Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 29

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 26 | VOLUME 28


VOLUME 29 (DECEMBER 9, 2020): SOMETHING WONDERFUL

In one of two just-released American Players Theatre holiday shows (see pick one below), Tracy Michelle Arnold tags Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life as her favorite holiday movie. Mary MacDonald Kerr, who twice starred at Next Act Theatre in her adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life, says she is “nuts” for Capra’s movie. In this year’s second APT holiday show, Nate Burger looks into the camera and asks whether we love Capra’s movie as much as he does.

Yes, Nate, we do.

As I wrote in one of my reviews of Kerr’s adaptation, the back story of Capra’s great movie may be a bit hokey, but that “doesn’t make it any less believable or inspiring. No matter how often I see it, I walk away with renewed appreciation for what heroes the Baileys are.”

Coming at the end of a devastating Depression and a horrific war, Capra’s populist message was that any of us can be heroes, finding the stuff it takes to make a resounding difference. As Capra himself said in his 1971 autobiography, each and every one of us contains “a living atom of divinity,” which is why “compassion for others, friend or foe, is the noblest of all virtues. Films must be made to say these things, to counteract the violence and the meanness, to buy time to demobilize the hatreds.”

In Capra’s film as in life, we’re at a crossroads every day, making choices about which of our many possible selves we’re going to inhabit – and, in turn, whether we’re going to help build a genuine community like Bedford Falls or live in a dump like Potterville.

Do we want to replay the film of a wonderful life, in which we can see and learn from the connections we’ve made to others – how they changed us as we changed them? Or do we want to live the hell that Clarence visits on George, in which we’re so pristinely and perfectly alone that it’s as if we’ve never lived?

Many of this week’s picks pose these and similar questions, and not just through inspiring holiday shows like A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. This week’s picks also include stirring reminders that theater can change the world. Not just at Christmas, but all year long. It’s a Wonderful Life “isn’t about Christmas,” Burger rightly suggests, in his APT holiday show. It’s “about all the other days of the year, even the bad ones, and all of the rough things we go through, just trying to get to the next good day.”

I’d like to believe – I do believe – that the extraordinary solidarity we’ve seen this year, in our wars against the twin pandemics of Covid and racism, will continue into 2021 and beyond. There’s a reason Dickens pointedly insists that Scrooge not only “honour Christmas in my heart,” but “try to keep it all the year.”

Fostering empathy and forging community, theater regularly challenges us to do the same, as we work together – in how we play on the world’s stage – to live wonderful lives. This year, and every year. During the holidays, as well as during all the other days. Now, and forever. Or as the reborn Scrooge says, “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future” – much as Capra’s great 1946 film inspires us in 2020 to build back better in the years to come.

What’s your favorite It’s a Wonderful Life moment (I like watching ordinary people come together in the scene involving the run on the bank)? What’s your favorite adaptation of that movie? 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 where you can sign up for your free virtual ticket to this year’s edition of Broadway Inspirational Voices’ holiday concert, in which a jaw-dropping galaxy of stars including Audra McDonald, Patti LuPone, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Leslie Odom and Forward Advisory Company member Karen Olivo raise their voices on behalf of an organization dedicated to providing hope and transformation to young people through music and the arts. Sunday at 6:00 CST: TICKETS

* Second, you can warm up for Sunday night’s roof-raising concert by watching another gala of stars tomorrow night (Thursday, Dec. 10, 7:00 CST) on NBC’s One Night Only: The Best of Broadway, in which host Tina Fey will take us through the streets of New York with casts of many of the shows that were running last March, while previewing some of the shows scheduled to open in 2021. Learn more (and watch a trailer) here: WATCH

* Third, celebrate the arrival of the Festival of Lights this week, courtesy of the National Yiddish Theatre (which produced the acclaimed Yiddish revival of Fiddler on the Roof) and more than 50 of their closest friends (from Joel Grey to Beanie Feldstein) for the Folksbiene Chanukah Spectacular, an evening celebrating song and community streaming for free through 6:00 CST this Saturday (Dec. 12): WATCH


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

As promised last week, I’m devoting space throughout December to editions of A Christmas Carol playing this year. 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 the best of how Carol is done from coast to coast and across the sea, you’ll hopefully be able to experience similar tidings of joy. This week’s picks visit my three favorite theater cities in all the world.

