Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 28

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 | VOLUME 26 | VOLUME 27


VOLUME 28 (DECEMBER 2, 2020): WHY DICKENS MATTERS

In 1831, the 19-year-old Charles Dickens – having long dreamt of a career on stage – secured an audition at Covent Garden. But he came down with a cold on the appointed day, forcing him to request a postponement until the following season. By then, Dickens was a cub reporter, taking his first steps toward becoming our greatest English novelist.

That doesn’t mean that Dickens ever truly let go of his youthful dreams. “Literature was his wife, the theatre his mistress,” Simon Callow writes, in his splendid Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World. “To the very end,” Callow continues, “he was tempted to leave the one for the other.”

No English novelist is more theatrical than Dickens; few understand the possibility and power of transformation better than he does. Putting those changes in full view of an audience – as Dickens continually did through dramatic readings and theatrical adaptations – was about more than scratching an actor’s itch. It was also a moral choice, physically embodying our ability to actively create our own narratives by using the power of the imagination to change who we are.

That’s why A Christmas Carol remains an international phenomenon. Carol didn’t just play an integral role in the invention of Christmas, and Dickens’ hopeful message of forgiveness and redemption isn’t just a fairy tale for children. Carol also promises – as Dickens regularly does – that we can remake the world, one person at a time.

A Christmas Carol,” reflects Milwaukee theater legend Lee E. Ernst – a former Milwaukee Rep Scrooge who came back to Wisconsin for the Rep’s Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol (see pick one, below) – is about “hope, redemption and unity.” It’s about “reaching out, connecting and unifying,” Ernst continues, in a Milwaukee Rep clip on why this story still speaks to him and so many of us. Those actions, Ernst suggests, are “the most important thing in the world.” Especially now.

“Scrooge’s problem,” I wrote in reviewing Ernst’s 2004 Milwaukee Rep performance as Dickens’ covetous old sinner, “is not that he feels too little, but rather way too much. He does not need a conversion experience, but an interpreter who can help him read the forgotten language of his own heart.” Dickens was a brilliant interpreter of such language; as Callow puts it so well, Dickens gives us “intense and detailed connection with emotional truth as opposed to mere theatrical effect.”

That’s true as well of all great actors; Ernst is among the many who have taught me such truths, about Dickens and the world. This week’s picks offer multiple opportunities to witness theater artists bringing Dickens to life and helping us better understand ourselves. I haven’t crammed all of my Dickens recommendations into this week’s edition; there’s other time-sensitive theater with a limited streaming shelf life, and I want to share some of that, too. But as I note in introducing pick two, below, I’ll be offering additional helpings of Dickens throughout December.

What are your favorite memories of seeing Dickens brought to life on stage or screen? What’s your favorite Dickens novel (Bleak House, for me)? I’d love to know. You can reach me through Forward at info@forwardtheater.com or directly at mjfischer1985@gmail.com. As always, both “theater” and “Fischer” are spelled with an er.


Bonus Selections:

First, here’s some of the performing artists among the many more associated with The Liz Swados Project – a new album featuring current theater luminaries from Heather Christian and Dave Malloy to Taylor Mac and Michael R. Jackson – singing songs composed by one of the theater giants of the past half century. Swados had a “voice,” Meryl Streep rightly observed, that “has not been duplicated in the theater.” And never will be.

* The Liz Swados Project (selections and interviews, through Dec. 8): WATCH

* The Liz Swados Project (album): LISTEN

Second, a comic variation on the theme of the audition from hell, featuring a renowned actor (Lee Wilkof) and a snotty Brit director (Greg Germann). Guaranteed to make you laugh (and wince): WATCH

Third, here’s a link to register for Theater of War’s free reading this Saturday at 3:00 CST (with a cast that includes Bill Murray) of the Book of Job, as a means of addressing the relationship between this great Hebrew poem and our own struggles with disaster, pestilence, and injustice: REGISTER

And here’s an excellent, related article from Elif Batuman in The New Yorker about Theater of War (which I’d first called to your attention in volume 6), which is doing so much to connect theater and community engagement involving issues including racial injustice, PTSD, sexual violence, immigration, gun violence, health care, and the Covid pandemic: READ


Selections for Volume 28 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):


1. Caroling with Mark and Lee (Milwaukee Repertory Theater):

Hoping to bring back live theater this year, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater published the gold standard for Covid safety protocols, prompting Equity to conditionally approve one of the few in-person productions it has authorized since March: Lee E. Ernst’s rendition of actor Tom Mula’s Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol. Mula’s play is a one-actor story theater version of Dickens’ novella, told from the standpoint of its most wrenching ghost. Reviewing a 2017 Milwaukee production, I described Mula’s piece as an “ingenious variation in which Marley is promised salvation if he saves Scrooge’s soul.”

