Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 31

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 31 (DECEMBER 22, 2020): MIKE'S BIG 10

During my years as a critic, my annual year-end ritual involved a weeks-long process of rereading and sifting every review I’d written during the year. I’d always begin on Thanksgiving night, thereby underscoring my gratitude for what theater artists had given to all of us during the preceding months. Armed with a huge, easel-sized sketch pad, I’d list shows and performances, using colored pencils to suss out themes while drawing lines to make connections. The resulting “pictures,” which I’d then translate into words, are among my most treasured theater-related keepsakes.

I’ve always been a big believer in theater awards; I’ve served for years on the committee that chooses the Steinberg Award for best new American play premiering outside New York, and I’m also a member of the Jeff Awards Committee, which annually honors the best of the year’s theater in Chicago. We should celebrate and honor theater excellence; doing so demonstrates profound respect for artists and their work. I’ve never subscribed to the view that all performances are equal and everyone gets a gold star just for showing up. Some shows and performances simply stand out. It’s not fair to the artists involved in them to deny or ignore this.

All that said, this hasn’t been a typical year. Every theater artist deserves a boatload of gold stars this year for all they’ve done to keep hope alive. And they’ve been making art under seemingly impossible conditions: holed up in their closets, becoming their own costume and lighting designers, working with scene partners who are often thousands of miles away, and imagining how laugh lines might land when there is no audience. I haven’t been in an actual theater while watching a single one of the hundreds of 2020 performances I’ve recommended to you this year. In this context, any sort of “best of” list feels disingenuous and dishonest.

Hence rather than focusing on individual performances and productions, I’m wrapping up 2020 by briefly focusing on ten theater companies – and, by extension, their often unsung and unappreciated personnel – who’ve done most to inspire me this year. I am grateful to all of them, as I am to every theater artist and company who shared with us this year. We’ve never needed your stories more, and you’ve consistently delivered.

As the first among equals, I’ve deliberately excluded Forward from this list; I’d need volumes to describe all it has done this year for theater artists in Wisconsin and for the audience members who watch them. Suffice it to say that in addition to its consistently excellent and comprehensive online programming, Forward has been a shining example of the way every theater company should treats its staff and its artists when we build back better in 2021.

Which is when I’ll next be with you; after a one-week hiatus, I’ll be back with Volume 32 on Wednesday, January 6. May the remainder of your holidays be filled with plenty of eggnog, online theater, and time to reflect, as we eagerly await the arrival of 2021. In the interim, I’d love to hear your own year-end thoughts on theater in 2020. You can reach me through Forward at or directly at As always, both “theater” and “Fischer” are spelled with an er. See you next year.

Bonus Selections:

*First: Ann Reinking, who died last week at 71, had “legs that seem to eat the stage,” writes critic Helen Shaw in New York magazine. For her part, the breathtaking Shaw uses words that seem to eat the page. You can see them both dance in Shaw’s brilliant tribute to Reinking, which includes seven embedded YouTube videos, collectively taking the measure of what we’ve lost with Reinking’s passing: WATCH

*Second: Here’s a link to the first of the five parts (four have dropped in the last week and are currently available; the fifth drops Wednesday) comprising Liz Shipe’s filmed version of her Once Upon a Midnight Clear, illustrating this talented, wildly inventive Milwaukee playwright’s ability to make our oldest stories new again (Father Christmas, Jack Frost, and the Krampus are among the legends at play in this one, raising age-old dilemmas involving whether one should or can surrender immortality for love – and the price one pays for doing so).

Reviewing a 2015 production of this play, I described Shipe’s work as “unabashedly theatrical, poetic, whimsical, formally innovative, and both attuned to the power of myth as well as courageously willing to reshape it.” Shipe’s pandemic-era film can’t convey the magic of seeing a full, much longer production of this piece in the theater; think of this film as an especially delectable amuse-bouche, whetting the appetite for a look at the latest version of Shipe’s full-length play, once theaters reopen. Shipe’s all-Wisconsin cast includes an hilarious James Carrington (Forward’s The Lifespan of a Fact), Kelly Doherty, Sean Duncan, Alicia Rice, and Zach Thomas Woods: WATCH

*Third: From Door County’s Third Avenue Playhouse, here’s a link to register for its free holiday production of The Gift of the Magi, directed by adaptor James Valcq and supplemented by musical performances from four musicians, including Katie Dahl, who I described in Volume 14 as “one of my favorite Wisconsin songwriters.” As it opened after my deadline for this column, I haven’t yet seen it, but I most certainly will. Here’s hoping you, too, find time for this beautiful embodiment of the spirit of Christmas; it streams through the end of 2020: WATCH

*Fourth and finally: For my last 2020 bonus pick, I turn once more to an artist who has done so much to help me through this year. Here’s Audra McDonald, in a preview of PBS’s upcoming New Year’s Eve of music (7:00pm CST), accompanied by a masked American Pops Orchestra as she sings Climb Ev’ry Mountain. From Mount Vernon. To honor the trailblazing women of American History. ‘Nuff said: WATCH

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

As promised in Volume 28, I’ve devoted space throughout December to editions of A Christmas Carol playing this year. This is the fourth and final installment, confirming for me and hopefully demonstrating to you that Dickens’ great novella can spawn endless variations on its central themes.

First: from the San Francisco Mime Troupe, I present the aptly named A Red Carol: a rousing, hour-long radio play with classic songs from the American labor movement (embellished with some tweaked lyrics and played by a three-piece band). Adapted and directed by Michael Gene Sullivan, this production occasionally breaks the fourth wall to explain Dickensian terms from the novella that we only think we understand: workhouses and poor laws, Christmas pudding and Christmas punch (the description of what’s really going on at the Cratchit Christmas dinner was especially eye-opening for me). A Red Carol also offers a timely message: Dickens’ novella isn’t just about Scrooge, but also about the legion of poor who subscribe to Scrooge’s ideology and swallow his lies, voting against their interest while being consumed by rage. Of the fourteen Carols I’ve presented to you during the past month, this one gets my vote for freshest, most innovative, and most timely take on this timeless tale. It’s also free: WATCH

Second: here’s a cinematic Carol from the company with the longest consecutive annual run of Carol productions: Minnesota’s Guthrie Theater. Teaming up with theater and filmmaker E.G. Bailey, Guthrie Artistic Director Joseph Haj reconceived Carol for four actors (two men and two women), each embodying Dickens as he writes his novella in Victorian London. The framing conceit can be fussy, but the acting of the four principals is top drawer; I was particularly taken with the regret afflicting the first two, Charity Jones and Ryan Colbert. Tickets are $10; the production runs through December 31: TICKETS

Third: It’s fitting that I end my month-long celebration of A Christmas Carol by ensuring attention is paid to the Milwaukeean we most identify with Dickens’ classic. Appearing as Cratchit, James Pickering was in the very first Milwaukee Rep Carol, in 1976; he’s appeared in nearly 30 of them since, including more than a dozen Rep productions of Carol in which he played Scrooge.

This year, Pickering reads Dickens’ novella (with judicious cuts as deftly made as those Fezziwig is said to execute on the dance floor) for Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, in a recording available for free at MCT’s website as one among several holiday offerings (I have more to say about MCT’s bounteous holiday gift below). Pickering not only gives individual voice to dozens of characters. He also adroitly travels Scrooge’s long dramatic arc, building slowly from a voice that’s flat and tight – small, and nearly lifeless – to the big-hearted joy of a laugh as long, “splendid,” and “illustrious” as Dickens insists it is. On stage, Pickering always made me believe in Scrooge’s transformation; he does so here, in a reading that confirms there’s no substitute for actually reading this wonderful book. May you find time to do so in this and every holiday season: WATCH

The Big Ten: Theater Companies Inspiring Me During 2020

Presented below in alphabetical order, here’s the ten theater companies that have done most for me during the pandemic – a nine-month interval during which I’ve now streamed several hundred productions – to keep the flame alive. Their programming has consistently underscored how beautiful our world can sometimes be, while simultaneously challenging us to make that world still better.

For reasons noted above, I’ve deliberately excluded Forward from this list; I’ve also excluded any assessment of the 55 productions I saw live through mid-March, because that sample size is too small and because I’d be comparing apples with oranges, bananas, and jackfruit. The best of virtual productions can’t compete with live theater. But right now, virtual productions are all we have – serving as a bridge to the other side of this pandemic.

