Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 30
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
VOLUME 30 (DECEMBER 16, 2020): GIVING STORIES
Three days after watching the Forward Theater production of Heidi Schreck’s Grand Concourse – the third of three free readings Forward Theater made available this Fall to subscribers – I’m still on a high as I reflect on how good it was and how much it taught me, regarding a script I thought I knew. Good productions regularly do that, surprising us by revealing new truths about the world and ourselves and thereby challenging our sense of who we are so that we might grow. There’s been far more of such theater this year than I’d imagined was possible back in March. I wouldn’t write this weekly column if I didn’t believe that.
I’ll save the accolades for next week, when I close out the year by giving one last shout-out to some of the theater companies both in and outside of Wisconsin that have done most to sustain me during this long year. Forward leads them all, for many reasons I’ve waxed about at length in prior columns and therefore won’t repeat here.
Instead I want to make a modest proposal, as you rack your brains for last-minute holiday ideas: get two for the price of one by giving the gift of stories while simultaneously forging and participating in community, during a moment when we’ve never felt so isolated or needed each other more. How might you do so? Why, through theater. Of course.
More than 150 households who’d watched Grand Concourse came together afterward for a talkback. Five days earlier, as I reported last week in Volume 29, I’d hung out with people Zooming in from all over the world, celebrating the holidays through songs and trivia contests before an American Blues Theatre performance of It’s a Wonderful Life. Still earlier this month, I participated in London-based Scenesaver’s inaugural theater book club meeting, discussing a play we’d all read together; it was a blast. (Come join me! I include scheduling and registration info below).
You can’t get any of that on Netflix. And you won’t get nearly as good a deal on Netflix as you would if you were to bridge the physical gap with loved ones through a theater subscription from a company like Forward ($75 per household; there’s also great deals, with discounts for artists and younger patrons, on individual tickets for any of the three fully produced shows Forward will be sharing this Spring). Can’t visit friends and family right now? Watch a show or three with them. Virtually as in person, theater allows you to reach out and touch someone, at a time when our craving for such contact is greater than ever.
Here’s hoping I see you on camera before or after a Forward show, or in one of the many virtual lobbies hosted by theater companies bringing us together to discuss the actors and shows we love, as we eagerly await the day when we’re once again in the same physical space. Of course, you can also always reach me through Forward at email@example.com or directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. And as always, both “theater” and “Fischer” are spelled with an er.
*First, here’s Jimmy Fallon and Andrew Rannells, offering a clever and cathartic recap of 2020 through iconic numbers from some of your favorite musicals: WATCH
*Second, here’s Daveed Diggs, in a song written with collaborators William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes, singing their new Hanukkah song A Puppy for Hanukkah: WATCH
*Third, join various Broadway stars – sharing songs based on traditions from their own homes or the homes in their shows – while traveling to places as culturally and geographically distinct as Newfoundland and South Africa. The scheduled lineup includes Alan Cumming, onetime Madison actor André De Shields, Forward Advisory Company member Karen Olivo, and Broadway Inspirational Voices (discussed in last week’s column). It streams for free through Saturday (Dec. 19); donations to Broadway Cares are encouraged: WATCH
*Fourth, here’s an inspiring, just-released 35-minute video from Milwaukee’s First Stage, making clear why no pandemic will vanquish the creative impulse through which theater embodies what’s best and bravest about being human: WATCH
Caroling To and Fro, Part Three (A Christmas Carol; Various Theater Companies).
As promised in Volume 28, 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 how Carol is done from coast to coast and across the sea, you’ll be able to experience similar tidings of joy.
