British playwright. Far Away – in which she again implodes any line separating naturalism from surrealism – is one of many plays demonstrating how and why. Longtime Guardian critic Michael Billington included Far Away among his list of top five dystopian plays. So would I.
The Potomac Theatre Project – now based in Vermont, with a name reflecting its Maryland origins as well as an abbreviated name reflecting its annual New York residency – will conclude this year’s four play-season with a virtual presentation of Churchill’s play; it runs from tomorrow at 6:30 CDT through this Sunday, October 18, at 10:59 CDT. While streaming is free, donations are encouraged; ten percent of any donation will benefit the National Black Theatre, the oldest continuously operated Black theater in New York City.
2. Radical Chic (Shipwreck; Public Theater):
Speaking of Churchill: In a review of her play Top Girls two years ago, I suggested that among the reasons Trump won four years ago is because Democrats remain “spectacularly tone-deaf” regarding issues of class. I’ll stand by that assessment, and I’d get plenty of back-up from Anne Washburn, as evidenced by her play Shipwreck, in which kvetching, one-percent liberals gather in a restored farmhouse in upstate New York six months after the 2016 election.
In trying to grasp how the hell Trump won, they ultimately expose how glib they can be about the country they claim to love – and how clueless they are about the vast majority of people calling it home. In addition to its exploration of Comey v. Trump, Washburn’s bitterly comic send-up of the chattering class takes on race, religion, family, and the nightmarish fallout of the American experiment. It’s sprawling and ambitious; one would expect no less from the gifted playwright who treated Forward audiences to Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play in the same year that Trump was elected.
After opening at the Almeida last year in London, Shipwreck had its stateside debut in February at Washington’s Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company, in a co-production with the Public that was supposed to play New York this past spring. It’s now been repurposed as a radio play by Saheem Ali, who directed the Wooly production and also did an excellent job adapting Richard II as a radio play for the Public this past summer (see Volume 10).
The cast of Shipwreck includes Joe Morton as Comey and Bill Camp as Trump; it also features Raúl Esparza. Like the Public’s Richard II, its production of Washburn’s play will be presented as a four-part podcast, streaming for free beginning tomorrow at 11:00 am, CDT.
3. The Plot Against America (It Can’t Happen Here, Berkeley Rep):
Two years after Hitler’s resistible rise to power, Sinclair Lewis wrote a novel featuring U.S. presidential candidate Buzz Windrip, whom Lewis described as “vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic.” Lewis’ novel is prophetic in everything but its title: It Can’t Happen Here. Shortly before it did happen here, four years ago this November, Berkeley Rep staged the world premiere of Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen’s adaptation of Lewis’ novel, directed by Lisa Peterson (I discussed Peterson’s currently running meditation on the parallels between the fall of Rome’s republic and the decline of our own in Volume 18).
Just in time for the 2020 election, Berkeley has repurposed its 2016 premiere as a four-part radio play, in a production that’s being co-sponsored by more than 100 theaters across the United States (including Forward). As in 2016, the nefarious Windrip will be played by David Kelly; Oscar nominee David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) plays his liberal nemesis (a journalist, naturally!). Greta Oglesby, whose illustrious career includes memorable performances at Milwaukee Rep as well as American Players Theatre, is also in the cast. Debuting October 13 at 7 pm CDT, it can be heard on demand for free through November 8.
Berkeley Rep, incidentally, has announced an exciting 2021 season (because of the pandemic, the dates of all shows are TBD). It includes Lauren Yee’s alternately poignant and harrowing Cambodian Rock Band; Dave Malloy’s gorgeous a cappella lament regarding how social media is hollowing out our lives (Octet); two world premiere musicals (with books by Jocelyn Bioh and John Logan, respectively); plays by Charles L. Mee and Pulitzer-Prize winning Martyna Majok; and a world premiere co-production with Goodman Theatre of Christina Anderson’s meditation on justice and forgiveness, in the context of the struggle for civil rights in 1960s Kansas.
