Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 27
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 27 (NOVEMBER 25, 2020): CORNUCOPIA
The newspapers spread across my table Sunday morning said it all.
“This Thanksgiving and Christmas, for the first time in our lives, none of our ten children and grandchildren will be at our table,” Peggy Wehmeyer lamented, in an article in The New York Times’ Sunday Review. “Facing health risks, Americans adapt to a Thanksgiving that requires hard choices,” read a headline in the Times’ Sunday Styles section. “What we’ll miss this Thanksgiving” read a headline in the Chicago Tribune, opening an article offering recipe tips. I’d done my own Thanksgiving grocery shopping in a nearly deserted store this past Saturday night – timing my pandemic visit for off hours and pondering how I’d manage to cook a Thanksgiving feast while separated from my mother, siblings, and nieces.
For 15 years, I’d spent the Saturday night before Thanksgiving in a theater, one of five or six I’d have visited during what is always one of the busiest weekends each year for a theater critic. So perhaps it’s no surprise that I’ve compensated by offering a particularly sumptuous feast of Thanksgiving week picks, with each entry offering multiple choices. Most of them feature communities that have historically been excluded from the big table, whether the meal being consumed was a Thanksgiving feast or another predictable season of bland theatrical fare.
When it comes to theater these days, there’s plenty of good, nontraditional dishes on the menu.
“In spite of these dark days for theater,” a reader wrote me two weeks ago, “I am awash in theatrical offerings.” “So much to experience,” he’d gratefully added. I’d naively worried when starting this column in May that I might quickly exhaust potential offerings. Instead, I spend each week agonizing over all that I’ve loved and am nevertheless leaving out. (This week, for example, there was no room for the Wallace Shawn double bill of readings being streamed by The New Group through November 29; I’ve cheated by nevertheless including a link to them, in the Reference section at column’s end).
“I’ll take shelter from the cold of winter by writing daily in the gratitude journal I started in March,” write Wehmeyer in her Times essay. This and every edition of Mike’s Picks is my own gratitude journal. I write to honor the resilient theater artists and companies at the many oases like Forward that have done so much to sustain me this year. And, as they say at PBS, I especially write because I miss viewers (and readers!) like you. We may not be together this weekend at Wisconsin theaters like the Overture and the Quadracci, the Cabot and the Touchstone and the Gould. But we can still come together in the dark, virtually sharing the magic that theater makes possible. Over pie, of course (pumpkin, here, if you’re keeping score).
I’d love to hear about the theater you’re planning to consume this coming weekend; hopefully there’ll be no turkeys. You can reach me with news fair or fowl 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, a very exciting gift from London’s National Theatre: here’s the info you’ll need to check out the National’s free, 24-hour stream beginning this Friday, Nov. 27 (1:00 pm CST) of Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’ acclaimed Death of England: Delroy, a new play about a Black man confronting his relationship with Great Britain (it was filmed just before the latest Covid-19 surge forced its early closure): WATCH
Second, here’s a trailer for the upcoming (Dec. 18) film of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – produced by Denzel Washington, directed by George C. Wolfe, and starring Viola Davis and the late, great Chadwick Boseman, gone way too soon: WATCH
Third, as one of five monologues commemorating the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day in 2018, here’s Melanie Kilburn performing Monica Dolan’s The Lily Parr Fan Club, about soccer-playing women working in a munitions factory (think These Shining Lives crossed with A League of Their Own): WATCH
Finally, here’s a registration link (suggested donation of $5) for an all-star, three-day marathon reading of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon this weekend; among the many literary rock stars who’ll be reading are Hilton Als, Margaret Atwood, Edwidge Danticat, Jennifer Egan, Louise Erdrich, Yaa Gyasi, Tayari Jones, former Madisonian Lorrie Moore, Tommy Orange, Jesmyn Ward, and Jacqueline Woodson: REGISTER/WATCH
Selections for Volume 27 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. Food, Glorious Food (Various Theater Companies): What? You think I’d dare start a Thanksgiving edition of Mike’s Picks without talking about food? Here’s four tantalizing menu options for a theatrical feast reminding us that food not only expresses who we are and where we’re from, but also allows us to bridge the seemingly insuperable geographical and cultural barriers that divide us.