First, let’s travel to Columbus, Ohio, now the artistic home of longtime Wisconsin theater maker Leda Hoffmann. Hoffmann was the Associate Director for the 2016 Milwaukee Rep Carol, streaming for free through Christmas Eve (see Volume 28). After a stint as Artistic Director of Chicago’s Strawdog Theatre, Hoffmann moved to Columbus, Ohio in September, to take the reigns of CATCO (formerly the Contemporary American Theatre Company). From tonight through December 27, you’ll be able to stream the Hoffmann-directed A Columbus Christmas Carol, playwright Julianna Gonzalez’s contemporary retelling of Carol. Set in Columbus and featuring Scrooge as a bank owner, the cast of this Carol includes Forward Advisory Company member Nadja Simmonds. Tickets are $20 for 24-hour access from initial viewing. Come tonight (6:30 pm CST) and we can hang out together, watching the show and then attending the post-show talkback and opening night celebration. Wave hello while toasting Hoffmann and her cast: TICKETS
Second, from People’s Light in Philadelphia, comes a stirring 80-minute preview of the new adaptation of Carol they’d planned to unveil in their space this year. Conceived by Zak Berkman, it supplements passages from Dickens with a generous helping of music (traditional carols and new songs written by Berkman), emphasizing all those left out in the cold – including, first and foremost, young Scrooge himself. Don’t skip the inspiring preamble to this beautifully filmed and presented production, in which we see musicians setting up at home while actors arrive one by one on the stage where, working separately over the course of three days in November, they made this gift for us. It streams through January 3; tickets are $25: TICKETS
Third, let’s head to Glencoe, Illinois, where Writers Theatre Artistic Director Michael Halberstam has resurrected his acclaimed one-man edition of Carol, a staged (and now filmed) reading which scrapes away the treacle that often smothers Dickens, focusing instead on the hard truths revealed in this existential novella. Scrooge’s path toward redemption involves learning to accept failure; Halberstam’s performance – smartly filmed with four cameras that adds drama to the recreated dialogue – emphasizes how fully aware of his failures Scrooge already is. In the novella and in this film, disappointment and heartbreak flit around Scrooge as shadows, clouding his vision with reminders of the world that he’s tried and failed to shut out. Through his bravura performance, Halberstam presents one of the least sentimental and therefore most persuasive versions of Carol that I’ve yet seen this year. It streams through January 3; tickets are $15: TICKETS
Selections for Volume 30 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. Unquenchable Love (The Steadfast Tin Soldier; Lookingglass Theatre Company):
“What a great way to begin my theater journey into a new year and a new decade,” I wrote in my theater journal on January 3 of this year. I was concluding an entry on Lookingglass Theatre’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier, which I’d seen the night before in an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale by the reliably surprising and wonderful Mary Zimmerman.
I wrote those words before the pandemic; I stand by them in its wake. A story about resilience, love, and what’s truly important in life, this gorgeous and moving Lookingglass show – available for streaming through December 27 for $25 – is more relevant than ever. I should note that I haven’t yet seen the stream, but the trailer – a link to which I include below – suggests that it won’t disappoint (the film was shot during last year’s holiday remount of the original 2018 production).
Framed by a huge Advent calendar which embodies the passage of time as well as the surprises awaiting us behind life’s many doors, Zimmerman’s take on Andersen’s tale toggles between the busy nothings of everyday life and the big picture we therefore often miss; these dramatic changes in perspective are underscored by repeated transitions from puppets to life-sized characters. If the one-legged soldier and his paper ballerina will enter immortality together, they must first come to fully appreciate each other, sharing the love they clearly feel but don’t quite know how to express; like those puppets, they must come alive and learn to think and move for themselves. The set-up suggests a film like The Remains of the Day, although Zimmerman’s theatrical magic is inimitable.
While The Steadfast Tin Soldier is ostensibly a fairy tale and will certainly appeal to the younger members of your family, Zimmerman is always alive to the power of story to express profound philosophical truths applicable to all of us; this is the woman, after all, whose brilliant, Tony-winning Metamorphoses gave us unforgettable theatrical images of some of life’s great lessons. I therefore recommend The Steadfast Tin Soldier, which clocks in at just 60 minutes, for kids from 1 to 92.
2. The Awkward Age (The Wolves; Philadelphia Theatre Company):
When the music died in March, UW-Madison was preparing to open the first Wisconsin production of Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves, a phenomenal play about a soccer team of female teens that covers the waterfront: the relationship between sexism, curiosity about one’s changing body, and sex; unwanted pregnancies and abortion; anorexia and anxiety disorders; class and competition; heteronormative pressures to be the same as everyone else and all the ways one intuitively feels different. Happy Days it ain’t.
