Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 36
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 20 | VOLUME 21 | VOLUME 22 | VOLUME 23 | VOLUME 24 | VOLUME 25 | VOLUME 26 | VOLUME 27 | VOLUME 26 | VOLUME 28 | VOLUME 29 | VOLUME 30 | VOLUME 31 | VOLUME 32 | VOLUME 33 | VOLUME 34 | VOLUME 35
VOLUME 36 (FEBRUARY 3, 2021): THE GREAT DIVIDE
When did America fall out of love with science and truth, facts and evidence, experts and expertise? Self-professed science geek and Forward fave Lauren Gunderson is obsessed with such questions; her concerted celebration of science and scientists is among the many reasons I love her plays.
But while she lives in cosmopolitan San Francisco, the Atlanta-born Gunderson also pays attention to those on the other side of the great divide that separates an increasingly removed elite on rarefied quests for truth from everyone else. One sees this tension in Silent Sky – the first Gunderson play Forward performed – as astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt toggles between the ivory towers in Cambridge and her more traditional Wisconsin family (Gunderson’s latest play is currently available for streaming; I discussed it in last week’s column).
This gap and how we might narrow it is also front and center for British playwright Lucy Kirkwood; you can hear an all-Wisconsin cast read one of her best plays (The Children) on Friday night, courtesy of Third Avenue Playhouse (see pick one below). You can also rent a stellar National Theatre production (starring Olivia Colman and Olivia Williams) of Kirkwood’s splendidly ambitious Mosquitos.
Mosquitos revolves around British sisters Alice and Jenny. Alice is a renowned physicist in Geneva modeling the Higgs boson. Jenny is the grieving, working-class mother of a baby girl who died because Jenny didn’t vaccinate her, having been convinced by the Internet that vaccinations aren’t safe. While Alice can see the heavens, she’s prone to miss what’s right in front of her face. Jenny may believe in astrology, but she also exudes practical, can-do knowledge of the world and people that Alice lacks. The divide between them is as stark and seemingly unbridgeable as the one separating the sisters in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls.
Kirkwood is every bit as pro-science as Gunderson. But she’s also darker and correspondingly more preoccupied with all that science must answer for: A hubristic and amoral quest for knowledge that’s occasionally disconnected from any sense of care and concern for the world. An elitist disregard for explanations and education that might help the rest of us understand what scientists are up to. An ethical and political myopia about the consequences of “research” that is never as pure or disinterested as scientists like to claim it is. In short, a failure among these sometimes brilliant visionaries intent on mapping the forest to see the individual trees and why they matter.
In a country where even distressingly large numbers of health care workers are refusing to be vaccinated – let alone a country where millions of people still sincerely believe that Trump won the recent election – those of us inclined to scratch our puzzled heads must work harder to understand how and why so many good people believe so many patently bad and manifestly untrue things.
I’m not suggesting that truth is relative or that we’re all entitled, in the words of a phrase I detest, “to live our truth” (news flash: masks save lives, climate change is real, and the Holocaust happened). But I am suggesting we all need to work harder to foster relations with – and be more fully in relation to – one another, forging communities one conversation at a time as we seek the truth together, with humility and love.
As demonstrated by a play like The Niceties – still available for streaming at Forward’s website through Sunday – theater can play an integral role in this process; at its best, theater embodies and shares stories that challenge us to live and write more expansively (and generously) as we participate in shaping our collective human narrative.
George Saunders captures this collective dimension to our self-actualization in the introduction to his fabulous new book on Russian short stories. “The Russians,” Saunders writes, “seemed to regard fiction not as something decorative but as a vital moral-ethical tool. They changed you when you read them, made the world seem to be telling a different, more interesting story, a story in which you might play a meaningful part, and in which you had responsibilities.”
What play has done most to reshape how you see the world and your place in it (Our Town for me, with Uncle Vanya a close second)? I’d love to know. 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, let’s begin with a ray of sunshine from Kristin Chenoweth’s Glinda, offering Tucker Carlson and his ilk a tutorial on how to pronounce our Vice President’s name: WATCH
Second, here’s Gayle King’s new interview with Cecily Tyson, which aired on January 26 – the day Tyson’s new memoir was being released and two days before we lost this 96-year-old legend (she was “a natural resource, a wonder, a font, a dream, a beacon,” wrote Wesley Morris in his beautiful appraisal of Tyson): WATCH
Third, here’s the trailer to Steppenwolf Theatre’s world premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s just-released Red Folder, narrated by Carrie Coon and capturing in just 11 minutes how adult-induced anxiety is infecting even our youngest children (as noted in volume 24, one can see Red Folder and every newly made production in Steppenwolf’s virtual season with a $75 subscription): WATCH
Selections for Volume 36 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. Wisconsin Reads (PlayWorks 2021, Third Avenue Playhouse):
This Friday (Feb. 5), Door County’s top-notch Third Avenue Playhouse kicks off a considerably expanded version of its customary winter reading series: ten Friday night readings between now and June, involving artists including Michael Cotey, Sam Douglas, Krystal Drake, Katherine Duffy, Karen Estrada, Lachrisa Grandberry, Dimonte Henning, Carrie Hitchcock, Chiké Johnson, Marie Kohler, Alan Kopischke, Sheri Williams Pannell, April Paul, Syd Robbie, Ryan Schabach, Malkia Stampley, Marie Tredway, Marcus Truschinski, Jennifer Vosters, Tami Workentin, and Michael Wright. As this roster demonstrates, TAP is leaning heavily on Wisconsin-based artists, many of whom have previously collaborated with Forward.