4. Is Anybody Out There? (Human Resources; Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company and Telephonic Literary Union):
Telephones used to bring us together. These days they’re apt to reinforce how isolated we feel, as we wrestle with convoluted automated systems offering empty choices. Reach out all you want, but you’re unlikely to actually ever touch someone.
In the hands of the Telephonic Literary Union – a collective of theater artists based in New York City – our experience of phone hell has become Human Resources, an audio play in which one dials a prescribed number on one’s phone, using a personal access code (good for four days, at a cost of $7) to tap a Human Resources support line phone tree. One presses one if experiencing unhappiness, two if one wants to rearrange one’s consciousness, and so on.
These branches of the phone tree again subdivide. Your ensuing choices might lead you to a Wendell Berry poem or a Toni Morrison interview, a sinister conversation that you just happen to overhear or advice on how to address foggy glasses while wearing a mask. There’s also discussion of Americans’ financial distress and of our fraught race relations, our addiction to an Amazon that bullies its workers, and how hard it is to be separated from loved ones. And if you’re persistent and patient, you’ll eventually be rewarded with a text offering the “super secret happiness access code.”
Much of the text is written by playwrights Brittany K. Allen, Christopher Chen, and Hansol Jung; musical storyteller Zeniba Now adds alternately annoying and heartbreaking music – seemingly upbeat in that grating call-center way, but ultimately communicating something much closer to despair.
After spending a few hours enmeshed in this production’s tangled and dangling lines, my own mood grew increasingly reflective, as I listened to selections driving home how lonely modern life can be. How much we need one another. And how very much the actual actors one encounters (through their recorded voices) truly miss us, their audience. I wish I’d been able to tell them in person that the feeling is mutual.
5. Animal Farm (Run the Beast Down; Strawdog Theatre):
Charlie has lost his job. His girlfriend has left him. He can’t sleep. And feral foxes are stalking the streets, while civil unrest dominates a London falling down. Welcome to Titas Halder’s gripping – and flat-out terrifying – portrait of an isolated man coming unglued, in a city where humans are just one of many animals competing for increasingly scarce resources.
Performed by an outstanding Gage Wallace under Elly Green’s direction, Strawdog’s harrowing theater-film hybrid of Halder’s 75-minute play – streaming through October 25 on a pay-what-you-can basis – is as true as anything I’ve seen during this pandemic to the way we live now: isolated and afraid, angry and often mean, trying to survive while simultaneously forgetting how to live. Beautifully written and disturbingly violent, Halder’s piece tracks what happens when civil order collapses while the animal in all of us slips its lease, turning its bewildered fury and fear on a world it never made and no longer understands.
I am writing about Charlie’s inchoate resentment just days after learning that right-wing militias who did some of their training in Wisconsin were planning to assassinate the governor in my native state of Michigan. The nattering nobs featured in a play like Shipwreck will never understand how and why desperate men might walk down that road, in Michigan and all over the world, as frightening and viral right-wing populism continues its rise from Britain to Brazil and from Russia to the United States. But while he never condones their behavior, Halder heeds their howls of anguish and tries to understand their pain. So should the rest of us, before it’s too late.
References (in order of mention):
* Cam Collins and Steve Shell, Old Gods of Appalachia:
* Edgar Allan Poe, Tales of Poe (Lifeline Theatre):
* Tennessee Williams, Camino Real (1953), (rept. Tennessee Williams Plays, 1937-1955, Library of America, 2000)
* Marilynne Robinson, What Does it Mean to Love a Country? (The New York Times):
* Billy Ray, The Comey Rule (Showtime trailer):
* Heidi Schreck, What the Constitution Means to Me (Amazon trailer):
* David Byrne, American Utopia (HBO)
* Stephen Sondheim, Sunday (NYCNext):
* Caryl Churchill, Far Away (Potomac Theatre Project):
* Anne Washburn, Shipwreck (Public Theater) (registration and audio trailer):
* Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here (as adapted by Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen) (Berkeley Rep):
* Berkeley Rep, 2021 Season:
* Telephonic Literary Union, with Brittany K. Allen, Christopher Chen, Hansol Jung, and Zeniba Now, Human Resources (Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company):
* Titas Halder, Run the Beast Down (Strawdog Theatre Company):