But Marley couldn’t save live performances. Under City of Milwaukee regulations, rising Covid case counts in Wisconsin forced the Rep to keep its doors closed to theater patrons. True to the adage that the show must go on, the Rep has responded by offering not one but two (!) alternatives.

A Christmas Carol | Jonathan Wainwright

First up: the Rep is making available a 2016 performance of Milwaukee Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements’ adaptation of Carol – first unveiled that year – starring Jonathan Wainwright as Scrooge. “Even in his earliest, most curmudgeonly moments, this Scrooge is already softening,” I wrote in my 2016 review. “Always a warm actor and a comparatively young Scrooge,” I continued, “Wainwright is more accessible – and susceptible – to outside influences.” As its holiday gift to theater fans everywhere, the Rep is providing a free, on-demand stream of this 2016 Carol – which includes performances by Forward Advisory Company member Rána Roman and onetime Forward actors Angela Iannone and Chantae Miller – through December 24.

Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol | Lee Ernst

Next, from December 10-24, the Rep is bringing Ernst to us from the Quadracci Powerhouse stage, in a fully realized and filmed rendition of Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol directed by Clements (tickets are $20 per household). Count on Ernst, a gifted physical actor who has been sorely missed since leaving Wisconsin, to bring Marley’s story to life while honoring what’s best about story theater. “At its best,” I wrote in my 2017 review of Mula’s play, “story theater practices what theater always preaches: fostering empathy by empowering us to tell stories that extend beyond our selves. It embodies what makes theater different and better than any movie.” Amen.


2. Caroling To and Fro, Part One (A Christmas Carol; Various Theater Companies):

Debuting in 1976, the Milwaukee Rep’s Carol is the second longest continuously running production in the country (the Guthrie Carol in Minneapolis, about which I’ll have more to say in a few weeks, commenced one year earlier). Courtesy of the Milwaukee Rep, I’ve included a delightful photo album (with some B-roll) raising the ghosts of Rep Christmas Carols past, straight from the stage of Milwaukee’s historic Pabst theater.

But much as I love this venerable Milwaukee tradition, I’m acutely aware that the ever-expansive Dickens and his most beloved story are much too big to be held by a single city or theater company. And both Dickens and Carol are just too great to only be experienced once; that’s why theater fans like yours truly come back, year after year. I reviewed the Milwaukee Rep Carol countless times and more than any other show in my career. I never even came close to running out of things to say.

That’s why I’ll be devoting space throughout December to some of the many other editions of Carol playing this year. Some are world premieres, written in response to the logistical and emotional challenges of the pandemic. Others are venerable chestnuts, unlocked from the vault or being captured virtually this year. At least one, from Britain, will be presented live from stage (more on that next week).

As has been true with every show I’ve written about since May, all of these materials are now newly available and accessible, to audiences everywhere. Imagine me as your Ghost of Christmas Present, taking you on the sort of whirlwind tour through which this Ghost allowed Scrooge to see how Christmas is celebrated around the world. In seeing how Carol is done from coast to coast and across the sea, you’ll hopefully be able to experience similar tidings of joy. Supplementing the two Milwaukee Rep Carols referenced above in this week’s first pick, here’s three more Carols – all currently available – to help you start December on a festive note.

Estella Scrooge

First, consider watching Betsy Wolfe (Waitress) as the title character in Estella Scrooge, about a Wall Street predator who, on Christmas Eve, is set to foreclose on a local hotelier – only to learn it’s her childhood friend, Pip Nickleby (yes, as the name suggests, Estella Scrooge also draws on Dickens’ creations beyond Carol). An original holiday musical made during the pandemic by Paul Gordon (Jane Eyre) and director John Caird (Les Misérables; Nicholas Nickleby) the cast is loaded with Broadway luminaries, including Clifton Duncan, Lauren Patten, Carolee Carmello, Patrick Page and, playing Estella’s famous ancestor Ebenezer, the one and only Danny Burstein. If you use the link provided below, 30 percent of the $30 ticket price (for a 72-hour rental) will benefit Door County’s fabulous Third Avenue Playhouse, which I’ve described in a past review as among the “crown jewels of Wisconsin theater.”

A Christmas Carol (radio) | Goodman Theatre

A Christmas Carol Teaser | Goodman Theatre

Second, Chicago’s Goodman Theatre has been staging Carol for almost as long as Milwaukee Rep; Larry Yando, whose long and distinguished career includes productions with the Rep, has played Scrooge in the Goodman Carol 12 times. This year Yando will make it 13 by way of the Goodman’s free radio rendition, which will also feature onetime Milwaukee Rep Emerging Professional Artist and currently rising Chicago star Jennifer Latimore as Belle and frequent Milwaukee Rep performer Bethany Thomas as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Running through December 31, the Goodman’s radio Carol is free.