Playwrights being showcased (also including some Forward faves) include Brian Friel, Lauren Gunderson, Rolin Jones, Lucy Kirkwood, Dominique Morisseau, Theresa Rebeck, Harry Von Tilzer, and Lanford Wilson (Von Tilzer’s The Kissing Girl, a long-lost 1908 operetta, continues TAP co-Artistic Director James Valcq’s series of loving restorations of long-lost musical works).
TAP is beginning its series with a bang by introducing Wisconsin audiences to phenomenal British playwright Lucy Kirkwood (discussed above in this week’s introductory remarks) through her smash hit The Children, which has haunted me since I saw the 2019 Steppenwolf production.
Kirkwood’s play traces the relations among three 60-somethings in the dystopian aftermath of humanly wrought disaster (of the nuclear variety, here); as has been true throughout our own pandemic, people frequently prove less altruistic and communally oriented than one might expect or hope. Kirkwood suggests that this trio and oldsters like them are the real children, as they continue making the sort of selfish personal and environmental choices through which today’s Baby Boomers repeatedly rob posterity.
Chicago Tribune critic Chris Jones rightly describes The Children as “an excellent piece of writing – complex where similar works are binary, both human and humane where other shows are predictably judgmental and, given its clever internal structure, a piece of writing that keeps you guessing.”
Directed by Marie Kohler and featuring a cast of Carrie Hitchcock, Alan Kopischke, and Sherri Williams Pannell, the reading begins at 7:00 CST, followed by a live talkback with Kohler and her cast. It’s free, but you must register in advance at TAP’s website.
2. The Green-Eyed Monster (Othello; Stratford Festival):
Flush with excitement, here’s how I opened my theater journal entry for Saturday, August 10, 2019, in that beforetime when we could still go to the theater: “Today’s Othello was the best I’ve ever seen because it’s the first I’ve seen in which Othello (Michael Blake), Iago (Gordon S. Miller) and Desdemona (Amelia Sargisson) all make sense.” Stratford’s Othello manages to be strongly feminist (props here for Laura Condlln’s outstanding Emilia) while nevertheless offering a fully textured Othello; Iago is as evil as ever without sucking all the oxygen from the room.
You can now test my claims for yourself, because Stratford is releasing the filmed version of this Nigel Shawn Williams production, with a watch party that gets under way at 6:00 CST tomorrow night (Feb. 4). You can then view the production for free for 36 hours on the Stratford YouTube channel; thereafter, this Othello will be available on demand as part of Stratford’s new streaming service, which gives you unlimited access to nearly two dozen Stratford productions and a cornucopia of additional streaming options including documentaries, forums, podcasts, sitcoms, and interviews covering everything from early modern cooking to an exploration of how we might move beyond the Western canon. Did I mention that a subscription will run you less than $8 per month in U.S. currency ($10 Canadian)?
3. Great Expectations (The Poltergeist; Southwark Playhouse):
Once upon a time, Sasha was a child prodigy in the art world who’d been given his first gallery show at 15. Now he’s an angry, pill-popping 20-something who has lost his way and blames his brother. Philip Ridley explores why in The Poltergeist, a 70-minute tour-de-force in which Joseph Potter plays the bitterly sardonic and viciously funny Sasha as well as everyone else, including Sasha’s partner, brother, sister-in-law, nieces, and many more. Along the way, Potter channels the burden and demands of potential – particularly when it comes early, arising in children or adolescents too young to fully defend their artistic integrity against the many others intent on celebrating (or exploiting) their talent.
While Ridley seems unsure how to end this piece, his writing is consistently strong in offering this latest variation on one of his longstanding themes: how the frequently plaintive song of innocence might make itself heard in its own key – itself a version of all artists’ efforts to hear and record the sound of their own voice in a world that often doesn’t know how to listen.
Precious few theater fans were able to see this piece live; the pandemic closed the world premiere production after just three performances. Thankfully, it was then recorded live in an empty Southwark Playhouse; after a widely acclaimed virtual run last year, it’s back for an encore through February 28, for roughly $21 in U.S. currency.
4. Abolition with an Asterisk (The Whip; Royal Shakespeare Company):
The Brits love to take the moral high ground on slavery, pointing out that they abolished it and thereby freed 800,000 slaves in 1833 – thirty years before Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation.