DeLappe doesn’t beat you over the head with any of this. The fault lines dividing this ostensible team emerge gradually through dialogue and physical interaction as the girls prepare for various matches in distinct scenes, each marking the passage of one week during an indoor soccer season. Philadelphia Theatre Company – which had also intended to stage DeLappe’s play last Spring – can’t deliver that physical choreography through its Zoom boxes; having seen Wolves two years ago at Goodman Theatre, I frankly missed seeing this feature on my screen.
But especially when the acting ensemble is as strong as one sees in this PTC production, a virtual performance places even greater emphasis on DeLappe’s dialogue – with the fractured syntax, dropped sentences, and volumes left unsaid characterizing that awkward age when adolescent girls toggle between the young women they sometimes already are and the interrupted childhood they’re leaving behind.
There are many plays covering similar territory, from Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour to Liliana Padilla’s How to Defend Yourself and Clare Barron’s Dance Nation. DeLappe’s play, a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer, is among the best. You can stream it through Sunday (Dec. 20); tickets are pay what you can.
3. Silent Night (All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914; Theater Latté Da):
Madison fell in love with this beautiful peace one year ago, when Four Seasons Theatre brought it to town as its holiday musical. Told through letters, journal entries, verse (including poems by Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon), and songs sung a cappella, All is Calm is the true World War I story of a brief interlude during which men slaughtering each other by day took time to sing, drink, and hug at night, reminding each other and themselves that they were better and shared more than existence as cogs in a killing machine.
After a brutal year when we’ve been divided by so much and the walls have often seemed so high, it’s hardly too soon for another look at this moving piece, courtesy this year of the Twin Cities’ Theater Latté Da, which birthed All is Calm as a radio drama 13 years ago. Produced by Laura Little Theatrical Productions (which also produced the acclaimed Off-Broadway run in 2018) and PBS, this rendition is a 65-minute film edited from four Theater Latté Da performances (supplemented by some pick-up shots) in Minneapolis late last year. It’s already playing at select times on television; it streams on demand from PBS beginning tonight.
Don’t wander off when the show itself ends; it’s followed by a 21-minute back story describing how All is Calm came to be and how creator Peter Rothstein came to his decision to use the actual words and names of those involved, the better to ensure that we’d never forget them.
4. A Merry Little Christmas (Meet Me in St. Louis; Irish Repertory Theatre):
Viewed from one angle, the 1989 stage version of this classic MGM musical is so old-fashioned as to be irrelevant; the small-time problems of an upper-middle-class family in 1903 St. Louis seem light years removed from 2020. But viewed from another angle, Meet Me in St. Louis is also a story of unexpected upheaval and change, centered on two young women with suppressed desires, conflicted inner lives, and unacknowledged competitive instincts that would be familiar to any of the soccer players in The Wolves.
Thanks to Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, it also has a wonderful score, including three standards (“The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song,” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”) that will forever be associated with Judy Garland. And in the outstanding virtual production now streaming courtesy of Irish Rep, it showcases a star being born in Garland’s role as Esther, second oldest and most lively of the four Smith daughters; Sheeren Ahmed even looks like a young Garland. And when Ahmed sings this musical’s best known song, promising that “next year all our troubles will be out of sight,” I began to cry. It’s been that sort of year, for all of us.
Ahmed shares the limelight with many members of this laudably diverse cast, which also includes the divine Melissa Errico as Mrs. Smith. They’re backed by a masked seven-piece orchestra, actually playing together. And while the cast members performed separately in bespoke green screen studios from their homes, they’re presented as credibly together; the Irish Rep has come a long way from its first virtual productions in the Spring. The technical legerdemain in this production’s rendition of “The Trolley Song” is as fine and convincing as anything I’ve seen any theater company do during a pandemic in which I’ve now streamed several hundred shows.
