Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 22

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


VOLUME 22: OCTOBER 21, 2020: THIS IS OUR YOUTH

There are many reasons to feel inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests this summer; chief among them for me is that young people led so many of them. Similarly, it’s largely younger voices within the theater community that are currently challenging a comparatively old, white, and male establishment to change how it does business. I’ve seen nothing like it in my lifetime.

Yes: our current presidential election may be dominated by two white and male septuagenarians. But the passionate and smart voices of this nation’s young augur a bright future, led by a generation rightly and impatiently recognizing that its time is now – and that hatred and division have no place in an America that professes to believe all of us are created equal, with an equally inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

So before turning my focus to the elections in next week’s picks, I’m spending this week looking at the generations to come – and, specifically, on how they’re shaped and distorted by the past, even as they simultaneously subvert and overcome that past while fighting for a better future. “The old world is dying,” wrote Antonio Gramsci a century ago, in his prophetic Prison Notebooks. “The new world struggles to be born,” he continued. “In this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

We see such morbidity through the intergenerational battles chronicled in the selections below. But we also see glimmers of hope, from young people chafing against their shackles and fighting to be free so that they might start afresh rather than repeating the distorting mistakes made by their parents and mentors.

Each of this week’s five picks involves a classic play written by a dead white man. That’s deliberate; the form of this week’s picks is designed to follow and reflect its content, involving struggles between old and new – or, in this case, old plays being radically remade by new interpretations and new casts. This week’s picks showcase an all-female Shakespeare production, the predominantly BIPOC cast in a Molière production, and the Kiwi cast in a Chekhov production (congratulations, by the way, to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who became the youngest female head of state in the world three years ago and just won reelection in a landslide).

As I noted at length in the introductions to Volumes 10 and 17, we need not jettison the past and its achievements. But we most certainly must remake and revolutionize that past, so that it might enter into productive dialogue with all the exciting new work now being written and staged – much of the best of it by BIPOC, female, and nonbinary playwrights – to imagine a different and better future. Stimulating such dialogue is one of the things that theater does best. Similarly, in every generation, it’s young artistic and political visionaries who fight hardest to realize a future that might yet make good on the past’s unredeemed promissory notes, representing our collective hopes and dreams for a more perfect Union.

I’d love to hear about the plays speaking to the young person forever residing within each of 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, in honor of Forward Advisory Company member Karen Olivo, whose Tony nomination for Best Actress last week was one of a whopping 14 for Moulin Rouge!, here’s Karen killing it in The Sparkling Diamond, from the official Moulin Rouge! cast album: WATCH

Second, here’s the Public Theater’s just-released documentary chronicling the making of its 2017 production of As You Like It, presented as a new musical with – wait for it – a cast of more than 200, most of whom were everyday citizens participating in the Public’s ongoing project of using theater to empower communities. Under the Greenwood Tree doesn’t merely speak directly to this week’s theme, involving young people. It’s also as inspiring a piece about theater as I’ve seen since the pandemic began, and it speaks volumes about what theater and our country could and should be: WATCH

Third, here’s two shorts from Broadway actor Will Blum involving his homemade theatricalization of a medley from Adam Guettel and Tina Landau’s magnificent Floyd Collins. The first involves how and why Blum made the “set” in his apartment: a cave constructed from 476 cardboard boxes and 2500 feet of tape. The second is the actual 12-minute film. Will dedicates it his father; you’ll need to watch to learn why. Suffice it to say that this bonus pick involves a very positive if ultimately heartbreaking take on the theme of this week’s picks.

* Will Blum on making the Floyd Collins medley: WATCH

* Will Blum’s Floyd Collins medley: WATCH



Selections for Volume 22 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):


1. Toxic Masculinity (Henry IV; Donmar Warehouse/St. Ann’s Warehouse): Let’s cut to the chase: Director Phyllida Lloyd’s outstanding Shakespeare trilogy – in which all-female casts play prison inmates and enact three of the Bard’s plays – has contributed more to seeing these plays (and how they’re cast) anew than any Shakespeare production in this century.

Henry IV

Courtesy of St. Ann’ Warehouse, where each production traveled after opening at the Donmar in London – they’re currently streaming for free: one each week, with a month-end marathon weekend during which you can watch all three. Last week gave us the best Julius Caesar I’ve ever seen; The Tempest begins Friday. Through tomorrow night, you can watch Harriet Walter – one of the great Shakespeareans of her generation – lead a terrific cast in Henry IV (really Henry IV Part One, supplemented by some of the greatest hits from Henry IV Part Two).

Kenneth Tynan and Michael Billington – two of Britain’s all-time best critics – both crown Henry IV Shakespeare’s best play; I’m right there with them. And when presented by an all-female cast, Shakespeare’s meditation on the consequences of toxic masculinity – which corrodes the relationships between fathers and sons, kings and subjects, husbands and wives – is as clear as it’s ever been.

Setting the play in an all-women’s prison helps immensely: Hal’s groping efforts to discover himself and grow up, in an infantilizing world where fathers like Falstaff and the King are fellow inmates and hence ultimately powerless, helps explain the compensating behaviors through which characters lie to themselves and each other. They posture and preen while making themselves cold and hard; it’s all they have to make themselves feel whole. It’s a Shakespearean variation on the themes sounded in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls.

It’s also an environment made for Hotspur, and the mesmerizing Jade Anouka gives an unforgettable performance as the fiery rebel (Anouka is in all three films and reason enough to watch each of them). Might Clare Dunne’s Hal find a different way to grow up and be a true man? Don’t bet on it, in these confines; this production ends with a guard-imposed lockdown. Hal may become king. But he (or should I say she?) is still in prison. One can only hope that Lloyd’s trilogy liberates more American Shakespeare companies – here’s looking at you, American Players Theatre – to return to this magnificent play more frequently and make similarly bold casting choices when they do.


2. Fathers and Sons (Death of a Salesman; Goodman Theatre): Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman doesn’t just vivisect the American Dream and what its cruel illusions can do to a man like Willy Loman. Together with Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days Journey into Night, Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, and August Wilson’s Fences, Salesman is also one of the quartet of American plays that best captures how the curdling of such dreams can potentially destroy one’s children. Make no mistake: Salesman is Willy’s play. But characters like Happy, Biff, and Bernard provide what a succeeding generation always does: lucid reflectors, illuminating the sins of the preceding generation even as those elders lay waste to the next.

Death of a Salesman

The late, great Brian Dennehy’s turn as Willy in Goodman’s 1998 Salesman – a production directed by Robert Falls which subsequently took Broadway by storm – was instrumental in reviving Miller’s reputation; excepting a few YouTube clips, the Showtime recording of a 2000 Broadway performance from this production hasn’t seen the light of day in forever. All that changes this week. Thanks to a collaboration between Goodman, Showtime, and the Actors Fund, this landmark Salesman is streaming from tonight through Sunday for free, although donations to the Actors Fund are encouraged.

Goodman will also host three additional events. First up: an October 23 panel (5pm CDT) featuring two playwrights who’ve given Miller a feminist twist: Eleanor Burgess (author of Wife of a Salesman, which is a Milwaukee Rep commission involving a confrontation between Linda Loman and Willy’s mistress) and Kimberly Belflower (author of John Proctor is the Villain, an excellent #MeToo reimagining of Miller’s The Crucible, which would have received its world premiere at Milwaukee Rep this season). Next: An October 23 (6 pm CDT) discussion among college-age streamers, with Goodman dramaturg Neena Arndt, before watching Salesman together. Finally: An October 25 reunion (2pm CDT) of director Falls and members of the Broadway cast, who will revisit their production, 20 years later.


3. Children and Art (The Seagull; Auckland Theatre Company): Who says Chekhov isn’t funny? I defy the naysayers to watch this imaginative Kiwi redo of Chekhov’s play and maintain a straight face. Adaptors Eleanor Bishop and Eli Kent have created a made-for-pandemic Seagull that brings out Chekhov’s humor, while capitalizing on the strange juxtaposition of intimacy and seemingly insuperable distance that characterizes Zoom family gatherings – as well as every Chekhov play. First rolled out in May, ATC’s Seagull has now been released anew; presented in four parts, it streams for free.

The Seagull

Bishop and Kent’s ingenious tweaks and 21st-century updates preserve Chekhov’s plot and themes, even though his infamously dysfunctional cast of characters must now meet remotely rather than gathering on an estate in the Russian countryside. To take the most obvious example in demonstrating how this works: Konstantin now shoots himself in New Zealand as his mother looks on helplessly while Zooming from New York – thereby driving home how far apart these two have long been, for all that they’re ostensibly similar and together.

The greatest of the many distances separating characters in Seagull is generational; as in Salesman, the love-hate relationship between old and young winds up poisoning both. Among the casualties, Chekhov suggests, is art itself; even as the young try to make it new, their parents and mentors are ridiculing or failing to understand their work – or, worse, stealing the young’s idea(l)s as well as their souls.

Auckland Theatre Company sounded similar themes in its excellent adaptation of Ibsen’s The Master Builder, which I recommended back in August in Volume 13. In both productions, the subtext involves whether we’ll emerge from this pandemic by resurrecting old structures or, conversely, listen to previously unheeded voices as we build something new.


4. Adult Education (The School for Wives; Molière in the Park): Back in July, director Lucie Tiberghien and Molière in the Park underscored the ongoing relevance of France’s great satirist with a largely BIPOC Tartuffe that I highly recommended in Volume 8. Now Tiberghien is at it again, in a production of Molière’s The School for Wives featuring an all-female, predominantly BIPOC cast led by Tony-winning Tonya Pinkins as Arnolphe.

The School for Wives

Arnolphe has been raising his female ward in a convent since she was a child, with an eye toward her becoming his obedient and ignorant wife. But young Agnès has other ideas as well as a mind of her own; while Arnolphe may have raised her in the dark, he can’t snuff out the light of her innate intelligence. Once again, it’s a domineering and close-minded Molière male who proves most in need of an education – and who is duly taken to school.

Tiberghien indicates that her casting choices are intended to highlight the absurdity of contemporary American systems of oppression; having watched the Molière in the Park Tartuffe, I have no doubt she’ll succeed. Tiberghien did so in her Tartuffe without sacrificing any of that great play’s humor; as she’ll once again be using a sparkling Richard Wilbur translation, look for The School for Wives to be similarly funny while pulling none of this play’s punches.

Molière in the Park’s production will stream live twice on this Saturday, October 24; it will then remain available on the company’s YouTube channel through 1 pm CDT next Wednesday, October 28. While both the live and recorded productions can be accessed for free, you must register in advance for either of the live performances on Saturday. And while closed captions will be available in English and French for both live performances, closed captioning will only be available in French for the ensuing on-demand recording.


5. The Elements of Style (Being Earnest; Skylight Music Theatre): Oscar Wilde’s great play meets the 1960s, in this Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska musical, virtually (and virtuously!) staged by Skylight under the direction of Michael Unger (musical direction by Conor Keelan, who somehow manages to induce harmony from a cast singing and recording in seven different isolated spaces).

Being Earnest

Aided by video consultant Tyler Milliron, Unger has created a spectacular (in every sense) backdrop that would have made Wilde proud: it’s Mondrian on LSD. Or perhaps I should say Zoom on steroids: simultaneously flat and wildly expressive (Unger’s liberal use of montage helps). In Wildean parlance, this is a world where surface is substance and where style defines character (kudos, in this context, are also owed to costume coordinator Shima Orans). Supplemented by scores of period shots, what emerges is the Swinging London of Carnaby Street, circa 1967.

As with Wilde’s play, the young who dominated London’s Swinging Sixties flaunted style as a way of subverting the pious platitudes of an older generation; nobody in Wilde’s play does this with more flair than Wilde’s stand-in for himself: Algernon Moncrieff. Self-described as over-dressed and over-educated, Algernon is all style and no substance – as well as convinced that’s the only way to be, when the societal rules that count for substance are actually nonsense.

Cue the 1960s pastiche of a soundtrack for the charismatic Max Pink, whose Algy offers the most fun I’ve had watching this irrepressible character since Marcus Truschinski’s star turn in American Players Theatre’s great 2014 production of Wilde’s play. Pink and his castmates offer all the proof one needs, in this as in so many of the productions profiled this week, that theater’s future is in very good hands. To invoke the title of a song this swinging Algy would have loved, they collectively confirm that the kids are alright.

References (in order of mention):

* Antonio Gramsci, Selections From the Prison Notebooks (International Publishers, 1971)

* Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce, and John Logan, Moulin Rouge! (The Sparkling Diamond, as sung by Karen Olivo):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=88UxYzKyjXU

* Under the Greenwood Tree (Public Theater documentary):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=es9uUGE-szk&feature=emb_title

* Will Blum, Through the Mountain (on making his Floyd Collins medley): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDiv02H0IP0&feature=emb_title

* Adam Guettel and Tina Landau, Floyd Collins (Will Blum’s medley):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKP-1vhU0B4&feature=emb_title

* Williams Shakespeare, Henry IV (Donmar Warehouse; St. Ann’s Warehouse):
https://stannswarehouse.org/show/donmar-trilogy/

* Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman (Goodman Theatre):
https://www.goodmantheatre.org/Salesman

* Anton Chekhov, The Seagull (Auckland Theatre Company):
https://www.atc.co.nz/auckland-theatre-company/2020/chekhovs-the-seagull/

* Molière, The School for Wives (Molière in the Park):
https://www.moliereinthepark.org/school-for-wives-online

* Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska, Being Earnest (a musical adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest):
https://www.skylightmusictheatre.org/upcoming-shows-events/being-earnest/