Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 26
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 26 (NOVEMBER 18, 2020): PRESENT LAUGHTER
An out-of-control pandemic, with maskless Wisconsin at its epicenter. A demagogue who won’t admit he lost. A new study suggesting that a world ravaged by climate change has now passed the point of no return. Canceled performances and shuttered theaters. Thanksgiving dinners on Zoom (virtual pumpkin pie? seriously?). Falling temperatures. Declining light.
Really, need I go on?
Even in the best of times, November can be a lousy month; it’s no accident that a weary and depressed Ishmael opens Moby-Dick with a description of the “damp, drizzly November in my soul.” Sorry, T.S. Eliot, but April is emphatically not the cruelest month; it’s in November that we really need to send in the clowns. Or in the immortal words of Eric Idle and his band of merry pranksters, “if life seems jolly rotten, there’s something you’ve forgotten, and that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.”
This week’s picks are dedicated to Monty Python’s proposition that we always look on the bright side of life, even when death is hovering at the edge of town. Not because we can or should ignore what’s happening all around us – let alone our inevitable date with the grim reaper. But dying is easy, as the old adage goes. It’s comedy that’s hard. And it’s comedy that best defines what it means to be human: staring down death and instead finding and giving joy to others – thereby driving home all we share, beneath the socially imposed differences and distances that divide us. We may all die alone, but we live with and share the burden of that knowledge together. It ought to make us better appreciate what we have. Maybe it makes us kinder. At a minimum, it might make us laugh.
Who are your favorite comic actors? What are your favorite comedies? Please let me know; bonus points if you also share a joke. Either way, you’ll make me smile. 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 Lucille Ball and Harpo Marx, “mirroring” a famous existential meditation on identity from Duck Soup: WATCH
Second, here’s the inimitable Donald O’Connor in one of the great comic dance numbers of all time: WATCH
Third, here’s an audio rendition of Sure Thing, David Ives’ classic short on the comic contingencies that shape love and life: WATCH
Fourth and finally: Chekhov done right is heartbreakingly funny. Will Neil LaBute’s world premiere adaptation of Uncle Vanya find the Chekhovian sweet spot? Find out for yourself, in a reading directed by Danya Taymor and featuring an all-star cast spearheaded by Alan Cumming in the titular role. It goes live tomorrow night (November 19) and remains available for 72 hours. Tickets ($5) can be purchased here: TICKETS
Selections for Volume 26 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. Whistling in the Dark (Fragments: 5 Plays by Samuel Beckett, Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord):
Peter Brook has been on a longstanding mission to help us see that even when Samuel Beckett “peers into the filthy abyss of human existence,” as Brook once put it in an interview, “his humor saves him from falling in.” That’s exactly right, and it makes Beckett a natural choice for our bleak moment in time.
Voilà Fragments, a collection of five Beckett shorts played by three actors and directed by Brook and longtime collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne. First presented in 2005 and frequently toured thereafter, this hour-long production was filmed in 2015 in Brook’s longtime theatrical home in Paris; it can be streamed for free (while Brook, Estienne and two of his actors offer interspersed comments in French, the pieces themselves are performed in English, with French subtitles).
Framing the collection as the first and last piece, Rough for Theatre I and Come and Go involve lonely characters struggling and often failing to connect. But while they’re beset by the differences that divide them, they also recognize that they’re necessarily bound together. Things grow darker in pieces two and four (Rockaby and Neither, both featuring a mesmerizing Kathryn Hunter), in which solo characters struggle to make sense of an inscrutable world while the whirligig of time takes its revenges and life runs down.
Nestled at the core of this collection is the funniest and harshest piece: Act Without Words II, a vaudevillian tour-de-force in which two characters encased (literally) in themselves and blithely unaware of their surroundings go through the busy nothings of their repetitive days, unable to die but failing to live. All of which leaves plenty of food for thought (Beckett’s signature carrot makes a cameo appearance). In Beckett, we laugh at the stubborn persistence of the human comedy; it continues, as one character puts it, because our profound unhappiness with life doesn’t go deep enough to choose the alternative. There’s a wry humor in that paradoxical dilemma, as Beckett knew and as this collection makes clear.
2. Sam the Man, Part Deux (On Beckett / In Screen; Irish Repertory Theatre):
After your appetite has been whetted by Fragments, you can further explore Beckett’s unique brand of humor through clown extraordinaire Bill Irwin’s new Irish Rep show, which streams for free through Sunday (registration required; donations encouraged).
When Irwin brought his meditation on Beckett to the stage in 2018, New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley hailed it as a “skillful demonstration of the disease known as being alive, as diagnosed by a master playwright,” adding that he would recommend Irwin’s show “to any actor, student of literature or fan of tragedy and comedy.”
Drawing on familiar (Waiting for Godot) and comparatively unknown (The Unnamable; Texts for Nothing) Beckett texts, Irwin’s piece has now been reimagined for our current moment. In addition to being filmed from isolation rather than being presented on stage, Irwin will also offer new meditations reflecting where and how we find ourselves now.
“Irwin has always been expert,” Brantley continued in his review, “in reminding us that the abiding appeal of silent clowns like Chaplin and Keaton is rooted in existential exasperation. As he says, ‘the word existentialism tends to put us to sleep – but questions of being – of survival –keep us awake.’”
