Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 24
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 24 (NOVEMBER 4, 2020): HOMELAND
Watching American Players Theatre’s Kelsey Brennan and James Ridge on screen last week, as they steadily turned the screw in a reading of Henry James’ riveting ghost story, was pleasurable for reasons going beyond the power of Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation or these two magnificent actors’ performances.
I’ve been watching Ridge work magic – at Forward Theater and in Milwaukee as well as at APT – for two full decades. I first saw Brennan at APT the year after she graduated from college, and have spent the dozen years since watching her give standout performances in Chicago and Milwaukee as well as at APT. Witnessing these two actors’ evolution, during which I’ve been able to see nearly every production they’ve done, adds immeasurably to the pleasure they’d have given me anyway just because they’re so damn good.
Even in this pandemic-driven moment, during which we can see productions from all over the world, there’s no substitute for spending time with the actors and companies right here at home. We’re growing older together, with each new performance recalling and even incorporating productions past – much as every conversation with a good friend builds on the entire history of that friendship. Some of the actors I covered during my 15 years as a theater critic have actually become friends. All of them feel like family.
As we move toward those holiday celebrations which invariably bring family to mind – during a year when I haven’t even been able to see far-flung siblings and parents because of this pandemic – I’ve never needed my theater family more, or been more grateful for all they’ve given me for so long. As with every family, their words and deeds have challenged me to be my best self. As with every family, they have played an integral role in making me the person I am.
It’s in this context that I’m devoting this entire week’s column to streaming options involving local artists and companies. I’ve showcased local work in nearly every one of these columns since I began writing them in May; such work always takes precedence with me. But this is the first column in which local work has received all of my attention. With the theater “season” now in full swing and more work therefore being produced, it most certainly won’t be the last.
A word on what I mean by “local.” I live and write in Milwaukee. I am one of the judges for the Joseph Jefferson theater awards in Chicago. My artistic home is with Forward in Madison. As a longtime critic for Milwaukee’s daily newspaper, I successfully lobbied for much more extensive coverage of the robust theater scene in Door County. All of these geographical locations are part of one artistic ecosystem; many theater artists living within this area work in every corner of it.
Bottom line: Wisconsin benefits tremendously from its proximity to Chicago, which is the greatest theater city in North America. And Chicago theater is made infinitely better by regular contributions from theater artists living and working in Wisconsin. To steal from the title of Forward’s June 2021 Monologue Festival, theater artists throughout this region are delivering stories from home – our home. With storm winds rising and a dark winter coming, there’s no place I’d rather be.
I’d love to hear what plays you’re inviting into your home to help you stay warm. Even if I can’t sit down right now at your kitchen table, I’d love the chance to chat with you from mine. You can reach me via email through Forward at firstname.lastname@example.org or directly at email@example.com. As always, both “theater” and “Fischer” are spelled with an er.
First, here’s two shorts from Chicago-based playwright Ike Holter, whose Exit Strategy at Forward was one of the best productions I saw anywhere in 2018. Holter’s I Am Not This, produced by Chicago’s Jackalope Theatre and featuring the terrific Mary Williamson, is a homage to stage managers in the time of Covid; Moony, a radio play from Chicago’s Steep Theatre, imagines an alternative universe in which police brutality is a museum artifact from a distant Stone Age.
I Am Not This: WATCH
Second, echoing the nightmarish aura of Holter’s Moony: here’s Chicago playwright Alexander Lubischer’s Do Wasps Have Desires, the latest original commission from Milwaukee Rep, as performed by Stephanie Shum and Magdalyn Rowley-Lange: WATCH
Third, here’s nightmare transformed into ecstasy: a new release from Chicago Shakespeare Theater highlighting the ghostly and the magical in the Bard’s plays. Chicago Shakes Artistic Director Barbara Gaines throws down the gauntlet right at the start: If you don’t believe in ghosts, don’t bother reading Shakespeare. After watching this 30-minute program, which includes thoughtful comments from the magician Teller and some ravishing B-roll footage from past Chicago Shakes productions, you’re likely to agree: WATCH
Fourth and finally: I mentioned Chicago’s Jeff Awards in my introduction. As a Jeff Committee member, I am very proud of the fact that despite the pandemic, our Non-Equity Wing has already produced and released an awards show this year, and that our Equity Wing has produced an awards show that will air this coming Monday, November 9.
