Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 3

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 3: JUNE 1, 2020

Novelist Richard Powers coined the gorgeous phrase “the shared solitude of reading” to convey how writers and readers come together, even when they’re alone. Never has Powers’ concept more fully resonated with me than it does now, as I think about what it means for theater artists and audiences during this pandemic.

Yes, we’re physically distant from one another. But as we watch the artists we love from our separate rooms, who is to say that we don’t dream and hope together about all that it means to be alive? Many of this week’s selections explore the meaning of community in a fractured time. And they dare to imagine what a great song from one of this week’s picks tells us: even when you walk through a storm, you never walk alone.

You can confirm this truth by sharing your reactions and thoughts as well as any of your own streaming recommendations with me, either through Forward at or directly at In the interim, I’ll introduce this week’s five streaming recommendations with two brief bonus selections to tide you over and lift your spirits.

First, thanks to a tip from Forward Advisory Company member Clare Haden – like me, a big fan of musician Heather Christian, whom I featured in last week’s picks – here’s Christian channeling We Are Not Strangers, from the late Elizabeth Swados’ 1978 musical, Runaways: WATCH

Second, in honor of the great Spike Lee – included in this week’s picks below – here’s a loving tribute to New York City, brought our way with a hefty assist from ol’ Blue Eyes and including a closing homage to the hospital workers who have done so much to keep our country alive: WATCH

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

1. Pass Over: (Steppenwolf Theatre/Spike Lee): As Minneapolis erupted following the murder of George Floyd, I was watching Steppenwolf Theatre’s world premiere production of Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, as filmed by Spike Lee. Nwandu’s searing play focuses on two Black men trying to escape their hellish world while confronting systemic police violence (Black Americans are three times more likely than their white counterparts to be shot by the police).

Pass Over wrecked me when I first saw it at Steppenwolf in the summer of 2017. That September, Lee filmed the play as it was performed for an invited audience. Using a revised script that would form the basis for an ensuing Lincoln Center staging in 2018, Lee’s film is as powerful as the world premiere production I saw.

And as timely as ever, a point underscored by Floyd’s death – itself following closely on the killings this spring of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky. Aided by Lee’s close-ups and cuts to a largely Black and clearly pained Steppenwolf audience, Pass Over is hard to watch. But much like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – to which Pass Over pays homage – it’s also bleakly funny, as it takes down white privilege and the American Dream. And it's a call to action, of a sort theater delivers with greater urgency and power than any other art form.

Incidentally, Lee’s latest film – Da 5 Bloods, about four Black veterans returning to Vietnam 40 years later to recover the body of their squad leader – will be released on June 12.

2. Out of the Woods (American Players Theatre): Friends, Americans, Countrymen and Countrywomen! Lend me your ears! I don’t come to bury Caesar, but to praise American Players Theatre, for launching a six-play series of play readings featuring its stellar Core Acting Company and other APT actors. And yes, Julius Caesar is among them, brought back to life with the same director (Stephen Brown-Fried) and many of the same actors we’d have seen this summer under the stars that canopy APT’s Hill Theatre – had the pandemic not forced cancellation of APT’s season.

APT’s series offers something old and something new. Opening with a reading of Chekhov one-acts first staged at APT 35 years ago, Out of the Woods concludes with a world premiere reading of James DeVita’s An Improbable Fiction, in which some restive but ever-resilient Shakespearean characters gather at The Boar’s Head Tavern to ruminate on the state of the world and dream a better one. Intervening weeks include plays by Shakespeare (of course!), Shaw, and Carlyle Brown.

Streamed live and then recorded by PBS Wisconsin, the readings will post on six successive Fridays from June 5 to July 10 (7:00 CDT) on PBS Wisconsin's website. Viewing will remain free for each previously posted episode through July 19, which means you could really go nuts and binge watch them all, once the final reading has posted in mid-July. But why wait until then when you can watch Tracy Michelle Arnold, David Daniel, Forward Advisory Company member Sarah Day, Colleen Madden, Brian Mani, James Ridge and Marcus Truschinski kick things off this Friday night with Chekhov? To ask the question is to answer it.

You might consider accompanying your APT watching with some excellent reading, courtesy of James Shapiro’s 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. Two of the four plays Shakespeare wrote during that incredible year – both discussed at length and well in Shapiro’s book – are the two Shakespeare plays being read as part of APT’s Out of the Woods series: As You Like It as well as Julius Caesar.

3. A Monster Calls (The Old Vic, in association with Bristol Old Vic): If you happened to catch director Sally Cookson’s thrilling staging of Jane Eyre – among the free National Theatre streams which are the gift that keeps on giving during this pandemic – you’ll have some idea of what awaits when Britain’s storied Old Vic (200 years old in 2018!) makes Cookson’s production of A Monster Calls available for six days: from this Friday through Thursday, June 11.

Based on the 2011 Patrick Ness novel that was made into a film in 2016, A Monster Calls is the story of the relationship between 13-year-old Conor and the giant yew tree that promises him three tales in exchange for a fourth from him: “the truth. Your truth. The one that you hide.” In his 2018 review for The Guardian, Michael Billington described those tales as a cross between Brecht and the Brothers Grimm.

While I haven’t seen this production, the trailer and the rave reviews suggest that it’s vintage Cookson: robustly physical and communal storytelling, delivered with minimal props and an overflowing bucket of imagination. The Old Vic recommends it for viewers aged 10 and above.