A reminder that there’s still further Beckettian wakefulness available online through a bracing and funny Beckett double bill (Krapp’s Last Tape and the rarely performed The Old Tune) that remains available for streaming through year’s end at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre; I discussed this production at length in my opening pick for Volume 15. You can click on the hyperlink for Volume 15, above, for further details.
3. Comedy and Chaos (Old Hats; Signature Theatre): Irwin also clowns with a purpose in Old Hats, in which he joins forces with fellow clown David Shiner and singer-songwriter Shaina Taub, in this decidedly 21st-century redo of classic vaudeville routines. First staged in 2013, a 2016 reprise was filmed and can now be streamed for free.
“Here’s to the hoping when the odds are a joke,” Taub sings in an alternately dark and hopeful number in the middle of the show. “Three cheers for foolish dreams when everything’s broke,” she continues. That’s a pithy summary of this marvelous show, which satirizes campaign debates (four years before Trump’s debate meltdown); how we’ve disappeared into our phones and thereby lost touch with who we are; classic westerns (and how they’re filmed); and classic silent film routines (spaghetti has never been stretched so far, so heroically).
Old Hats will make you want to laugh and cry all at once; ditto Shiner’s routine as a hobo and all of Taub’s songs, which add immeasurably to this show (one can watch an entire Taub cabaret show for free; see Volume 12 for details and a link. Taub also plays a prominent role in Public Theater’s Under the Greenwood Tree, which I discussed in Volume 22). But this trio’s insistence that we laugh despite all the reasons to cry drives home why we need comedy now more than ever.
4. Madness and Civilization (What the Butler Saw; Curve Theatre): “Orton fed his characters into farce’s fun machine and made them bleed,” John Lahr writes, in his first-class Orton biography. What the Butler Saw – finished shortly before Orton was murdered, and never seen by Orton himself – was not only his masterpiece, but also one of the great farces of the twentieth century. Lahr, on this play: “Torture, nymphomania, transvestism, incest, blackmail, bribery parade across the stage while psychoanalytic prattle twists experience into meanings all its own.”
Ahead of its time, Orton’s play was booed when it opened; it speaks volumes about our own moment, in which it becomes easier by the day to sculpt fictive selves and stories which ultimately accelerate the disconnect between who we are and the parts we play, leaching credibility and meaning from our performances. As the play’s characters become ever more entangled in the lies disguising their fictive selves, they become even less sure of who they actually are; science and reason are so enmeshed in politics and hubris that they no longer provide a way out. As one character aptly says, “you can’t be a rationalist in an irrational world. It isn’t rational.” I’ll let you finish connecting the dots between Orton’s play and the way we live now.
On the 50th anniversary of What the Butler Saw, Curve Theatre from Orton’s hometown of Leicester staged a well-received production; the archival recording of a performance from that production can be streamed for free. It’s a one-camera shoot, filmed from the back of the theater and sometimes acoustically challenged. But it’s also close-captioned, and the backseat view allows one to focus on what makes Orton’s farce so great: less its physicality than its language, which was as good as anything since Wilde while cutting twice as deep.
5. Shedding My Skin (Now I’m Fine; On the Boards and Seattle Theatre Group): Part stand-up routine, part modernist jazz concert, and part pop opera, Nigerian-American Ahamefule J. Oluo’s incredible Now I’m Fine defies description. Perhaps longtime Seattle Times critic Misha Berson said it best, in describing Oluo’s show as something like “what a collaboration between Duke Ellington, Spalding Gray and Sun Ra might have been like.” You can stream a 2016 performance in Seattle’s historic Moore Theatre for $5.
Now I’m Fine Homepage (with four tracks from the show)
Cowritten with his wife Lindy West, Oluo’s show is a painfully funny stand-up autobiography that takes us from an awkward and fatherless childhood through his battle as an adult with a life-threatening autoimmune disorder that literally ate his skin. Oluo’s storytelling is regularly punctuated by this accomplished musician’s moving and daring modernist jazz compositions, played by an excellent 17-piece orchestra and supplemented by vocals and additional lyrics from the incredible okanomodé. (I include a link below to the show’s home page, which allows you to sample four tracks from the show).
“This show,” Oluo tells us late in the night, isn’t about the various events it describes. It’s “about finding a way to feel OK when you know that things are very much not OK.” That’s an apt metaphor for this week’s selections. Comedy won’t make our problems disappear. But maybe it can help us to bear them so that we can live to fight another day, continuing to make music that underscores why we’re still here.
References (in order of mention):
* Eric Idle, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life (Monty Python):
* Lucille Ball and Harpo Marx, The Mirror Routine (I Love Lucy):
* Donald O’Connor, Make ‘Em Laugh (Singin’ in the Rain)
* David Ives, Sure Thing (Playing on Air):
* Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya (adapted by Neil LaBute) (Broadway’s Best Shows):
* Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, Fragments: Five Plays by Samuel Beckett, (Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord):
* Bill Irwin, On Beckett/In Screen (Irish Repertory Theatre):
*Bill Irwin, Shaina Taub, and David Shiner, Old Hats (Signature Theatre):
* John Lahr, Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton (1978; 2000; University of California Press)
* Joe Orton, What the Butler Saw (Curve Theatre):
* Ahamefule J. Oluo and Lindy West, Now I’m Fine (On the Boards and Seattle Theatre Group; tickets and trailer):
* Ahamefule J. Oluo, Now I’m Fine homepage (with four tracks from the show):