Irish Rep co-founder and Artistic Director Charlotte Moore – who inhabited Errico’s role in the 1989 Broadway production before further adapting the musical for a 2007 Irish Rep production – is the straw that stirs this drink. Her sure direction coaxes emotionally honest performances from the cast, ensuring that what could have been a cloying Hallmark production instead rings true. Especially in 2020. And wouldn’t you know it? Moore is from St. Louis, where she’s been quarantining since March. If the fates allow, this time next year I’ll be personally thanking her in New York for all her company has done for us during this trying year. Through January 2; tickets are pay what you can.
5. Caught in a Trap (Inside the Wild Heart; Brazilian Theater Company):
Since her untimely death in 1977, Brazilian Jewish writer Clarice Lispector – born in the Ukraine 100 years ago last week – has been called “a female Chekhov” (Benjamin Moser), “one of the hidden geniuses of twentieth-century literature” (Colm Tóibin), and “an artist who belongs in the same pantheon as Kafka and Joyce” (Edmund White).
My chosen comparator would be Virginia Woolf; as with Woolf, Lispector’s distrust of narrative and even language itself is informed by her status as an upper-class woman living in a man’s world (her husband was a Brazilian diplomat). “Coherence is mutilation. I want disorder,” Lispector writes in one story. “I used to be a married woman,” a character says in another story, “and now I’m a woman” (Lispector also divorced that diplomat).
In an immersive production that played New York in 2016 and 2018, Brazilian Theater Company attempted to capture Lispector’s aesthetic, presenting moments from nearly twenty Lispector novels, stories, and chronicles arranged as eleven separate journeys that unfolded simultaneously over three floors.
Using the gather.town platform, the company has virtually recreated its 2018 production (through Sunday; tickets are $20). One is assigned an avatar (think primitive icons from first-generation gaming) allowing one to navigate for two hours alongside the 2018 audience that saw this show in Aich Studio, a preserved 19th-century space in Gramercy Park that captures the claustrophobia (and the nostalgia) in so much of Lispector’s writing.
What results – unfolding in staged scenes, art installations, and scraps of text, all waiting for you to find them and click them to life – are numerous variations on the theme of women trying to break free from a constricting (and prescriptive) male gaze; when they can’t, madness often ensues. There’s nothing didactic about this. Lispector was no prude; as was true of her life, her fiction is sensual and romantic (appropriately, accompanying music in this production leans heavily on composers like Chopin, whom Lispector adored). Her characters are attracted to passionate love like moths to a flame, even though they know they’re going to get burned.
You’re sure to get lost at times as you wander through this two-hour production; it’s caught on the horns of the same dilemma confronting Lispector herself, who was trying to erase language and deconstruct narrative even as she used the first to create the second. If that sort of thing frustrates you, this isn’t your show. But Lispector would have had it no other way. “The truth,” one of her characters reflects, is “mentally unpronounceable.” And difficult as this production can sometimes be, it offers tantalizing glimpses of such truth. Call it love. Or God. Or beauty. Call it Clarice Lispector – urging us, even as we’re once again tempted to settle for less, to “erect within yourself the monument to Unsatisfied Desire.”
References (in order of mention):
* Scenesaver Theatre Club (information, schedule, and registration):
* Forward Theater Company ticket information:
2020-21 Ticket Info | Forward Theater
* Jimmy Fallon and Andrew Rannells, 2020: The Musical (NBC):
* Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes, A Puppy for Hanukkah (Disney):
* Home for the Holidays (Broadway Cares):
* Jose Casas, Jeff Frank, and Samantha Montgomery, Christmastown Comes to First Stage (First Stage):
* Julianna Gonzalez, A Columbus Christmas Carol (CATCO):
* Zak Berkman, A Christmas Carol in Concert (People’s Light Company):
* Michael Halberstam, One-Man Christmas Carol (Writers Theatre):
* Hans Christian Andersen (as adapted by Mary Zimmerman), The Steadfast Tin Soldier (Lookingglass Theatre):
* Sarah DeLappe, The Wolves (Philadelphia Theatre Company):
* Peter Rothstein, All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 (Theater Latté Da):
* Hugh Martin & Ralph Blane (score) with Hugh Wheeler (book), Meet Me in St. Louis (Irish Repertory Theatre):
* Debora Balardini and Andressa Furletti, Inside the Wild Heart (Brazilian Theater Company):