Speaking of the Old Vic, Artistic Director Matthew Warchus recently announced that it will be remounting last year’s acclaimed production of Lungs, by a playwright Forward fans know well: Duncan Macmillan, who also wrote Every Brilliant Thing.

Starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith (the first Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in The Crown), this two-hander about choosing hope in a time of despair will be performed – wait for it – live each night on stage, without an audience in the theater and with social distancing protocols in place for the two actors. Tickets for virtual viewing of each performance will be capped at 1,000 – the capacity of the theater itself.

Dates for a limited June run have not been announced as of this writing, but you can sign up for alerts (link provided below). I’ll have more to say on this production – of a play I liked a lot when I first saw it at Third Avenue Playhouse in Sturgeon Bay – in a future issue of this weekly newsletter.

4. Carousel (Lincoln Center): Carousel is not only Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest musical. It’s one of the great musicals of the twentieth century, period. And ever since Nicholas Hytner’s landmark Royal National Theatre production in 1992 – pivotal in rescuing the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon from its increasing relegation to staid summer stock – critics have come to see that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals are far more radical and subversive than is customarily acknowledged (Carousel, for example, is hardly an apology for spousal abuse; properly directed, it’s a flat-out indictment of toxic masculinity and the consequent price women pay).

In this century, the divine Kelli O’Hara has played an integral role in the Rodgers and Hammerstein revival, which makes Lincoln Center’s free streaming of her performance as Julie Jordan a can’t-miss event. Appearing in a 2013 semi-staged version of Carousel with the New York Philharmonic, O’Hara joined the operatic Nathan Gunn as Billy, Stephanie Blythe as Nettie, Jessie Mueller as Carrie, Jason Daniely as Enoch, and Shuler Hensley as Jigger Craigin, in a production that New York Times critic Charles Isherwood rightly praised for being “as gorgeously sung a production of this sublime 1945 Broadway musical as you are ever likely to hear.”

Available for free starting at 7:00 CDT this Friday, June 5, Carousel launches Broadway Fridays, an exciting new Lincoln Center at Home series that confirms June is indeed bustin’ out all over. The series will continue with Douglas Carter Beane’s The Nance (starring Nathan Lane) on June 12 and James Lapine’s Act One (starring Tony Shalhoub, Andrea Martin and Santino Fontana) on June 19.

By the way, Todd S. Purdum’s Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution, is a terrific and entertaining read; it’s especially good on earlier Rodgers and Hammerstein collaborations like Carousel. You can order a copy from your favorite independent bookstore.

5. E.M. Lewis’s Audio Diary (The Subtext) - listen via iTunes, Stitcher, or Google Play: Oregon-based playwright and opera librettist E.M. Lewis had quite a month of May. She collected her second Steinberg Award (conferred annually for the best play to debut outside of New York City) for How the Light Gets In, a romantic comedy about four people who find each other when one of them falls apart (full disclosure: I’m a Steinberg Award judge). Magellanica, her five-hour, five-part epic about Antarctica and climate change (and so much more), was recorded for future release as an audio play.

To cap things off, American Theatre has just released an audio diary Lewis kept for one month of her time in quarantine. It’s stunning. I’ve listened to scores of such ruminations from theater artists since the pandemic began, many of them excellent. Lewis’s wide-ranging reflections have moved me most.

Like most of us, Lewis is craving for a moral to an ongoing story – all while “weighed down with uncertainty” which, she admits, has proven “heavier than expected.” She worries about her parents. She grieves for the intimacy we’ve lost. She worries about our politics of division, while noting that we now need each other more than ever. She reflects on the fragility and unfairness of the world we’ve made; she’s enraged by the Arbery murder in Georgia (the released diary concludes before the Floyd murder in Minneapolis).

But buoyed by writers like Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry and Viktor Frankl, Lewis also reminds us that no person or government can seize the meaning of our individual stories. And she offers hope for the new ones that we’ll make together in the years ahead.

Lewis’s diary comes our way courtesy of playwright Brian James Polak’s Subtext, an American Theatre podcast that’s been around since 2015. In ordinary times, each episode features Polak interviewing a playwright, but these aren’t ordinary times. In the past three episodes, Polak has shared playwrights’ reflections on the moment we’re in, as well as readings of excerpts from 15 plays whose premieres were cut short or didn’t happen (many of the readings are performed by actors originating the roles for these stillborn productions). It’s a memorial to what’s been lost. But it’s also a promise of what’s to come.

I promise you more viewing and listening suggestions next week.

References (in order of mention):

* Elizabeth Swados (covered by Heather Christian), We Are Not Strangers:

* Spike Lee (accompanied by Frank Sinatra), New York, New York:

* Antoinette Nwandu and Spike Lee, Pass Over Trailer (Amazon Studios):

* Spike Lee, Da 5 Bloods Trailer (Netflix):

* Out of the Woods (American Players Theatre readings):

* James Shapiro, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. (Harper Collins: 2005)

* National Theatre at Home:

* A Monster Calls (trailer):

* Old Vic Production of Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs:

* Rodgers and Hammerstein, Carousel:

* Todd S. Purdum, Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution (Henry Holt: 2018)

* E.M. Lewis, Audio Diary: