Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 25
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 | VOLUME 23 | VOLUME 24
VOLUME 25 (NOVEMBER 11, 2020): ALL THE WOMEN
“All the women,” Kamala Harris said Saturday night, while speaking from Wilmington on the best night yet in this dumpster fire of a year. Harris paid homage to those who’d gone before, mentioning the hard-fought struggle for the 19th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act. She thanked the new generation of women living in the present, “who cast their ballots and continued the fight for their fundamental right to vote and be heard.” And she promised a better day for women to come, “because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.” She insisted that attention be paid to BIPOC women “who fought and sacrificed so much for equality, liberty, and justice for all.” And she singled out “Black women, who are too often overlooked,” for confirming yet again that they’re the “backbone of our democracy.”
But as Harris also noted, “now is when the real work begins,” to make good on those still largely unrealized “possibilities” she’d mentioned. Women are still paid less than men. They still hold less power than men. And they’re still woefully underrepresented, in nearly every sector of popular culture. Including theater.
More than 60 percent of audience members attending theater are women; less than one quarter of the plays they see are written by women. Women comprise less than 30 percent of the designers who bring those plays to life. Percentages for women of color are even lower. I’m very proud to make my artistic home with a theater company whose two exceptional leaders, Jennifer Uphoff Gray and Julie Swenson, are women. To Madison’s west in Spring Green, the finest classical theater company in the United States is also helmed by two women: Brenda DeVita and Carrie Van Hallgren.
Forward Theater and American Players Theatre may be exceptions, but things are changing, for the better. We’re seeing more plays by women, trans and nonbinary playwrights; there’s a direct correlation between these shifts and the growing (if still small) number of women leading major regional theaters, directing, and designing.
In this week’s column, I celebrate this positive trajectory; all but one of this week’s picks and bonus selections was written by a woman, remaking old myths and creating new stories (the lone exception celebrates Fiona Shaw’s legendary performance as King Richard in Deborah Warner’s ground-breaking production of Shakespeare’s Richard II). This week’s column isn’t a one-off; I’ve consistently highlighted work written by and featuring women since the very first edition of Mike’s Picks last May, when I recommended a streaming production of Fun Home, in which an all-female writing team (Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori) won a Tony for best score for the first time. It’s no accident that Fun Home was Forward’s first production (and what a production it was!) of a musical.
Last year, Anaïs Mitchell’s Tony win for Hadestown ensured the Fun Home win won’t be the last time a woman is honored with the Tony for best score. To underscore what Harris said Saturday night, “while I may be the first woman in this office, I won't be the last.”
Here’s to a future in which we’ve moved well past such “firsts.” As playwright Rebecca Gilman noted two years ago, “a production in which women make up more than 50 percent of the artists” shouldn’t be “in any way notable” or “rare.” Any more than it should be rare to see someone like Harris make an inspiring speech like the one she gave Saturday night. I am writing these words on a lovely Sunday morning. It’s a new day in America. And it’s a new day for American theater. The world only spins forward. The great work begins.
What do you dream, as we spin forward toward post-pandemic theater, during a week involving a major breakthrough on a Covid-19 vaccine? I’d love to know. 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.
First, celebrating the value of art and the joy of creation while recording all the white noise that gets in the way for a BIPOC woman, here’s the trailer for The Forty-Year-Old Version, playwright Radha Blank’s recently released first feature film: WATCH
Second, here’s the trailer for this week’s free broadcast of the collaboration between director Deborah Warner and actor Fiona Shaw in Richard II, a production that stirred tremendous controversy when it debuted at the National 25 years ago – and which has since rightly come to be seen as having revolutionized how we think about gender and performance in Shakespeare. I also include two ten-minute shorts in which Shaw (who is simply terrific in this production) and Warner each takes a turn looking back at this landmark production, 20 years later:
* Trailer for currently running production of Richard II (through Nov. 15): WATCH
* Fiona Shaw 2016 interview about the Warner-Shaw production of Richard II: WATCH
* Deborah Warner 2016 interview about the Warner-Shaw production of Richard II: WATCH
Third, in honor of the young women singled out in Harris’ speech – and as a warm-up to the second pick below – let me introduce you to Jezelle the Gazelle, a short play Dominique Morisseau wrote in 2014, after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. The audio recording of a live 2019 performance is one of the newest editions to the impressive Playing On Air podcast library of short audio plays: WATCH
Selections for Volume 25 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. The Rest of the Story (15 Heroines; Jermyn Street Theatre): When it comes to classical mythology, it’s the men who fight the wars, slay the monsters, and get the glory. But it’s women like Medea, Penelope and Ariadne who make those headlining heroes possible. Recognizing as much, Ovid gave these and other classical women their rightful props through a series of epistolary poems gathered as the Heroides, a remarkable and revolutionary act of reclamation that’s now getting its own props, courtesy of London’s Jermyn Street Theatre.