American Players Theatre |

In an ordinary season, America’s finest classical theater company would give us nine shows. This year APT gave us eleven, ranging from Shakespeare and Shaw to recent plays by BIPOC writers and two new pieces written by APT Core Company members. APT also invited patrons to walk in its storied woods, accompanied by an audible recording of poems read by its actors. And there were interviews with those actors, conducted by APT Artistic Director Brenda DeVita from her porch. There’s no way anyone who’s seen shows at APT is ever going to forget the magnificent ensemble embodying them. But it was still comforting and wonderful to be given so many virtual reminders of how great they are, as we hope to see them live again come 2021.

Irish Repertory Theatre |

No company has made greater pandemic-related technological advances this year than the Irish Rep; I’ve seen no virtual productions that more credibly assemble separately filmed and isolated cast members than the Irish Rep’s A Touch of the Poet or the currently running Meet Me in St. Louis. In the early days – you know, six to eight months ago – the Irish Rep was already delivering the goods, but those productions relied more exclusively on the strength of the acting, as well as lyrical scripts featuring blokes with names like Friel, Joyce, and McPherson. The Irish Rep’s early and late work sandwiched Bill Irwin’s mesmerizing homage this Fall to Beckett, delivered from the shadows in the Irish Rep’s Chelsea space. Long respected in New York but relatively unknown outside it, the Irish Rep has used its expanding virtual footprint to win the renown and recognition it has long deserved.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre |

Weeks before theaters closed, new Milwaukee Chamber Artistic Director Brent Hazelton announced what would have been among the most dynamic and exciting new seasons – formally innovative, laudably inclusive, and deftly straddling the line between MCT’s rich heritage and a brave new future – that’s been programmed in all my years in Milwaukee. It was not to be, although MCT has now announced an exciting online season of plays for this coming Spring.

But MCT still managed to introduce a raft of online programming (I was an especial fan of Drunk Dramaturgy); completely overhaul its clunky website; stage an online reading of a new Romeo and Juliet adaptation that featured Milwaukee theater legends; and close the year with a bountiful holiday gift of hand-crafted songs, readings, and films, including a cooking lesson involving Forward Advisory Company member Rána Roman and James Pickering’s reading of A Christmas Carol (discussed among this week’s Carol options, above).

Milwaukee Repertory Theater |

Wisconsin’s largest theater was also among the first in the country to pivot once theaters closed in March. The Rep quickly filmed and streamed its then-running production of Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed; it has closed the year with a terrific film of Tom Mula’s Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, starring Lee E. Ernst, which the Rep came within inches of actually being able to stage for audiences (it remains available for on-demand streaming through Christmas Eve)

Between these book-ends, the Rep’s robust online programming included numerous newly commissioned playlets; Shakespeare monologues; thoughtful engagement involving equity, diversity and inclusion; and some glorious solos from a bevy of first-rate singers. Living in Milwaukee, the Rep has been an important part of my life for a long time. The Rep’s programming ensured that things would stay that way throughout 2020.

The National Theatre |

Beginning with James Corden’s side-splitting performance in One Man, Two Guvnors in early April and continuing through Lucian Msamati’s harrowing Salieri in Amadeus in late July, Britain’s greatest theater gave us 16 beautifully produced films of prior National productions. They were released every Thursday afternoon; with the Stratford Festival (see below) releasing a filmed production of its own every Thursday night, Thursday became my new Friday. And I wasn’t alone. Everyone, it seemed, was watching these productions, making the National’s weekly release among the closest approximations we’ve had during the pandemic to a shared theatrical experience, involving a show you could discuss with theater fans and friends from Madison to Manhattan to Mumbai. Like Stratford, the National has recently launched a subscription streaming service, making even more of its work available.

The National Theatre of Scotland |

Had the National Theatre of Scotland done nothing else but make Ghost Light – the gorgeous 30-minute tribute to the unsung heroes responsible for theater productions past, present, and future that I recommended in Volume 13 – I’d have been tempted to include it in this list. Along with Public Theater’s Under the Greenwood Tree (mentioned below), it’s the piece that did most this year to drive home for me why theater matters – and why it will outlast this plague, as it has all those plagues and wars that went before. But NTS also gave us hours of entertainment (while giving theater artists much-needed work) through its stupendous, 55-piece Scenes for Survival, a series of filmed monologues covering the thematic waterfront that I discussed in Volume 15. Both Ghost Light and Scenes for Survival remain available for free viewing at the NTS website.

