Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 33

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.



Just how did we get here?

It’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot during the past week in reflecting on Insurrection Day, while simultaneously writing the program note for Forward’s upcoming production of The Niceties (opening January 22 and running through February 7; single tickets are available if you’re not a subscriber).

Playwright Eleanor Burgess set The Niceties – involving difficult conversations between a white professor and a Black student about race and history in America – in 2016; she’s admitted she couldn’t imagine having set it now, just five years later. Back then, we could still almost talk to one another at least some of the time. Now we’re more apt to just shout at one another, hurling abuse while standing still.

Walk in another’s shoes? Please. We’re losing the ability to walk in our own. It’s easier to hunker down and dig in, hiding behind our screens as we lob shells in our 21st-century version of trench warfare, in which people rarely move while they die a little death, every day.

If we’re going to move onward and forward, we’ll need to do much better. Walking beyond our comfort zone, we can experience new ways of seeing, expanding our horizons and experiencing a broader view while taking risks that allow us to grow. It’s a more interesting way to live.

And a healthier one. It’s no accident that in his just-released Keep Sharp: Build A Better Brain at Any Age, Sanjay Gupta doesn’t just urge us to sit less and walk more. He also suggests that when we do, we walk with someone else. Engaging others rather than walking alone is actually good for the brain.

Even when we’re forced to experience it virtually, theater enables such collective engagement (particularly at a company like Forward, with a long and distinguished record of fostering talkbacks). Every time we experience a play, we embark on a journey to terra incognita, involving new and unfamiliar people and perspectives. Taking journeys alongside others allows us to see and experience more than we would if we were to journey alone; seeing the world from unique vantage points, our friends and colleagues will inevitably notice things we miss.

This week’s column highlights such voyages of discovery. I’d like to think that watching what others learn while traveling might teach us something about ourselves. Our reliably amazing fellow humans regularly do that for us. And there are few places where they do it so often and well as in theater, proving anew that all the world’s a stage – just waiting for us to step up into new roles and act.

What are some of your most memorable theatrical journeys? And where are you hoping theater allows you to travel this year? Consistent with Dr. Gupta’s advice, I’d really love to know; maybe your memories and recommendations will alter my itinerary. You can reach me through Forward at or directly at As always, both “theater” and “Fischer” are spelled with an er. Bon voyage!

Bonus Selections:

First, here’s Dylan Thomas reading a late version of W. H. Auden’s September 1, 1939, a poem that has a great deal to say about another date that will live in infamy: January 6, 2021: WATCH

Second, count on Randy Rainbow, once again riding to the rescue by cathartically giving us tragedy as farce and thereby helping us laugh when we’re crying inside. With abject apologies to Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (and none at all to the gangster in the White House), here’s Sedition, Rainbow’s second recent riff on Fiddler on the Roof: WATCH

Third, here’s the official trailer for Herself, the empowering new Phyllida Lloyd film in which Lloyd teams up again with Clare Dunn and Harriet Walter (a trio I last visited when recommending Lloyd’s phenomenal Shakespeare trilogy at the top of Volume 22): WATCH

Fourth and finally, courtesy of the Guthrie Theater, here’s a YouTube link for Antonio Duke’s free performance tomorrow night (January 14) of his Missing Mississippi Moons, a piece inspired by his grandfather in which Duke embodies a mosaic of characters struggling to find their power in the Jim Crow era. It begins at 6:30 CST and is followed by a talkback with Duke: WATCH

Selections for Volume 33 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):

1.The Crossroads (Songs for a New World; San Francisco Playhouse):

I haven’t listened to Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World in years; hearing it in 2021 brings back my excitement when Songs introduced this powerful new voice in musical theater to the world.

Songs for a New World

But while a quarter century has passed since Brown unveiled Songs, it’s arguably even more relevant now than it was then. Brown unwittingly explains why, in an interview he gave in the 1990’s. Songs, he said, is “about one moment. It’s about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back.” Or as we hear toward the end of this 80-minute journey, “Hold on/Hold tight/I know it’s dark right now/But just believe somehow/There will be light.” Welcome to January 2021.

Not all of the many characters in this four-actor piece are able to hold on or venture forward. They’re often burdened by history and afraid of the future, unable to trust and unwilling to take risks. But many others in Brown’s piece – from the fifteenth-century Jews expelled from Spain to the young lovers taking a chance on each other – sing their songs while imagining a new world; they resolutely turn forward with a determination to build back better from the wreckage of the past.

The songs are well sung, in a production that won Equity’s blessing to proceed because each of the four actors prerecorded separately in a studio. When director Bill English eventually brought the cast together on the Playhouse stage for filming, the actors lip-synced to their previous recordings while separated by Plexiglas barriers. The three-camera result is smartly filmed, with close-ups and over-the-shoulder shots breaking things up. Given Brown’s score, the cast could have stood stock still and I’d have still wanted to hear them sing. Songs for a New World streams through Friday night, January 15; tickets begin at $15.

2. Backward Into the Future (The Grinning Man; Bristol Old Vic):

Well before Freud, novelist Victor Hugo continually insisted that you can’t journey into the future by closing the door to the past. That’s among the messages in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables, and it’s also central to another musical adaptation of Hugo in The Grinning Man, streaming through February 28 for roughly $6 at Bristol Old Vic, in an excellent filmed rendition of its 2016 production.

The Grinning Man

When Grinpayne was a boy, an unknown assailant disfigured his face into the permanent grin through which he makes his way in the world, accompanied by the blind girl he rescues, the old man who adopts them, and a shaggy wolf hound created by the puppeteers who gave us War Horse (the puppets in this production are consistently terrific). This dark but romantic fairy tale is framed by a comic burlesque involving a sinister clown in a decadent and sadistic kingdom; he reminded me of the Emcee in the twisted Walpurgis Nacht that is Cabaret.

Unfolding over 150 minutes, the twists and turns in this sometimes complicated story (think Les Miz) are accompanied by more than two dozen songs of flat-out gorgeous, well-sung music that ranges from Waits and Weill at their grittiest and most corrosively cynical to ethereal love songs of delicately spun glass. Along the way, The Grinning Man also has smart things to say about all we learn through suffering, as we confront the beast that accompanies the beauty within each of us and find the light of truth in the dark of the night. It’s still very early days, but this is my favorite show thus far in 2021 – and just what I needed in the wake of Insurrection Day last Wednesday.

3. Hear Us Roar (She Persisted, The Musical; Atlantic Theater Company):

The upbeat, made-for-kids musical adaptation of Chelsea Clinton’s popular children’s book was well reviewed and going strong at the Atlantic when the pandemic shut it down in March. But its creatives persisted, creating an online version of this 60-minute piece with the original cast. It streams through January 20 for $5.

She Persisted, The Musical

Naomi’s virtual trip to the Museum of Women in History (foreshadowing the long overdue actual National Women’s History Museum that will be constructed on the National Mall in D.C., per Congress’ just-passed budget) becomes a time traveling journey; during this fourth grader’s adventures, she spends time with famous women from history like Virginia Apgar, Ruby Bridges, Florence Griffith Joyner, Sally Ride, Sonia Sotomayor, and Harriet Tubman. These heroines frequently supplement their stories through stylistically apt song (e.g., gospel for Tubman; R&B for Joyner).

The persistent message? Dare to fail so that you might succeed. Take chances to create opportunities. Learn from the past so that you can shape the future, turning history into herstory. And never – ever – give up. Is it any wonder that this virtual version of last spring’s production is dedicated to the memory of RBG?

What’s not at all surprising – this is the Atlantic, after all, and they know what they’re doing – is that this green-screen production is technically sophisticated (particular kudos to Edward T. Morris for the production design and illustrations). It’s not the best sung musical you’ll ever hear, but so what? The compelling mini-biographies presented here underscore how far young girls watching this production might travel, during journeys that can continue for as long they keep on keeping on.

4. Coming to America (Pretended; Paramount Theatre):

Wisconsin audiences need no introduction to Chicago-based theater artist Lanise Antoine Shelley, once a resident company actor with Milwaukee Rep. Shelley also directs and writes; she’ll be doing both tomorrow night (January 14) at 7:00 CST for a reading of Pretended, her semi-autobiographical play about a Haitian immigrant adopted by a single white mother in America. How does that journey from A to B alter one’s sense of family? And what is the relationship between the family we inherit and the choices we make in life and love about who we are? Placed in an orphanage in Port-au-Prince at two and adopted at four by a northern Californian, Shelley is well-equipped to address such questions, in what she describes as a “comedic drama” involving a “compilation of stories, events, and conversations.”


The reading of Shelley’s play kicks off the Inception Project, an annual series of readings involving new work designed to “amplify BIPOC and marginalized voices” at Aurora’s Paramount Theatre, best known for staging blockbuster, award-winning musicals. Before the pandemic scuttled its plans, Paramount was already set to launch a non-musical season of plays this year in its newly renovated second space, the 165-seat Copley Theatre. Paramount envisions the Inception Project as an incubator, ensuring that future seasons in its Copley Theatre series feature new as well as more established work.

The reading of Pretended is free, but you must register; when doing so, check out Shelley’s short video explaining why she wrote Pretended and what it’s about.

5. Pericles in Milwaukee (Pericles; Optimist Theatre):

As I noted in reviewing a Chicago Shakes production seven years ago, Shakespeare’s Pericles “can be a beast to stage”; those recalling the conceptually ambitious Eric Tucker production at American Players Theatre four years ago know exactly what I’m talking about. The titular hero’s dizzying series of adventures aren’t just improbable, but also carry him to numerous locations scattered throughout the eastern Mediterranean and require a huge cast, even when roles are doubled and trebled.

But Pericles was also once among Shakespeare’s most popular plays, and it has enjoyed a remarkable recent comeback; I reviewed it three times between 2014 and 2017 alone. Milwaukee’s Optimist Theatre, which has been presenting free Shakespeare since its inception more than a decade ago, is leaping into the fray with – wait for it – Pericles presented in serial form, in 16 episodes.


Filmed with small groups of socially distanced actors in outdoor locations all over Milwaukee – true to Pericles’ own journeys here, there, and everywhere – each Optimist episode features a live host, commentary, live chat, and a new cocktail recipe (Pericles’ long night’s journey into the subconscious can indeed feel like an all-night bender).

Ethan Miles Perry plays Pericles; the huge cast also features many longtime Milwaukee actors, including Libby Amato, Debra Babich, Deborah Clifton, Todd Denning, Kelly Doherty, David Flores, Bo Johnson, John Kishline, Simon Provan, Samantha Sostarich, Andrew Varela, and Ken Williams. Optimist has dubbed its adventure No Holds Bard; the first two episodes drop tonight (January 13) at 7:30 CST.

References (in order of mention):

* Sanjay Gupta, Keep Sharp: Build A Better Brain at Any Age (Simon & Schuster, 2021).

* W.H. Auden, September 1, 1939:

* Randy Rainbow, Sedition:

* Malcolm Campbell and Clare Dunn, Herself (official trailer):

* Antonio Duke, Missing Mississippi Moons (Guthrie Theater):

* Jason Robert Brown, Songs for a New World (San Francisco Playhouse):

* Carl Grose, Tom Morris, Tim Phillips, and Marc Teitler, The Grinning Man (Bristol Old Vic):

* Adam Tobin and Deborah Wicks La Puma, She Persisted, The Musical (Atlantic Theater Company):

* Lanise Antoine Shelley, Pretended (Paramount Theatre):

* William Shakespeare, Pericles (Optimist Theatre):