In Jermyn Street’s 15 Heroines, 15 female and non-binary playwrights (including April de Angelis, Lorna French, and Timberlake Wertenbaker) have written 15 monologues for a majority BIPOC female cast who will bring these women to life, through four-camera film shot in the Jermyn Theatre itself. Each monologue runs approximately 15 minutes; they’ve been arranged and ticketed in three thematically coherent sets entitled The War, The Desert, and The Labyrinth. Performances began Monday and run through this Saturday, with tickets for each installment beginning at the equivalent of approximately $30.
Why this year for this project, beyond the obvious fact that monologues work best in a pandemic? Here’s Jermyn Street Artistic Director Tom Littler: “If you are a white man with any degree of power at all, you would hope that you’d been doing some thinking this year about what that might mean. One of the things we can do is to promote voices that aren’t ours. That’s how we all might move forward a bit.” Amen.
2. Five Feet High and Rising (Until the Flood; Rattlestick Playwrights Theater): Based on interviews playwright and performer Dael Orlandersmith did in Ferguson after a white cop there shot and killed Michael Brown, Until the Flood creates eight composite characters – five Black and three white, some young and some old – describing how they feel about what happened. And about race in America.
There’s two teachers, one Black and one white. Two Black high school students – one spiraling down and the other trying to fly free. An electrician and a barber. A minister and a retired cop.
Until the Flood ostensibly explores why yet another white cop killed yet another unarmed Black man. But it’s really about the past 400 years, in a country that still hasn’t overcome.
The questions raised by Orlandersmith’s piece have grown even more urgent since she brought it to Milwaukee Rep two years ago. “This is a dark piece,” I wrote in my review at the time, adding that “Orlandersmith’s large and expressive face – wise but weary, determined but sad, aware of all that’s been lost and how little we’ve found or figured out – channels the painful history of many thousands gone.”
Beginning this Sunday at 7:00pm CST, you can revisit that history alongside Orlandersmith, through a filmed Orlandersmith performance of her piece from 2018 that’s being made available by Rattlestick Playwright Theater in conjunction with seven co-sponsoring theaters, including Milwaukee Rep and Goodman Theatre.
3. Ghost Quartet (Escaped Alone; Magic Theatre): With California burning behind them, four masked, tested, and socially distanced female actors hunkered down together on the edge of the Pacific Ocean in August, laying down an audio version of Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone under direction of outgoing Magic Artistic Director Loretta Greco. It’s available through Sunday, November 15 for $10.
On its surface, Escaped Alone features four older women (Churchill specifies that they should be in their 70s) chatting in a backyard, enjoying a sunny afternoon while reminiscing about their lives and worrying about their children. But dark internal monologues repeatedly punctuate the quiet, giving vent to nightmarish fears of a world in which “fire broke out in ten places at once” while winds blow houses thousands of miles through the air, pandemics rage, waters rise, and the survivors move underground.
Through arresting, surrealistic images, Churchill never lets us forget that we’re living in a mess we ourselves have made. An illustrative example: “The hunger began,” one monologue starts, “when 80 percent of food was diverted to TV programs” – a striking dramatization capturing the commodification and conspicuous consumption of food while millions starve. There’s plenty more of where that came from, delivered by an outstanding cast whose rendition of Churchill’s play is all the more haunting because it isn’t seen, except in the mind’s eye.
As with Churchill’s dystopian Far Away, which I profiled in Volume 21, there’s light to be had, even as the sun goes down; bleak as this great playwright’s visions usually are, she never loses her humor or her hope. But like everything else in Churchill’s late, spare masterpieces about our age of scarcity, there’s not much of either to go around. It makes her urgent queries about whether and how we can come together all the more urgent and necessary.
4. Alternative Pluralisms (Unveiled; San Diego Rep): President-Elect Biden has already made clear that among his Day 1 initiatives will be the repeal of Trump’s aptly named Muslim ban on travel from 13 countries (most of which are majority Muslim or African). That makes this weekend the perfect time to celebrate Chicago-based playwright Rohina Malik’s Unveiled, a one-actor show featuring five Muslim women: immigrants from Pakistan and Palestine, a Moroccan-American lawyer, a Black American convert, and a South Asian rapper from England. Unfolding over 50 minutes, their stories are paired with various teas and backed by verses from Muslim poets, including Rumi and Saadi.
Malik has been taking this show on the road to counteract Muslim stereotypes since its 2009 debut; she’d dreamed that by now it might be dated. No such luck, which is why it’s been filmed from her Chicago apartment and will be shown three times this weekend, courtesy of San Diego Rep. Tickets are $15; bring your own tea.
5. Down the Rabbit Hole (Russian Troll Farm; TheaterWorks Hartford, Theatre Squared, and The Civilians): Set in 2016 in the (actual) Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Sarah Gancher’s brilliant play makes dark workplace comedy from five Russian trolls spewing electronic disinformation into the American political psyche, of the sort that helps explain how more than 70 million people could have voted last week for a pathological liar.
But while it’s set in Russia, Gancher’s play is also about all those Americans stuck in similarly dead-end jobs, promoting products and people they don’t believe in while wondering what they’re doing and why.
In short, Russian Troll Farm (through November 15; tickets $20) is also about why so many Americans are susceptible to the fake but seductive populism such trolls spew. It makes clear that even the most frenzied haters are simply looking for a reason to hope, live, and love – while also desperately wanting to believe that one’s work and job, no matter how retrograde or seemingly meaningless, have purpose. Gancher’s play dissects why we waste time on social media instead of reading a good book – and why we’re addicted to fantastical relationships conjured through our phones, at the expense of spending time talking with the actual people in our lives.
Finally, Russian Troll Farm also has a great deal to say about why illusions become reality and how fake news becomes true. If we live within story – and if compelling stories can change our lives as well as the world – we assume immense responsibility for the stories we tell, follow, and propagate; it’s why five major news networks were absolutely right to cut away from Trump’s shameful post-election litany of destabilizing lies. More of us should have tuned him out, far more often.
You won’t want to cut away from this production, which uses what’s primitive about Zoom to deliver something akin to story theater: the limitations of the technology, here, call dramatic attention to how illusion gets manufactured and to the ghostly, incorporeal quality of the flickering images trapped in our machines. Add a terrific cast and design team and the result is among the most entertaining and thought-provoking plays of the year.
References (in order of mention):
* Radha Blank, The Forty-Year-Old Version (Netflix trailer):
* William Shakespeare, Richard II (The Show Must Go On, trailer):
* Fiona Shaw 2016 interview about the Warner-Shaw production of Richard II:
* Deborah Warner 2016 interview about the Warner-Shaw production of Richard II:
* Dominique Morisseau, Jezelle the Gazelle (Playing On Air):
* Various playwrights, 15 Heroines (Jermyn Street Theatre; tickets):
* 15 Heroines Trailer (Jermyn Street Theatre):
* Dael Orlandersmith, Until the Flood (Rattlestick Theater Company):
* Caryl Churchill, Escaped Alone (Magic Theatre):
Rohina Malik, Unveiled (San Diego Rep):
* Sarah Gancher, Russian Troll Farm (TheaterWorks Hartford, Theatre Squared, and The Civilians):