First, from the greatest theater city in the land, the Chicago-based Manual Cinema is offering its hour-long Carol, a new show presented live each night in which Scrooge is Trudy Stevens: a successful Black businesswoman, widowed by Covid and discovering how much she’s taken for granted, for far too long. I’ve long been a huge fan of Manual Cinema (I talk about their aesthetic in Volume 11), in which steampunk and puppetry illuminate the anomie of modern life – and our power, as embodied by this company through their productions, to make change. That makes Dickens’ novella a natural for them, and their Carol – developed during the pandemic – doesn’t disappoint. Through December 20; tickets are $15: TICKETS

Next, let’s travel east to New York and check back in with the Classical Theatre of Harlem; when we last visited with this exciting troupe in Volume 6, they were hosting a rousing dance-party rendition of The Bacchae. In Shawn René Graham’s Carol, streaming for free through January 3, Scrooge is a Harlem real estate vulture who must learn not to prey on the people among whom he lives. I haven’t yet seen this one, which opened after my deadline. But I will: WATCH

Finally, across the water, London’s Old Vic will be bringing us a live Carol, in an adaptation by Jack Thorne (adaptor of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) helmed by Old Vic Artistic Director Matthew Warchus and starring Andrew Lincoln (Love Actually; The Walking Dead). I’ve previously recommended all three of Warchus’ live pandemic shows, in which actors perform in real time from the Old Vic stage, sans audience (see volumes 3, 11, and 16 of Mike’s Picks); each was excellent (and all three are receiving a second life, in recorded versions). This Carol, in which we’ll see Scrooge’s father shaping his son, will be Warchus’ most ambitious pandemic project to date: fully staged, it will feature 18 performers and live musicians. Performances run from this Saturday through December 24; tickets are roughly $27 in U.S. dollars: TICKETS



Selections for Volume 29 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):


1. Making it Wonderful (It’s a Wonderful Life at American Blues Theater; two holiday shows from American Players Theatre)

Before American Blues Theater’s live performance of It’s a Wonderful Life this past Saturday night, those of us who’d be watching – from points as far away as South Korea and from all over the United States – spent time on Zoom with the eight cast members, joining us from various Chicago basements and sharing songs, a name-that-tune contest, and a tribute to our heroic healthcare workers and first responders. It was almost as intimate and communal as being in a theater – while embodying the spirit of community at the core of Capra’s film.

It’s a Wonderful Life | American Blues Theater

Now in its 19th year, ABT’s radio adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life lifted me as much as anything I’ve watched on a screen this year, and I include minor Zoom glitches in that assessment. Much like George Bailey himself, the ABT cast demonstrated heart as well as courage in pulling this off. And through the audiograms that twice punctuated the show, that cast channeled the gratitude and love of the audience members who’d sent those missives to friends and family, while underscoring the ties binding us together, in Capra’s film and in life. Through January 2; tickets from $25-$55.

At first blush, Nate Burger’s tour-de-force rendition for American Players Theatre of Steve Murray’s This Wonderful Life – an adaptation in which one actor plays all the parts in Capra’s film – couldn’t be more different from ABT’s homespun magic. Murray self-consciously calls attention to those moments in Capra’s film that might seem overly sentimental or dated, and his chosen format – showcasing a single actor – potentially swims against the current of what’s unassuming and understated in George Bailey’s greatness.

It’s a Wonderful Life | American Players Theatre

But under the direction of frequent collaborator William Brown, Burger manages to simultaneously distance those moments in which Capra’s film hasn’t worn as well and nevertheless embrace that film, its characters, and its message. And Burger’s characteristically generous, unbounded enthusiasm transforms what could have been self-aggrandizing showboating into a loving demonstration of why Capra’s film and message matter.

Things are much lighter during the first two-thirds of the second APT holiday show. Performed by Tracy Michelle Arnold, Colleen Madden, and Forward Advisory Company member Sarah Day, who collectively developed the show alongside director Keira Fromm, APT’s Holidames: Tangled in Tinsel is a 60-minute variety show. The first 40 minutes feature songs, poems, alternately funny and poignant memories of performing in A Christmas Carol, and some holiday crafting.

