Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 35
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 35 (JANUARY 26, 2021): EXTRA(ORDINARY) TIME
Last Thursday morning, a friend from London told me that our inauguration had been “boring.” Having cried during much of it, I don’t share that view. But I understand exactly what she meant. My response to her: “And that’s the point.”
“I’m not sure it has quite sunk in yet how loud Trump was and how much quieter it is likely to be for the next four years,” CNN’s Harry Enten wrote last week. “We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature,” President Biden himself said during his Inaugural Address. In short, we can once again be mindful of something theater does so well: focus on what’s extraordinary within the quiet moments of everyday life.
There’s no American playwright who does this better than the Madison-born Thornton Wilder, who I’ve been spending a fair amount of time thinking about in recent days while reading an advance copy of Another Day’s Begun, Howard Sherman’s timely homage to Wilder and the ongoing relevance of Our Town to our twenty-first century world. Sherman’s book is being published tomorrow; Jen Uphoff Gray, Julie Swenson and I interviewed him yesterday for our next Theater Forward podcast.
As Sherman notes in his book, Wilder himself identified the central theme of his play as “the relation between the countless ‘unimportant’ details of our daily life, on the one hand, and the great perspectives of time, social history, and current religious ideas, on the other.” Wilder analogizes his method to the archaeology he’d once studied; much like an archaeologist, his Stage Manager “reconstructs the very distant with the help of the very small.” As novelist Cathleen Schine once said of the great Alice Munro, Wilder “makes the ordinary jump out, like a lithe, muscular, startled cat.”
Paying attention to all those small details we ordinarily overlook – in the world and each other – doesn’t just foster empathy. It also, paradoxically, helps us grasp the big picture. When we stop the shouting and lower the temperature, we can see better and farther. As Pankaj Mishra writes in his extraordinary book on the legacy of the Buddha, a “still mind” allows us to be present within the moment, which actually expands our spatial and temporal horizons. “I tried to restore significance to the small details of life by removing scenery,” Wilder wrote of Our Town. Less, for Wilder, was always more.
Maybe, as the Stage Manager tells Emily during one of the most moving scenes in all of theater, even saints and poets don’t ever fully realize life while they live it. But were we to all take some time to listen harder and see better, we’d certainly appreciate more of it than we do now.
So yes, by all means: let’s turn down the volume and lower the temperature. Learn to be still and pay renewed attention to each other and our world. Listen to those voices speaking to us in a darkened room, as the curtain rises on another day playing on the world’s stage.
What’s your favorite memory of Our Town? What contemporary American playwright most reminds you of Wilder (Noah Haidle, for me)? And as new days dawn for America, how are you taking time to see better and listen harder? I’d love to hear your suggestions and all they might teach me of how to live more fully and attentively. You can 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 22-year-old Amanda Gorman – our youngest-ever inaugural poet – reading her unforgettable message of hope and love this past Wednesday (note that a special edition of Gorman’s inaugural poem will be released in book form on April 27, so order it from your favorite brick-and-mortar bookstore now): WATCH
And here’s a morning-after Gorman interview on Good Morning America, which includes a surprise greeting from another poet of opportunity and inclusion: WATCH
Second, here’s Solomon Howard as Martin Luther King, Jr., singing a stirring Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory from Washington National Opera’s 2015 production of Appomattox, about the fight for racial justice in America: WATCH
Third, here’s the cast from the National Yiddish Theatre’s production of Fiddler, sending good vibes to the Biden Administration by singing Irving Berlin’s God Bless America in Berlin’s first language: WATCH
Fourth and finally, here’s Dame Judi Dench, fielding questions from 18 of her most famous fans and managing, in just 15 moving minutes, to capture what makes actors – most emphatically including this great actor – so special: WATCH
Selections for Volume 35 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. Misfits (Uncle Vanya; Hunter Theater Project):
“Let the things on stage be just as complex and yet just as simple as they are in life,” Chekhov wrote of what he was trying to do in theater. Richard Nelson – whom I’ve praised in numerous prior columns for his Apple and Gabriel plays (see Volumes 1, 7, 18 and 27) – has been taking that credo to heart for decades. The results speak for themselves in Nelson’s universally acclaimed 2018 production of Uncle Vanya; it’s based on the translation he did with the legendary team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, whose translations of the Russian masters have forever revolutionized the way we see them. You can watch this Vanya for free in a high-quality filming expressly made for New York’s Theater Close-Up series.
