Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 32
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 32 (JANUARY 6, 2021): TIME TO LEVEL UP
In 1935, Kurt Weill left Europe, fleeing the lengthening shadow of fascism that had already engulfed his native Germany and vowing he’d never return. Although Weill mourned what he had lost, he was constitutionally averse to self-pity. Embracing his new American life, he discovered a Broadway that offered him greater freedom than he’d ever had.
In the ensuing 15 years before his untimely death in 1950, Weill played as integral (albeit less appreciated) a role in reinventing the American musical as did Rodgers and Hammerstein. I’d make the case that Lady in the Dark, his stunning 1941 collaboration with Moss Hart and Ira Gershwin, marked as significant a leap forward for the American musical as the arrival of Oklahoma! two years later; Street Scene, Weill’s 1946 collaboration with Elmer Rice and Langston Hughes, was the most significant advance in operatic American musicals since Porgy and Bess. Surviving a nightmare that can hold its own with anything we confronted last year, Weill’s reinvention offers stirring testimony that in theater as in life, we can indeed build back better.
It’s already happening. Bracing 2020 manifestos such as BIPOC theater artists’ landmark We See You, White American Theater (that’s theater with an -er, for those of you keeping score) have accelerated the often glacial pace of long-overdue changes in how American theaters do business.
At the same time, the explosion of online theater-based content has triggered a similarly overdue challenge to how and what (and why!) theater companies program. “In the theater of the not-so-distant future,” writes L.A. Times theater critic Charles McNulty as he looks to 2021 and beyond, “companies that place artistic imperatives over institutional obligations will be better situated to reach new audiences.” Or as playwright Ike Holter (see pick 4, below) notes in a recent interview, we can either spend our time being depressed over what we’ve lost or realize “we all have to level up” and make it new.
This week’s picks kick off 2021 by focusing on the new. There’s new play festivals stretching from coast to coast (picks 1 and 5). There’s new work by Heather Christian (pick 2) and Ike Holter (pick 4). Nestled at the heart of this turn toward the new is Weill’s own revolutionary aesthetic (pick 3), in songs that remain fresh and still lacerate the heart. Weill’s songs never grew old; heard anew, they’re so much younger now. Which, come to think of it, isn’t a bad way to imagine this new year. Filled with promise and hope for theater and the world, it offers us the chance to start fresh and begin again.
What theater-related resolutions have you made for 2021 (I’m planning on reading Suzan-Lori Parks and David Hare, from soup to nuts)? I’d love to know. You can reach me through Forward at firstname.lastname@example.org or directly at email@example.com. As always, both “theater” and “Fischer” are spelled with an er. Happy New Year!
First, let’s take one last look back before turning forward.
On the day I shared my last column with you, the great Rebecca Luker died of ALS. Here she is at 29 (opposite Mandy Patinkin) as Lily, the role she originated in The Secret Garden: WATCH
Luker is among those remembered in this poignant tribute – directed by Raúl Esparza and sung by Esparza and Sierra Boggess – to the theater artists we lost between the Tony Awards in June 2019 (when such tribute was last paid) and the end of 2020: WATCH
Second, as this column goes live on a fateful day in D.C., here’s a galaxy of Broadway stars and Broadway Inspirational Voices, singing a medley (Make Them Hear You from Ragtime and John Bucchino’s Grateful) just before the November 3 election. It suggests what true love of country might mean, even in a country riven by hatred and injustice abetted by politicians who are cowards and traitors: WATCH
Third, count on A Chorus Line, which is all about artists making it against impossible odds, serving as backdrop to 27 magnificent dancers, coming together as one in this rousing, feel-good, made-for-2021 rendition of The Music and the Mirror: WATCH
Fourth and finally, here’s the trailer for Vamos!, a new series debuting at San Diego Rep this coming Monday in which each monthly episode will focus on the history, geography, demographics, culture, and cuisine of a single Latin American country: WATCH
Selections for Volume 32 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. Getting Down (Under the Radar Festival; Public Theater):
Born in 2005 as a response to our isolationist government, Public Theater’s annual Under the Radar Festival is an international celebration of new, cutting-edge work from artists around the world. This year is no exception, as the Public shares eight works (one, alas, is already at capacity), all offered free. Four shows stream on demand; the rest are presented live and therefore require that you register in advance. Most productions run through January 17, although some are shorter – meaning that the time to check out the full schedule is now. The offerings you’ll find there cover the waterfront.