Holidames: Tangled in Tinsel | American Players Theatre

Holidames saves the best for last: a 20-minute vignette featuring all three performers, which concludes with Arnold emphasizing that even as we evolve toward something new, it’s the past that’s made us who we are – and which still has plenty to teach. That’s a fitting message for a company that’s resolutely turned toward the future, while intent on honoring and continuing its justly renowned classical heritage.

Running through December 29, APT’s holiday shows are $24 each ($45 for both); rental is through Broadway On Demand and good for 24 hours.


2. Student Teachers(#Enough: Plays to End Gun Violence; Third Avenue Playhouse):

For all their attention to tradition and the past, the holidays’ primary focus is on the future, in which the starry-eyed child within all of us resurrects dreams of a better world that we often pretend we’ve forgotten. That makes next Monday’s #Enough event – involving seven short plays by young people which will be unveiled in simultaneous readings throughout the United States – very special.

#Enough: Plays to End Gun Violence | Third Avenue Playhouse registration

#Enough: Plays to End Gun Violence homepage

#Enough is the brain child of Wisconsin-raised and Chicago-residing Michael Cotey, one of the most exciting and passionate new directors to emerge from the Badger State in the decades I’ve been covering and consuming theater here. Inspired by the uprising of young people following mass shootings in Parkland, Dayton, and El Paso, Cotey organized a play competition, open to middle school and high school students, asking for submissions of 10-minute plays addressing gun violence that would then be judged by a superstar playwrights’ panel which includes Lauren Gunderson, David Henry Hwang, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Robert Schenkkan, and Karen Zacarías. Having received and vetted nearly 200 submissions from across the United States and abroad, #Enough will present the seven winning plays on December 14, the eighth anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre.

Along with high schools and colleges throughout Wisconsin, Sturgeon Bay’s Third Avenue Playhouse (TAP) is Wisconsin’s professional representative – joining a bevy of professional theater companies in the United States – staging these plays on December 14. Appropriately enough, many actors in the seven TAP casts are young people; among the more established participating actors rounding out those casts are DiMonte Henning, Chiké Johnson, and Ryan Schabach (Robert Boles, Malkia Stampley, and C. Michael Wright are among the directors). While the event (beginning 7:00 CST) is free, registration is required and donations to Sandy Hook Promise (website also in my references, below) are encouraged.

#Enough: Plays to End Gun Violence | Broadway on Demand

If you can’t make it next Monday, a free on-demand stream of the seven plays, with performances from six professional #Enough companies around the country (Alliance Theatre, Arizona Theatre Company, Berkley Rep, Goodman Theatre, Orlando Rep, and South Coast Rep) will be available at Broadway on Demand from December 14-20. As a lead-up to the December 14 readings, TAP is also sponsoring events all this week (each of which will be archived for viewing thereafter on its website), including an interview with Cotey and panel discussions involving the directors (tonight) and the young playwrights (Friday). Forward’s interview with Cotey, on its Theater Forward podcast, will also air this week, in advance of the December 14 readings.


3. Short Plays, Big Ideas (The Goodwin Project; Children’s Theater of Madison):

As Washington Post critic Peter Marks noted in a recent American Theatre podcast, playwright and Break Beak poet Idris Goodwin may not be known on Broadway, but he’s a superstar in the world of children’s theater. Madison is about to discover why, thanks to Children’s Theater of Madison’s free, week-long gift of four of Goodwin’s five recently created short plays, collectively entitled Short Plays for an Anti-Racist Tomorrow.

I’ve seen or read all five; ranging from The Water Gun Song (invoking the killing of Tamir Rice, in language appropriate for second-grade children) through the powerful #matter and Black Flag, both geared toward high-school students. What’s particularly impressive in these plays is their forthright engagement with some of the tripwires in almost any discussion involving race, in which our focus on words and tropes often thwarts a deeper understanding of why those words –and what they represent – are so fiercely contested.

Goodwin doesn’t let symbols become slogans; he instead pushes past the words to wrestle with what and why they mean, within the long nightmare of American history. It’s hard to do, especially in plays for young people. It’s why these plays are, truly, for everyone.