Jay. O. Sanders, who appears in all seven Apple plays and all three Gabriel plays, deservedly won a Drama Desk Award for his embodiment of Vanya in this production. But the entire cast shines in driving home how alone we can be even when we’re ostensibly together; focusing on ourselves, we talk past and over one another without ever learning to truly listen.
Channeling Chekhov, Nelson and his cast make clear that each of us is a misfit. Toggling between humor and pathos, they also demonstrate how our imprisoning preoccupation with our own idiosyncrasies blind us to others’ needs rather than fostering empathy for others’ struggles. The consequent alienation of every character from the world and even themselves can be devastating.
This first-rate production also connects the dots helping us see the way we live now, with especial attention paid to the divide between the country and the city – and between all of us in flyover country and those living on the coasts. It’s the best production of this play that I’ve seen since the landmark 2001 production at American Players Theatre, which will haunt me all my life.
2. Éirinn go Brách (Theater@Home Winter Festival; Irish Repertory Theatre):
In my year-end column singling out the ten theater companies that had done most to sustain me during the pandemic (see Volume 31), I included the Irish Rep, noting that “no company has made greater pandemic-related technological advances this year.” You need not take my word for it, since the Irish Rep is opening 2021 with a splendid gift to theater lovers everywhere: a festival making all nine of its post-pandemic 2020 productions available through February 21. Viewing is free, although donations are encouraged.
I’ve singled out many of these productions since beginning this column; given that they feature the work of writers like Beckett, Friel, Joyce, O’Neill, and McPherson, how could I not? You can now spend time with all five of these magnificent writers while also listening to Coward songs, joining Geraldine Hughes as she revisits her Belfast childhood, taking a poetic stroll through London’s National Gallery, and invoking the ghost of Judy Garland’s St. Louis trolley ride – itself a microcosm of the many great journeys awaiting you through this Festival.
3. All Hail Lauren Gunderson (The Catastrophist; Round House Theatre and Marin Theatre Company):
Fresh from the triumph of its critically acclaimed Adrienne Kennedy Festival (see Volume 27), Bethesda’s Round House Theatre is bringing us the world premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s The Catastrophist, a co-production with Marin Theatre Company. Gunderson’s one-man show is about virologist Nathan Wolfe; to steal from the title of a Nate Silver book, Wolfe is a master at separating the signal from the noise. He’s been signaling forever that the next plague was coming; caught up in the noise, we didn’t listen.
And yeah, I buried the lede: Wolfe is also Gunderson’s husband. If you’re worried she’ll pull punches and substitute hagiography for drama, you haven’t been paying close enough attention to Gunderson, whose combination of fierce intelligence and science-loving geekdom combines with irreverent humor and a remarkable ability to see the truth and read it slant. While she humanizes and clearly loves her subjects, she’s simultaneously too tough-minded to canonize them.
Gunderson has also written too often and well about the tension between the private and the public and between the personal and the political to not be aware of the potential pitfalls in writing a play about her husband. And she’s written too often and well about the conflict between science and mortality and between reason and the irrational to not make hay of this story involving a very smart man’s efforts to find redemptive patterns in an often senseless world. Which, come to think of it, is what playwrights do, too.
Like the ongoing Adrienne Kennedy Festival (yes, you still have time to catch it, and should!), The Catastrophist streams through February 28. Tickets (handling fees included) are $32.50.
4. Alice in Wonderland (Scrounger; Aegis Productions):
“Like Alice,” playwright and performer Athena Stevens tells us in her excellent, hard-hitting Scrounger, “I’ve drunk the wrong potion, and the world, which was almost alright an hour ago, now is an opportunity for a nonstop assault.” That’s how Stevens, born with athetoid cerebral palsy, felt after being forcibly removed from a British Airways plane when the airline couldn’t fit Stevens’ custom-built wheelchair into the hold and then damaged it.