Time capsule of 2020? Check. A cooking show in which food helps save the world from war? Check. A meditation from Chile on neo-liberalism and the manipulation of desire? Check. Ruminations from a Nigerian immigrant to Britain, performing live from London? Check.
I’m most excited about Alicia Hall Moran’s the motown project, which streams on demand beginning Friday and continuing through January 17. The Public describes it as a meditation on the Motown songbook involving a cinematic, movement-based aria fusing the Four Tops with Mozart, “while Marvin Gaye’s lyrical pathos finds solemnity in Purcell,” all underscoring “musical traditions yearning for each other across race, class and nation.” I’m so there.
2. The Last Shall Be First (I Am Sending You the Sacred Face; Theater in Quarantine and Theater Mitu):
Although she received the Nobel Peace Prize and was later canonized, Mother Teresa spent more than a half century wondering whether God had abandoned her while her attempted humility curdled into pride. Did she help the poor because they are exalted in the eyes of God? Or did she exalt herself by helping the poor? Was her life a purification of self? Its performance? Both?
My questions only begin to capture what the incredible Heather Christian has wrought in this brilliant 35-minute piece, subtitled A Brief Musical Act with Mother Teresa; that subtitle is itself subtitled An Expression of Drag Performance in Triptych. Such layering is true to a piece about whether one can ever reach beyond the self and achieve communion with God, given that we’re swaddled in the costuming – sartorial as well as rhetorical – through which we present a self always already trapped in the prison house of language.
Wrestling with these themes, Christian’s music is characteristically gorgeous, her dense lyrics bracingly dense and ambiguous, in a piece that has so much to say even as it wonders if the truest expression of self is the sound of silence. One sees this dilemma embodied by Joshua William Gelb, performing in drag to Christian’s score from the confines of the 4x8x2 East Village closet in which each of his increasingly sophisticated Theater in Quarantine productions has been made. That closet restricts but also refines and clarifies Teresa’s dilemma, isolated from the world she ostensibly embraces while waiting for a call that doesn’t come.
3. Darkness on the Edge of Town (Lonely House; Komische Oper Berlin):
Composer Kurt Weill will forever be best known for his collaborations with Brecht on The Threepenny Opera and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny. But his post-Weimar work, briefly in Paris and mostly in New York, isn’t “lesser,” as is often suggested. That’s as clear as can be in Lonely House, a gorgeous soul striptease of Weill’s post-1933 chansons and songs, sung by the phenomenal Katharine Mehrling and accompanied by rock-star opera director Barry Kosky from the storied Komische Oper Berlin stage. Broadcast live from an empty house late in December, it’s available for free on-demand viewing through January 22.
As Kosky observes during one of his enthusiastic and informed asides, Weill channels what we’re currently feeling: our conflicted and even contradictory mourning for the world we’ve lost, even as we recognize that nothing lasts forever and that there’s always new life and love beckoning. Mehrling, in turn, channels Weill, with a voice that’s true to the grit and grind of Weimar while also alive to the plaintive, bittersweet nostalgia for all that’s beautiful and broken.
It’s haunting music, played in a haunted house; when Mehrling sings of why a ship “aglow with a million pearls” means little if it doesn’t “bring my own true love to me,” I couldn’t help but think of the audiences without which even a house as beautiful as this Berlin jewel remains incomplete, no matter how good the music is that’s being made within. Listening to Weill, that acute sense of absence and loss walks hand-in-hand with the poetry of possibility. Which makes this concert and Weill’s Janus-faced music – achingly looking back even as it hopefully reaches forward – the perfect way to usher in 2021.
4. We Like Ike (I Hate it Here: Stories From the End of the Old World; Studio Theatre):
One of the best audio plays I listened to last year was Ike Holter’s dystopian (and still available) Put Your House In Order, an anti-racist parable involving a zombie apocalypse. Set in Evanston, Put Your House In Order addresses (among other things) the limitations of white liberalism in cities like Evanston (or Madison). Holter, familiar to Forward audiences from its stellar production of his Exit Strategy, is at it again with the recently released I Hate it Here, a new audio play streaming for free through March 7 courtesy of Studio Theatre in D.C.
Holter conceived his play as an album of vignettes (with some song; Forward alum Gabriel Ruiz serves as composer and music director, while also appearing as a character in three vignettes). It occasionally reminded me of Brecht’s Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, a similarly disturbing (and disturbingly funny) account of cataclysmic upheaval and the resulting cognitive disconnects. Holter’s play includes far more expletives; thoughts of 2020 can trigger that.
So, for Holter, can thoughts of white liberals, who are regularly thrashed in these vignettes for the self-serving, imaginatively limited and reliably narcissistic “activism” through which they enlist to change the world – as long as doing so won’t discomfit them. Along the way, he satirizes glamping; the racially inflected tyranny of the American workplace; helicoptering white parents; liberals’ often conflicted responses to police brutality; and reformists who are afraid of radicals. As Forward audiences saw in Exit Strategy and as is often true with Holter, there’s also an underlying, bittersweet current of nostalgia for all we’ve lost – including Obama-era dreams of a harmony that never really was, in a country where divisions run deep and dark history repeats as recurring nightmare.
5. California Magic (The Virgin Play Festival; Magic Theatre):
While San Francisco’s Magic Theatre can’t hold its Virgin Play Festival in person this year, the show(s) have gone on, with two exciting readings of new work scheduled for January.
First up, tomorrow night, is Mona Mansour’s unseen, about a photojournalist who awakens on her sometime lover’s couch after covering a massacre. Trying to piece together what happened from the pictures she’d taken, Mia must come to grips with what she saw and all she’s missed. I last discussed Mansour in Volume 11, having then just watched her Beginning Days of True Jubilation, a satire about the rise and fall of a start-up company that also played with the relationship between the pictures we make and the stories they exclude.
One week after unseen, former Madisonian Rachel Lynett offers the provocatively titled Apologies to Lorraine Hansberry (You, Too, August Wilson), set in an all-Black state in California following a second Civil War. Bronx Bay is established as a Black utopia, but who counts as Black and how does answering that question affect this community’s understanding of itself? You’ll need to show up to find out.
Both readings (Mansour on January 7 and Lynett on January 14) begin at 7:00 PST (9:00 CST); they’re free, but registration is required. Perhaps you might consider a coast-to-coast doubleheader, beginning in New York with the Public’s new play festival (see pick one) and then traveling west to San Francisco for the nightcap in your twin bill? As baseball immortal Ernie Banks used to say, let’s play two!”
References (in order of mention):
* Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon, How Could I Ever Know (from The Secret Garden; sung by Rebecca Luker and Mandy Patinkin):
* Raúl Esparza, Broadway Remembers (sung by Esparza and Sierra Boggess):
* Broadway Medley (featuring songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty as well as John Bucchino):
* Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban (choreography by Michael Bennett and Bob Avian), The Music and the Mirror (American Dance Machine 21):
* Herbert Siguenza, Vamos! (San Diego Rep and Amigos del Rep):
* Multiple Artists, Under the Radar Festival (Public Theater):
* Heather Christian, I Am Sending You the Sacred Face (Theater in Quarantine and Theater Mitu):
* Kurt Weill, Lonely House (Komische Oper Berlin):
* Ike Holter, Put Your House in Order:
* Ike Holter, I Hate it Here: Stories From the End of the Old World (Studio Theatre):
* The Virgin Play Festival (Magic Theatre):