The Goodwin Project

Spearheaded by producer (and CTM education manager) Laura McMillan, the CTM productions feature all-BIPOC creative teams; each of the plays will be supplemented by a talkback and an extensive educational guide for parents and teachers. They’ll stream from December 10-17. You can warm up with a wonderful piece Goodwin wrote last spring to kick off Milwaukee Rep’s series of original commissions; performed by Goodwin, Your House is Not Just a House showcases his talents as a Break Beat poet, while offering parents and their children a refreshing, upbeat way to imagine the homes in which we’ve been confined as magical portals to brave new worlds.


4. Grilling America (Barbecue; Spotlight on Plays):

I can only fairly tell you so much about Robert O’Hara’s wildly inventive Barbecue, a 2015 play that he’s directing (in a cast that includes onetime Wisconsin-based actor Carrie Coon and onetime Chicago-based actor Laurie Metcalf) in an online reading this week for Spotlight on Plays.

Barbecue

I can say that meat isn’t the only thing being skewered in this serious, sometimes surrealistic satire about addiction in America: to substances, yes, but also to our narcissistic cult of personality and our related inability to distinguish fact from fiction. O’Hara presents this rollicking morality tale through two families that are seemingly mirror images – except that one is white and one is black. Once that’s scrambled your brain, the fun (and discomfort) with this play is just beginning.

If you’re a fan of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s brilliant, Pulitzer-winning Fairview – which plays with similar conceits and explores some of the same themes – this one is especially for you. Tickets are $5; the streaming link is good for 72 hours after it goes live tomorrow night (Dec. 10).


5. A Bard Hat Trick (Playing on with Shakespeare, alongside First Stage, Door Shakespeare, and Public Theater):

One can never have enough Shakespeare (check out Volume 10 for reasons why), and this week offers plenty.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

First, count on Forward fave Marcella Kearns to find something positive about directing a Shakespeare play in a pandemic: a virtual production by First Stage’s award-winning Young Company of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, an early and especially accessible Shakes play which streams at First Stage through December 14 (tickets begin at $15). While acknowledging the challenges involved in rehearsing a play remotely, Kearns has appreciated having “more time to dig into text, to discuss story, than we usually allow ourselves.” That story, involving young people wrestling with young love, makes Two Gents an ideal play for this ensemble of teen actors (one of whom, Madison Uphoff, hales from Madison; she is a first-rate Silvia).

Dream Upon Avon

Second, Door Shakespeare will be presenting three readings this weekend (December 11-13) of Wisconsin native John Kishline’s Dream Upon Avon, in which the Bard hangs out at his favorite Stratford tavern on Christmas Eve, exploring the true meaning of Christmas as a series of visitors join him in sharing their questions and dreams. The cast includes Cassandra Bissell and Neil Brookshire (who both recently made their Forward debuts), Deborah Clifton, and Duane Boutté, memorable as the Antipholi in Door Shakes’ recent virtual production of The Comedy of Errors (discussed in Volume 24). The readings are free.

Third, I want to call attention to four thought-provoking panels being presented by Public Theater, which is doing more to interrogate the ongoing relevance of Shakespeare – and how his plays might shed light on our current, tumultuous moment – than any theater company in America.

Brave New Shakespeare | The Public Theater & Brooklyn Library

The first panel took place in the aftermath of the November election; the panels continue through next week, after which all four will be available for free streaming. Their titles speak for themselves: Who’s There? Hamlet and Black Lives; A Thousand Dreadful Things: Shakespeare and the Fear of Black Vengeance; What is the City but the People? Shakespeare, Art, and Citizenship; and Two Monsters of Nature: Lope de Vega and Shakespeare (exploring corrupt monarchies in the context of colonialism). Co-sponsored with the Brooklyn Public Library, the panels bring scholars like Stephen Greenblatt, Jill Lepore, James Shapiro, and Ayanna Thompson together with playwrights like Eisa Davis and actors like Raúl Esparza, working together to think about how Shakespeare – yes, Shakespeare – might help us build back better. As we continue through this season of reflection and dream a better 2021, such conversations (and what they might portend, for theater and life) have never mattered more.



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