Ostensibly, Stevens’ play is about her alternately heartbreaking and infuriating effort to win financial compensation, while moored without her wheelchair in her London flat. But it’s also about how readily Stevens is underestimated and overlooked by a seemingly sympathetic but mostly clueless cast of characters – her partner, her friends, various airline officials, and would-be allies – who play condescending variations on the theme of “calm down.” The maddening, usually unconscious privilege allowing them all to counsel glacial change at “all deliberate speed” is as masterful a dissection of how a privileged vantage point works and all it leaves out as anything I’ve watched in the past year.
Along the way, Stevens takes deadly accurate aim at liberals’ short-sighted narcissism; Whiggish myths of progress; the disconnect between self-indulgent nattering on social media and actual political activism; and play-by-the rules reformists dissing the radicalism that can actually get the job done. Aided and abetted by terrific sidekick Leigh Quinn (who embodies each of the other characters), Stevens touches on all of these big themes without ever losing sight of her own riveting story. And while she knows how to throw a punch – even the most woke among you is likely to squirm while watching – Stevens can also be delightfully, pointedly funny. I was reminded at times of Phoebe-Waller Bridge’s Fleabag, which I intend as the highest possible praise.
That said, all such comparisons ultimately fall short; Stevens and this 100-minute piece are truly inimitable. Thanks to a generous extension granted by Stevens’ Aegis Productions so that I might include her show in this week’s column, you can watch Scrounger (with or without an audio-described introduction and subtitles) through this Sunday (January 31) courtesy of Scenesaver, the London-based streaming platform which has done so much since it launched last year to make shows like Scrounger available to a wider audience. I frankly wouldn’t have known about Stevens’ show were it not for Scenesaver and its stimulating theater clubs (discussed in Volume 30), which brings together theater fans like yours truly to discuss shows like this one. And it’s all free, although donations (100% of which are passed on by Scenesaver to the theater companies and creatives whose shows you’ve watched) are encouraged.
Incidentally, you can learn far more about Stevens, an American ex-pat living in London, at her well-curated website, which offers a wealth of information regarding Stevens’ many other projects. Thanks to Scenesaver, she’ll now forever be on my radar screen.
5. Present Future (Young Playwrights Festival; Milwaukee Chamber Theatre):
As part of its longstanding investment in theater’s future, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre has long solicited – and then offered professional readers’ evaluations of – one-act plays submitted by high school students; every two years for the past two decades, MCT has showcased six of them (three featured productions and three featured readings) as part of its Young Playwrights Festival. By some miracle – a/k/a MCT Associate Artistic Director and Forward collaborator Marcella Kearns, who runs point for this massive operation – MCT has managed to put together its biennial Festival on schedule.
Presented virtually this year, MCT’s latest biennial cycle (its tenth!) highlights plays from 2019 and 2020. Two of the three featured productions are being directed, respectively, by Forward Advisory Company members Jake Penner and Nadja Simmonds. (The busy Nadja is also in the cast of Escape From Peligro Island, the First Stage show opening this Friday; among those joining her in the First Stage cast is Forward alum Matt Daniels).
The Festival begins on February 1; a ticket good for all three featured productions will run you $18. The featured readings are free, although donations are encouraged. The Festival continues through February 28. Escape From Peligro Island will be livestreamed through February 6; a recorded version will be made available thereafter and run through February 28.
References (in order of mention):
* Howard Sherman, Another Day’s Begun (Methuen Drama, 2021)
* Cathleen Schine, Blown Away by Alice Munro (New York Review of Books, 1/10/13)
* Pankaj Mishra, An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World (Picador, 2004)
* Amanda Gorman, The Hill We Climb:
* Amanda Gorman Interview (ABC’s Good Morning America):
* Philip Glass and Christopher Hampton, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, as sung by Solomon Howard (Washington National Opera):
* Irving Berlin, God Bless America (Yiddish National Theatre Folksbiene):
* Judi Dench, Ask a Legend (British Vogue):
* Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya (Hunter Theater Project):
* Lauren Gunderson, The Catastrophist (Round House Theatre and Marin Theatre Company): https://cart.roundhousetheatre.org/67376/67587
* Athena Stevens, Scrounger (Aegis Productions):
* Athena Stevens, Scrounger (Aegis Productions, audio described and subtitles)
* Athena Stevens website:
* Young Playwrights Festival (Milwaukee Chamber Theatre):
* Finegan Kruckemeyer, Escape From Peligro Island (First Stage):