Underscoring what I said above in the introduction about our local theater ecosystem, the many 2020 Equity Wing Jeff nominees who have worked in Wisconsin include Larry Adams, Erik S Barry, Kurtis Boetcher, William Boles, Lili-Anne Brown, Linda Buchanan, Anthony Churchill, Carrie Coon, Chaon Cross, Matt Deitchman, Jackson Evans, Lee Fiskness, Linda Fortunato, Harmony France, Regina García, Kristy Leigh Hall, Matt Hawkins, Grover Hollway, Wendy A. Huber, Takeshi Kata, Heidi Kettenring, Dan Klarer, Jesse Klug, Jeffrey D. Kmiec, Christopher Kriz, Rachel Lambert, James Leaming, Meghan Murphy, Keith Parham, Ron OJ Parson, Andre Pluess, Hollis Resnik, Lorenzo Rush, Jr., Josh Schmidt, Alison Siple, A.C. Smith, Eliza Stoughton, Bri Sudia, Mike Tutaj, Larry Yando. Among the playwrights frequently staged in Wisconsin who are up for a Jeff: Steven Dietz and Forward fave Lauren Gunderson.
You can tune in and watch this year’s virtual ceremony, hosted, by Michelle Lauto, at 7:00pm CST on Monday at the Jeff Youtube page, which also includes an upload of this past June’s non-Equity Wing awards ceremony: WATCH
Selections for Volume 24 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. Out of the Woods, Part Deux (American Players Theatre; PBS Wisconsin): Having teamed up with PBS to present six streamed readings this summer, American Players Theatre is back for an encore, with three readings of contemporary BIPOC plays that continue this classically oriented company’s interrogation of what constitutes a classic. Becoming available on three successive Fridays beginning November 6 at 7:00pm CST, they’ll stream for free through the end of the year. Here’s the lineup; with each play, I offer a paired recommendation.
The series can be viewed here: Out of the Woods series
Kicking things off this Friday, Karen Zacarías’ The Sins of Sor Juana spotlights an outspoken 17th-century poet (played by Melisa Pereyra), who lands in hot water for writing about risky topics like love and religion at a time when even being a female writer made one a target (it will be directed by Forward Advisory Company member Jake Penner). You could instructively pair Zacarías’ play with Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia, in which the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s Sonnets gets her say; a film of the acclaimed 2019 Globe production streams on a pay-what-you-can basis for two weeks beginning on November 10.
On November 13, APT presents Nathan Alan Davis’ Nat Turner in Jerusalem, in which the leader of the 1831 slave rebellion (played by LaShawn Banks) narrates his story to his lawyer (played by Nate Burger) on the last night of his life (Gavin Lawrence directs). My suggested pairing, here, is with James McBride’s novel The Good Lord Bird, now adapted by Ethan Hawkes in a currently running Showtime miniseries; both explore race relations in America through the story of radical abolitionist John Brown, whose own multiracial uprising joined Turner’s earlier rebellion in foreshadowing the coming Civil War.
Wrapping things up on November 20 is Smart People, the excellent Lydia R. Diamond play set in and around Harvard during those heady days a dozen years ago when Barack Obama was elected and inaugurated (remember when we could count on the second automatically following the first?). It features a white male professor, a Black male doctor, a Black female actor, and an Asian-American female psychologist, posing hard questions to themselves and each other about representation and appropriation (Pereyra directs). Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones’ catchy headline for his review of Writers Theatre’s standout 2018 production is illustrative of what’s in play in Diamond’s play: “Can a white neurobiologist study racism? Can a Black actress escape it?”
You can get ready for this one by watching Play-Per-View’s streamed November 10 reading (5:00pm CST) of Diamond’s Toni Stone, which reunites the cast from Roundabout Theatre Company’s 2019 production (Pam MacKinnon again directs). The true story of the baseball player who broke the gender barrier in the Negro Leagues, Diamond’s entertaining play also circles back to and pairs nicely with the Zacarías play with which I opened this entry, about iconoclastic women living in a man’s world.
2. Remembrance of Things Past (What is Left, Burns; Steppenwolf Theatre): One of the shining beacons in this moment of theater darkness is Steppenwolf Theatre’s ongoing construction of a significant extension to its existing campus; the centerpiece will be an intimate, in-the-round theater in which no audience member will be more than six rows from stage. A two-minute video tour gives a sense of what awaits us when we reach the other side.
In the interim, Steppenwolf is set to launch Steppenwolf NOW, a six-play virtual season that gets underway one week from today with rising playwright James Ijames’ What is Left, Burns, featuring K. Todd Freeman and Jon Michael Hill. It’s a video call between two poets and ex-lovers, embodying the erotics of temporal and spatial distance separating them from who they once were and from each other.
Ijames’ play debuts next Wednesday; four of the five remaining works in the projected Steppenwolf season are also by playwrights of color (the lone exception is Sam Shepard). Wisconsin actor Carrie Coon will star in one of them: Red Folder, a new play by Rajiv Joseph about a first-grader and his binder that debuts in January.
A Steppenwolf NOW package (one cannot buy tickets to individual shows) is available for $75, which gives one streaming access to all content as it is released, through August 31, 2021. The Steppenwolf NOW homepage includes a trailer as well as an informative, hour-plus preview of the upcoming season; at the 17-minute mark, Steppenwolf Artistic Director Anna D. Shapiro engages in conversation with Ijames and Whitney White, who directs Ijames’ new play. Shapiro is cagey in Steppenwolf’s preview video about the play starring Coon, which just makes me want to see it all the more.
3. Spirit World (The Girl Who Swallowed a Cactus (In Your Home) and She Kills Monsters; First Stage): It isn’t just flying saucers that periodically get spotted in New Mexico. In playwright Eric Coble’s The Girl Who Swallowed a Cactus (In Your Home), eight-year-old Sheila encounters a mythical Coyote, who introduces her to a world of magic and adventure amidst life’s prosaic realism.
With Jeff Frank directing, Milwaukee’s First Stage will bring Coble’s world to life through some magic of its own, conjured by First Stage perennial Karen Estrada. Speaking to the audience from her own home while drawing on ordinary household objects as props, Estrada’s rendition of Coble’s solo play will showcase the wide range of this gifted actor, while practicing what First Stage has been preaching for a long time: theater is often best and most powerful when we keep it simple, focusing on the story and its teller.
I have not yet seen Cactus, which opened Monday night. But its synopsis suggests a latter-day version of another New Mexican story that also involves magic realism and a similarly aged child: Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, a justly renowned classic whose protagonist is seven when Anaya’s novel opens. Much like First Stage’s own productions, Anaya’s novel works on multiple levels and can therefore appeal to young people from 7 to 97 (First Stage recommends Cactus for the child in all of us, from age 7 on). Cactus streams through November 22, with tickets beginning at $15.
Incidentally, First Stage’s acclaimed Young Company – its elite troupe of teens whose edgier productions have long been a source of inspiration for yours truly – opens its own season next week with a production of Qui Ngyuen’s delightful She Kills Monsters, in which the D&D nerds get their props, proving anew what all geeks know: we’re way more interesting than people think we are. As with Cactus, Ngyuen’s play suggests that there’s other worlds all around us, if we’d just summon the courage and imagination to go through the wormhole and visit them. Which, of course, is a metaphor for what theater challenges us to do, in each and every production. She Kills Monsters streams from November 13-22, with tickets beginning at $12; First Stage recommends Ngyuen’s play for young people ages 14 and up.
4. The Lonely Crowd (The Comedy of Errors; Door Shakespeare): Zany though it is, The Comedy of Errors already includes the dark undertow that would lead Shakespeare to subvert and eventually move beyond comedy. Characters in Comedy grow alienated from themselves. They fear their surroundings and turn on each other. Even when they’re at home, they’re among strangers. Even when they’re surrounded by others, they’re alone. The Comedy of Errors is the quintessential Covid play.
Director Michael Stebbins leans into the craziness in this new Door Shakes production; his conceit is that The Comedy of Errors we watch is the lone surviving episode of a Door County cable-TV access show from the 1980s, with a format suggesting Hollywood Squares. Presented through deliberately grainy video with occasional old-fashioned animation, it conjures images of a simpler time, fuzzing out and fading to black before our eyes. Heavily but effectively abridged, this Comedy of Errors clocks in at less than 70 minutes, further emphasizing one’s sense that time is running down (time to watch this production, streaming for $16, runs out on November 16).
Doubling down on the doubling already baked into Shakespeare’s script, Stebbins uses five actors (each playing three characters) to tell the tale; Stebbins and Neil Brookshire (credited with recording and editing as well as animation) aren’t shy about simultaneously placing different versions of the same actor in separate squares – thereby further emphasizing how separated we are from ourselves, in a world where social media fosters multiple, often contradictory personae.
This being The Comedy of Errors, there’s plenty of laughs amidst the dying of the light; particular attention must be paid to Charles Fraser as the Dromios. But it’s taking nothing away from him or the rest of the cast (which includes James Carrington, recently onstage at Forward in The Lifespan of a Fact) when I say that the performance I’ll best remember is given by Duane Boutté, playing both Antipholi – and channeling the sense of anomie and alienation at the heart of every good farce.
5. The Fourth Dimension (Visiting with Edgar Allan Poe; various theater companies): Autumn is always the witching hour for Poe, and numerous local theaters are currently treating us to journeys into his macabre mind. Three of my favorites are aural rather than visual. Poe’s tales consistently demonstrate just how far the imagination can travel when left to its own devices; radio plays, which are currently enjoying a welcome renaissance, necessarily leave more to the imagination.
You might begin your journey with Chicago’s Lifeline Theatre; as I noted in Volume 21, Lifeline has devoted the entire month of October to Poe, through four 40-minute podcasts. I’m still shuddering at their rendition of Poe’s The Black Cat, in which the Master of Horror dissects what happens when we externalize the beast within.
Next, travel north to Glencoe, where Writers Theatre has similarly offered four Halloween treats, including Larry Yando’s harrowing rendition of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart and Allen Gilmore’s performance of Poe’s mysterious poem, The Raven.
Since The Raven is a lyrical earworm that’s unlikely to let you go, I recommend next heading north-by-northwest to Spring Green, where you can encounter Poe’s poem anew, courtesy of a recitation by Forward Advisory Company member Sarah Day.
Finally, let me present the jewel in this crown: a marvelous adaptation of Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. A collaboration between Door County’s venerable Peninsula Players Theatre and Chicago Radio Theatre, it streams for free through November 30.
What’s often referred to as the world’s first detective story is also a penetrating study of the return of the repressed that invariably accompanies xenophobia and racism; it’s no accident that Poe wrote his tale during the same decade when an American writer coined the term “manifest destiny” to justify the Mexican War and thereby open new territories to slavery. As a bonus, Kevin Christopher Fox’s adaption captures Poe’s humor. And in presenting Poe’s Detective Dupin as a woman, Peninsula recalls its delightful 2018 production of Miss Holmes.
We’re told before the broadcast begins that this production by a Wisconsin company has been produced “from seven closets and desks, all over Chicago.” Let the politicians and geographers focus on those arbitrary lines slashed onto a map and known as state boundaries. Transcending such divisions, theater artists here have long pitched a bigger tent, allowing for more expansive stories that defy such restrictions. Gather round, warming yourself at their fire and lending them your ears. Come on home.
References (in order of mention):
* Ike Holter, I Am Not This (Jackalope Theatre):
* Ike Holter, Moony (Steep Theatre):
* Alexander Lubischer, Do Wasps Have Desires? (Milwaukee Repertory Theater):
* Shakesfear: An Eve of Magic and Mayhem (Chicago Shakespeare Theater):
* 52nd Annual Jeff Equity Awards (Joseph Jefferson Committee):
* Out of the Woods Play Reading Series (American Players Theatre; PBS Wisconsin):
* Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, Emilia (Shakespeare’s Globe):
* James McBride, The Good Lord Bird (Riverhead, 2013)
* Ethan Hawke and Mark Richard, The Good Lord Bird (an adaptation of McBride’s novel; Showtime trailer):
* Lydia R. Diamond, Toni Stone (Play Per-View):
* Steppenwolf Theatre, Building on Excellence (Video Profiling its New Campus):
* James Ijames, What is Left, Burns (Steppenwolf NOW at Steppenwolf Theatre):
* Eric Coble, The Girl Who Swallowed a Cactus (At Home) (First Stage):
* Rudolfo Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima (Warner, 1972)
* Qui Ngyuen, She Kills Monsters (First Stage):
* William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors (Door Shakespeare):
* Edgar Allan Poe, Tales of Poe (Lifeline Theatre):
* Something Wicked: Stories for Halloween (Writers Theatre):
* Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven (recited by Sarah Day; American Players Theatre):
* Edgar Allan Poe, The Murders in the Rue Morgue (Peninsula Players Theatre; Chicago Radio Theatre):