First, how about some piping hot home cooking brought your way by DiMonte Henning’s Milwaukee-based Lights! Camera! Soul! and its Blacker The Berry podcast, dropping a new episode today entitled In the Kitchen? Inspired by Zora Howard’s play Stew (profiled in Mike’s Picks Volume 13), In the Kitchen is a multi-generational collection of stories by women about – what else? – food! - LISTEN
Next, travel a bit farther afield and kick it with the recently formed Dominican Artists Collective’s Cooking Project, which will welcome you to Washington Heights, the barrio that the Collective refers to as “its home away from home, filled with delicious food and bangin’ island tunes.” Through December 15, you can stream a performance channeling the Collective’s stories of their ancestral home and their diasporic journeys to New York. Tickets are $10. - TICKETS
There’s more! Friday (Nov. 27) is the first day you can sign up to travel still farther, joining filmmaker and cookbook author Sri Rao for Bollywood Kitchen, an interactive cooking journey during which Rao invites us to prepare an Indian meal with him, using his family’s recipes while listening to stories of his parents’ emigration to America and Bollywood’s sustaining taste of home. Depending on your participation level, a special box could be delivered to your doorstep in advance of your performance to help you cook along; you can stay afterward for a Bollywood dance party. Performances run from January 15 through February 21; this one would make an excellent holiday gift for that special foodie in your life. - INFO
Finally, move on to Palestine, as an estranged father and son bond over food in Amir Nizar Zuabi’s This is Who I Am, which runs from December 5 to January 3 (tickets are $15.99). From their respective kitchens in Ramallah and New York City, father and son reunite over Zoom, recreating a cherished family recipe while struggling to bridge the gap between them, one ingredient at a time. - TICKETS
2. American Hunger (The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family; Public Theater): Food is also front and center in Richard Nelson’s The Gabriels, a trilogy which, along with Nelson’s Apple Family Plays tetralogy, has been described by theater critic Ben Brantley as “the most profound achievement in topical theater in this country since the Depression-era triumphs of Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty and Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock. I couldn’t agree more, and I’m wagering you will, too, after watching the free streams of these plays that are currently available.
Each of the trilogy’s plays is set on a specific date in 2016; each opened at the Public Theater on the date the play was set, with the concluding play (Women of a Certain Age) opening on that fateful November election night four years ago. But because these plays inhabit their moment without beating us over the head, they haven’t dated.
I speak from experience: I watched them on three successive nights during the past week, as Trump’s shameful transition tragedy flirted with farce. I was struck by how eloquently (and poignantly) these plays explain why so many people feel alienated from a political process in which both major parties are increasingly out of touch with everyday people and their concerns: about money; how to provide for their parents and their kids; the disconnect between an entitled coastal elite and the rest of us; the growing irrelevance of theater and literature in a country that binges garbage while not reading and barely thinking; the fraying of communities and communal feeling; the decline of morals and decency; and the triumph of style over substance.
All three plays involve the same six characters (five women and one man), joined by family ties that bind them together even as they’re losing their shared memories (including the house in which all of them have lived; Nelson adores Chekhov, and this trilogy is haunted by The Cherry Orchard). These aren’t Nelson’s solidly middle class Apples; economically, the Gabriels are living much closer to the edge.
But despite the tensions between them – partly the result of their more precarious economic state – the Gabriels stick together. All three plays unfold in the family kitchen as a meal is prepared, suggesting ongoing communion in a world of discord. “There’s no news anymore,” one character says, in the middle play. “What happened to news? It’s all screaming.” All the more reason to live right now in this fading world where communication and fellowship remain possible even when they’re painful – all while the unabated shouting continues all around us.
3. Old Gods and New Ways (The Greek Trilogy of Luis Alfaro, Center Theatre Group): Old ways and accompanying familial bonds are also under siege in another trilogy: Luis Alfaro’s Chicanx adaptations of Oedipus Rex (Oedipus El Rey), Medea (Mojada), and Sophocles’ Electra (Electricidad). Presented as staged readings when filmed last month with four cameras in an empty Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, these three plays are being presented together for the first time. All three can be streamed free on demand through January 20.
Set in a barrio in Alfaro’s native Los Angeles, the trilogy trades some of the Greek tragedians’ profound psychology for compelling sociology; while we lose archetypes and philosophy, we’re given riveting stories ripped straight from a telenovela about prisoners of the American Dream –caught in a world they never made that distorts relationships and ruins lives, as naked ambition trumps old-fashioned commitments to family and community.
It’s not that Alfaro is unaware of old gods and ways; each play invokes oracles and prophecies, ancient Aztec gods and old-school codes of conduct. But Alfaro’s characters live in 21st-century LA rather than classical Athens or rural Mexico; poverty, racist immigration policies, gangs, drugs, and intense assimilationist pressure to “become American” have stolen the old gods’ powers. These formerly venerated deities have been replaced by battle-scarred and often ruthless warlords, exercising an increasingly tenuous grip on the territories they claim to control.
Alfaro’s trilogy also makes more room for women, giving them textured backstories while highlighting their understandably ambivalent attitude toward vaunted traditions that confirm their second-class status and valorize toxic masculinity. In Alfaro’s empathetic hands, characters like Jocasta, Medea and Clytemnestra (Clemencia, here) get their day in court.
I recommend all three plays, which can be watched in any order. If you can only make time for one, I’d recommend Electricidad; it makes best use of the Greek chorus, features the most humor, and includes terrific, morally complex exchanges between Clemencia and Electricicdad, the mother looking toward an American future while her stubborn daughter clings tenaciously to a vanishing past.