The Old Vic |

Including its currently running production of A Christmas Carol, Matthew Warchus’ Old Vic has now given us four productions, each staged live from the Old Vic’s storied and currently empty theater, offering a taste of what we once took for granted: actors performing without retakes, from a stage in a real theater, for a captive audience. While these audiences have been virtual, they’ve been watching together from all over the world, uniting a community of theater lovers in real time. The first three productions (I haven’t yet seen Carol, which hadn’t opened when I wrote about it two weeks ago in Volume 29) were not only all frightfully good, but also beautifully produced (Warchus’ experience as a filmmaker really helps).

There’s been plenty more, including first-rate productions from the vault; a series of filmed monologues commemorating the National Health Service (and capturing the value of a genuine public health plan); and a podcast through which theater artists discuss their favorite plays. Much of the work has exhibited a commendable focus on mental health, which doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves in American theater. But the jewel in the Old Vic crown has been the live shows, which have been a huge financial success. They’ve helped keep the Old Vic alive. And they’ve done wonders to sustain countless theater fans like me.

Porchlight Music Theatre |

Does amazing Porchlight Artistic Director Michael Weber ever sleep? I’m seriously asking. Since May, Weber has hosted a series of sophisticated and ongoing roundtable discussions, stuffed with b-roll footage and stills, dissecting Sondheim’s musicals, one by one (Weber knows his Sondheim cold, and his Merrily We Roll Along two years ago is the best production of this gem I’ve ever seen – just saying). He’s also hosting an ongoing series of weekly radio musicals culled from yesteryear, introduced by Weber’s consistently knowledgeable commentary (there doesn’t seem to be a musical that the man doesn’t know, inside and out). There’s weekly Movie Musical Mondays, in which diehard fans gather on Zoom to discuss a newly watched movie musical, each week.

All of these regular weekly programs are supplemented by glittering extras, including August’s three-day Porchlight Palooza (a glittering gala of singing stars, still available on YouTube) and a showcase for Chicago’s rising musical stars hosted by Larry Adams and singing the greatest hits of 1987 (and why not, when those hits include Into the Woods and Les Miz?). Never has so much been done with so little by so few to benefit so many. I’ve seen and written about a lot of wonderful Chicago theater during this pandemic. But no company in America’s greatest theater city has done more or continually done it as well.

Public Theater |

An excellent, all-Black Much Ado About Nothing. New radio renditions of Richard II and Anne Washburn’s Shipwrecked. Two stirring documentaries, one about front-line healthcare workers and the second (the still-available Under the Greenwood Tree) making good on the truth that Shakespeare really is for everyone. Countless cabaret performances as well as forums, on race and elections and Shakespeare and the pandemic and so much more. An introduction to Richard Nelson’s magnificent and moving Apple family Zoom plays, which were among the highlights of the year. And the launch this week of the Public’s 17th Under the Radar Festival, its annual showcase of emerging artists from diverse backgrounds helping reshape what we mean by theater. I’ve featured the Public more than any other company in this column, and with good reason: No company this year offered such eclectic, exciting, and consistently excellent programming. Somewhere, Joe Papp is smiling. I know I am.

Stratford Festival |

No writer has meant more to me this year (as is true every year) than Shakespeare; no company anywhere did more to keep his legacy alive this year than the Stratford Festival, the best theater company in North America. During the darkest days of the pandemic last Spring, Stratford began weekly releases of one dozen filmed Shakespeare plays, staged by Stratford during the past decade; those releases were bolstered by excellent actor interviews, panels, and scholarly forums. In conjunction with the rollout of its stellar streaming subscription service this Fall (just $10 Canadian per month), Stratford has also released additional archival films on Thursday nights, each available for free streaming for 36 hours thereafter. Stratford Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino remains hopeful that there’ll be some sort of Stratford season next summer, even if this means returning to Stratford’s roots, with productions under a canopy. Here’s hoping it happens. If the border is open, this groundling will be there.