Not so fast, suggests Juliet Gilkes Romero, whose play The Whip chronicles the hypocrisy, blackmail, and flat-out deceit that went into making this parliamentary sausage (Romero’s title invokes both the physical abuse of slaves and the parliamentary role of the play’s main character, Chief Whip for the abolition bill). The result: a compensation bill for British slave owners amounting to $20 billion in current currency, which Britain only finished paying off in 2015. Going from bad to worse, the abolition bill also required that newly “freed” slaves work for seven years without compensation as “apprentices” to their erstwhile masters.
There’s more – sometimes too much more – in this overstuffed play, which also encompasses parliamentary debates involving child labor and the burgeoning suffragist movement, thereby forcing the plot to work overtime in setting the stage for various debates highlighting competing claims involving race, class, and gender. But despite my occasional qualms about the way this story gets told, the story itself is riveting – and particularly good at exposing how privilege corrupts those who hold it, thereby nurturing blithe assumptions that pave the road to hell with good intentions.
Romero’s play was still running when the pandemic closed it in mid-March; it’s been repurposed by the RSC as a radio play with a twist. Recording on Zoom from the safety of their own homes, the actors in the original cast are accompanied by hundreds of production stills as well as elements of the original music and sound design. Even for a play that runs nearly three hours, this approach goes a long way toward overcoming the inherent limitations of the chosen medium. Presented on YouTube, The Whip streams for free through March 16
5. Down the Rabbit Hole (Alice in Wonderland; Chickenshed Theatre Company):
One might fairly think of Britain’s Chickenshed Theatre Company as Milwaukee’s First Stage on steroids: programming here is all about empowering young people, embracing diverse perspectives, and making room for everyone, in shows featuring high production values and cast sizes that regularly reach triple digits. That’s part for the course in Chickenshed’s recently released recording of its 2005 Christmas show: an eight-writer, five-director musical adaptation of Alice, sung and simultaneously signed (in British Sign Language), which preserves what’s weird as well as all that’s wonderful in Carroll’s story.
The score is a pastiche that ranges from Elvis to disco; appropriately enough, the bulk of the songs recall the trippy and nostalgic sounds of the 1960’s, in a story that’s all about Carroll’s nostalgia for his own vanished childhood as well as Alice’s adventures.
While there’s occasional flirtation with panto – this is a London Christmas show, after all – Belinda McGuirk’s straightforward Alice keeps things as anchored as they can be in a production featuring particularly fine performances from actors embodying the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the Queen of Hearts, the Cheshire Cat, and the Mock Turtle. As a theater friend noted during a Scenesaver theater club meeting (free to join; described in volumes 30 and 35), this Alice has far more agency than the daft, wild-eyed innocent one sometimes encounters in Carroll adaptations.
The splendiferous costumes and incredibly fluid choreography (especially noteworthy, given how many performers are frequently on stage) would warrant a look at this production even if it weren’t free (donations accepted). As is also frequently true at First Stage, the design and choreography prove anew why theater will always trump film’s special effects: ingenious low-tech solutions yield much higher dividends (check out the caterpillar in this production and you’ll understand what I mean; you can see it in the trailer, a link to which I include below).
The quality of the Chickenshed film, which remains available through Scenesaver, is extraordinarily high; it was made possible through a hefty grant that allowed this Alice to be broadcast on television throughout Britain in 2006. The result is the most inspiring example I’ve seen of how theater can include an entire community – without sacrificing quality – since watching the Public Theater documentary Under the Greenwood Tree (discussed in Vol. 22 and still available at the Public’s website).
If theater is going to play any sort of meaningful role in bridging the great divide I described above, thinking harder and better about making such inclusive shows – involving and empowering an entire community – isn’t just the best way forward. It’s the only way forward.
References (in order of mention):
* Lucy Kirkwood, Mosquitos (National Theatre):
* George Saunders, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life (Random House, 2021)
* Kristin Chenoweth and Stephen Schwartz, Kamala:
* Gayle King Interview of Cecily Tyson (CBS This Morning, 1/26/21):
* Cecily Tyson, Just As I Am (HarperCollins, 2021)
* Wesley Morris, Cicely Tyson Kept it Together So we Didn’t Fall Apart (New York Times, 1/29/21):
* Rajiv Joseph, Red Folder (Steppenwolf Theatre, trailer):
* Lucy Kirkwood, The Children (Third Avenue Playhouse, PlayWorks 2021 registration):
* William Shakespeare, Othello (Stratford Festival):
* William Shakespeare, Othello (Stratford Festival, cast list and trailer):
* Philip Ridley, The Poltergeist (Tramp and Southwark Playhouse):
* Juliet Gilkes Romero, The Whip (Royal Shakespeare Company):
* Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland (Chickenshed Theatre Company, trailer):
* Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland (Chickenshed Theatre Company):