4. Living in the Gray (Lucas Hnath Plays; Various Theater Companies): In a recent interview, playwright Lucas Hnath admitted he likes to end his plays at impasse because it “prompts” the brain to leap into action rather than going to sleep. Hnath never prescribes answers. He asks questions, reflecting his healthy respect for the moral dilemmas he poses while championing his audience members’ right to choose for themselves.
Few of his plays better exemplify these traits than The Christians, about the standoff between the comparatively liberal pastor of a megachurch (of the sort Hnath attended when young) and one of his parishioners. When I reviewed a Steppenwolf Theatre production four years ago, I sized up The Christians as “among the best, fairest and most provocative discussions of religion I’ve ever seen in an American theater.”
I stand by that assessment, which is why I am particularly pleased that Next Act Theatre is opening its current season with a filmed production of Hnath’s play; Next Act Artistic Director David Cecsarini plays the pastor, and Forward actor and director Marti Gobel plays his wife (there’ll also be vocal accompaniment from a powerhouse gospel choir, whose members include Forward Advisory Company member and actor Rána Roman as well as Forward actor Lachrisa Grandberry). The Christians streams through December 13; tickets are $30.
Want some Hnath appetizers before this substantial main course? As noted in Volume 20 of Mike’s Picks, you can check out an audio rendition of Hnath’s Nightnight, a one-act play about a space mission that goes awry, courtesy of Soundscapes, a Playwrights Horizons podcast; at Playing on Air, you can also listen to an even shorter audio play: Hnath’s The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith (followed by an interview with Hnath and the actors), in which Hnath wrestles with the inverse relationship between celebrity and authenticity. That’s an issue that’s obliquely raised in The Christians, too.
5. Hiding in Plain Sight (Adrienne Kennedy Festival; Round House Theatre and McCarter Theatre Center): Adrienne Kennedy is one of America’s greatest living playwrights, but odds are you’ve seen few or none of her plays. She’s taught and read in colleges but rarely produced, with theater companies steering clear because of her content (the long shadow of racism in America) and form (relentlessly, thrillingly experimental, with a challenging mix of the sentimental and the surreal). “Heaven knows she’s never written a box office-friendly play in her life,” Charles Isherwood wrote in a 2007 review of a Kennedy play. “But she is surely one of the finest living American playwrights, and perhaps the most underappreciated.” True then. Still true now.
All the more reason to celebrate Round House Theatre’s just-launched four-play Kennedy playfest, which will conclude with a world premiere featuring a lifelong sibling rivalry (Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side). Before that, there’s three Kennedy meditations on this country’s nightmarish past: Kennedy’s recent He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box (think interracial Romeo and Juliet, set in 1941 and similarly star-crossed); the Obie-winning Sleep Deprivation Chamber (written with her son Adam, and partly about a nightmarish experience he had with the police); and the semiautobiographical Ohio State Murders, in which a young woman attending Ohio State in the early 1950s confronts murderous racism.
I’ve seen the first play (He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box) thus far; the second (Sleep Deprivation Chamber) was just released this past Sunday night. Plays three and four will be released, respectively, on December 5 and 12; there are also several free panel discussions addressing Kennedy’s work.
If the remaining three plays are half as good as the first – shot with three cameras and ingeniously staged with props suggesting the haunted museum that is American history – my investment in a $60 Festival pass, allowing unlimited streaming of all four plays through February 2021, will have been a steal (you can also purchase plays individually, but you’ll save dollars if you buy a pass). Kennedy’s elliptical plays beg for repeated viewings; Round House has made that possible. As I noted in my introduction this week, even a pandemic gives us plenty of reasons to be grateful.
References (in order of mention):
* Wallace Shawn, Evening at the Talk House & Aunt Dan and Lemon (The New Group):
* Clint Dyer and Roy Williams, Death of England: Delroy (National Theatre):
* August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (official Netflix trailer):
* Monica Dolan, The Lily Parr Fan Club (Old Vic):
* A Tribute to Toni Morrison: Song of Solomon Marathon Reading (Literary Partners):
* In the Kitchen (Lights!Camera!Soul!):
* The Cooking Project (Dominican Artists Collective; New York Theatre Workshop):
* Sri Rao, Bollywood Kitchen (Geffen Playhouse; Hypokrit Theatre Company):
* Amir Nizar Zuabi, This is Who I Am (PlayCo and Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company):
* Richard Nelson, Hungry: The Gabriels, Part One (Public Theater):
* Richard Nelson, What Did You Expect? The Gabriels, Part Two (Public Theater):
* Richard Nelson, Women of a Certain Age: The Gabriels, Part Three (Public Theater):
* Luis Alfaro, The Greek Trilogy (Center Theatre Group and the Getty Museum):
* Lucas Hnath, The Christians (Next Act Theatre):
* Lucas Hnath, Nightnight (Playwrights Horizons):
* Lucas Hnath, The Courtship of Anna Nicole Smith (Playing On Air):
* Adrienne Kennedy Play Festival (Round House Theatre and McCarter Theatre Center):