A Christmas Carol | Geffen Playhouse

Third, concluding this week’s initial Carol round-up: How about a Carol in which the stupendous Jefferson Mays – who played 37 characters in his Tony-winning performance in I Am My Own Wife and another nine in his Tony-nominated performance in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder – tackles more than 50 in enacting Dickens’ tale? That’s what Mays first did in 2018 at the Geffen Playhouse, in a production that’s now been adapted for the screen by Mays, Michael Arden and Dane Laffrey. Filmed at the United Palace in New York, it runs through January 3 for $50; proceeds benefit one of the sponsoring theaters, based on a purchaser’s zip code. You can opt out of this zip code system and purchase directly from the sponsoring theater of your choice; with that in mind, I’m providing a link to a Playbill article listing each of the sponsoring theaters as well as the general purchase website address. Your ticket is good for 24 hours.


3. Two from Tennessee (A Streetcar Named Desire from the Williamstown Theater Festival; The Night of the Iguana from La Femme Theatre Productions):

Last June, Audra McDonald had imagined she’d be in New England, playing Blanche in a Williamstown Theater Festival production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Now, countless Audra fans who’d have been unable to make that pilgrimage can listen to an audio recording of the play, starring McDonald. Streetcar will be the first of seven audio plays coming our way from Williamstown in the next few months, thanks to a collaborative venture with Audible that will allow this fabled summer festival to present most of its planned 2020 season. Under Robert O’Hara’s direction, Streetcar becomes available on December 3; ensuing December releases from Williamstown include Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 (December 10); the world premiere of Stacy Osei-Kuffour’s Animals (December 17); and the world premiere of Hakina Nayfack’s Chonburi (December 31).

A Streetcar Named Desire

Incidentally, since one can never have enough of Saint Audra in one’s life: McDonald will be hosting New York City Center’s annual gala on December 9; for $35, you can access a stream (available to purchasers on an unlimited basis from December 9-16) allowing you to watch her (joined by longtime accompanist Andy Einhorn) spin gold, yet again.

Williamstown’s loaded Streetcar cast isn’t the only collection of all-stars paying homage this week to our greatest American playwright. From tonight through Sunday (December 6), you can watch a La Femme Theatre Productions cast led by Dylan McDermott (Hollywood) and Phylicia Rashad in a reading of Williams’ The Night of the Iguana; Emily Mann directs. With all proceeds going to the Actors Fund, pay-what-you-can tickets to the La Femme production begin at $10; a ticket gives one 48-hour access to the recorded stream.

The Night of the Iguana

Iguana is Williams’ great drama about a man’s losing struggle to save his soul – and about the redemptive power of art. American Players Theatre Artistic Director Brenda DeVita, who has called Williams her favorite playwright, once said that Iguana “represented a significant shift for me in what I thought theater could be”; Iguana would later become the first Williams play that APT staged, in a 2007 production that I still remember.


4. A Rarely Performed Gem (Fefu and Her Friends; Seasons of Concern Chicago): Why do infrequently performed playwrights Adrienne Kennedy (profiled last week in Mike’s Picks) and Maŕia Irene Fornés get a bum rap for being too difficult? All while plays by Beckett, Ionesco, and Pinter are regularly performed (plays by all three of these men have, for example, been staged at APT)? Why, for that matter, is Tom Stoppard (a repeat player at APT) performed more frequently than Caryl Churchill, the greatest living Brit playwright?

While you’re considering such questions and pondering what constitutes a classic, allow me to share a few words from Stacy Stolz when asked about Fefu and Her Friends, the landmark 1977 Fornés play that Stolz is directing, in a production that’s being described as a “virtual enhanced stage reading” benefiting Season of Concern Chicago:

“This play settles some of my very unsettled feelings about being a woman in our country right now – what would it be like if I didn't have to censor myself or smile and stay calm when I’m feeling the opposite. It kind of scratches an infuriating itch. It’s a rare thing for a group of women to be given so much time and space to try to connect and grapple with their intimate feelings.”

Fefu and Her Friends

Set in a New England country house circa 1935, Fefu involves eight women who are ostensibly gathered to discuss an upcoming charity event. It then fragments into four other rooms in the house, where four scenes are played simultaneously to sections of a divided audience. They witness women discuss the impossibility of men and marriage – itself illustrative of this play’s intractable questions about what and why we fear and desire, inflected by what it means to be and survive as a woman.

A virtual reading may not be able to recreate this play’s bold formal experimentation, introduced at a time when terms like immersive or promenade theater were almost unknown. But a virtual presentation is likely to capture the play’s sense of isolation and fragmentation; it’s no accident that when directing the original production, Fornés encouraged her cast to act as though they were on film. And I’d never bet against the stellar Chicago cast that Chicago actor-producer Mary Beth Fisher and Stolz have assembled: Charin Alvarez, Sandra Delgado, Ora Jones, Delia Kropp, Sadieh Rifai, Lisa Tejero, Janet Ulrich Brooks and Penelope Walker. The reading will be available from December 5 through December 9; a $10 donation ($5 for seniors and students) gets you 24-hour access to the recorded stream. Following the opening performance this Saturday night at 7:00 CST, there will be a live talkback with members of the cast and production team.


5. Omnia Vincit Amor (The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk; Wise Children): I’ve previously made clear (in volumes 6 and 17) that I’m a huge fan of British director Emma Rice, whose warm, funny, and unabashedly romantic productions are delivered with flamboyant theatrical flair, reflecting Rice’s love affair with the English musical hall as well as an accompanying sense of whimsy and melancholy, infused with her nostalgia for a vanished era and ethos.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk | Trailer

As with Rice’s pandemic production of Romantics Anonymous in September, her remount of Daniel Jamieson’s The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk with her Wise Children theater company will feature live performances, brought to us from the stage of Bristol Old Vic by a company (including on-stage musicians) that has been isolating in a social bubble. Live performances run from December 3-5 (with an on-demand recording available from Dec. 11-18); tickets are roughly $27 in U.S. dollars.

Acclaimed upon its premiere in 2018, Jamieson’s piece (with songs by Ian Ross) channels the relationship of Marc and Bella Chagall, reflected in his paintings and her words and set against the backdrop of Jewish life in Europe in the tumultuous first half of the 20th century. In her Guardian review of the 2018 premiere, Lyn Gardner described the piece as a “small, vibrant and delicate thing, a two-hander that, through its exploration of the Chagalls’ marriage, considers the nature of creativity, the personal cost of art, the self-sacrifice involved in supporting someone else’s talent and the way that love itself can be an art. It may have been Chagall who painted the couple as flying lovers,” Gardner notes, “but day to day it was Bella who kept them airborne. The tension between a personal life and the artist’s life, where one stops and the other begins, is constantly examined in this deceptively simple and yet complex show.”



References (in order of mention):

* Simon Callow, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World. (Vintage, 2012).

* Lee E. Ernst, Returning to Milwaukee for the Holidays (Milwaukee Rep):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=giDKvoQos2U

*The Liz Swados Project (Public Theater profile, through Dec. 8): https://publictheater.org/productions/joes-pub/2020/j/the-liz-swados-pro...

* The Liz Swados Project (Ghostlight Records album): https://www.ghostlightrecords.com/thelizswadosproject.html

* Greg Germann, Any Song:
https://www.anysongproductions.com/

* Book of Job Project (Theater of War) (registration):
https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-book-of-job-knox-county-ohio-tickets-12...

* Elif Batuman, Can Greek Tragedy Get Us Through the Pandemic? (The New Yorker, 9/1/20):
https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/can-greek-tragedy-get-us-...

* Mark Clements, A Christmas Carol (Milwaukee Rep, registration and trailer):
https://www.milwaukeerep.com/shows/show/christmas-carol-2016/

* Tom Mula, Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol (Milwaukee Rep):
https://www.milwaukeerep.com/shows/show/jacob-marleys-christmas-carol/

* 45 Years of A Christmas Carol (Milwaukee Rep): https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/45-years-of-a-christmas-carol-...

* Paul Gordon, Estella Scrooge (Streaming Musicals):
https://www.universe.com/events/vip-theatre-experience-estella-scrooge-a...

* Tom Creamer, A Christmas Carol (Goodman Theatre):
https://carol.goodmantheatre.org/the-audio-play/

* Goodman Theatre, A Christmas Carol Teaser:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJvZahUjnvo&feature=emb_title

* Michael Arden, Dane Laffrey, Susan Lyons, and Jefferson Mays, A Christmas Carol (ticketing information):
https://www.playbill.com/article/filmed-version-of-a-christmas-carol-sta...

* Michael Arden, Dane Laffrey, Susan Lyons, and Jefferson Mays, A Christmas Carol (trailer):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0aaMkzme8ZA

* Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire (Williamstown Theater Festival):
https://wtfestival.org/shows-events/

* Tennessee Williams, The Night of the Iguana (La Femme Theatre Productions):
https://www.lafemmetheatreproductions.org/

* An Evening with Audra McDonald (2020 New York City Center gala):
https://www.nycitycenter.org/pdps/2020-2021/audra/

* Maŕia Irene Fornés, Fefu and Her Friends (Seasons of Concern Chicago and Theater Wit):
https://seasonofconcern.org/fefu-and-her-friends/

* Daniel Jamieson, with music by Ian Ross, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk (Wise Children):
https://www.wisechildrendigital.com/

* Daniel Jamieson, with music by Ian Ross, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk (trailer, 2018 production):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHIYfbbEGIk