Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 37
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
VOLUME 37 (FEBRUARY 10, 2021): SEASONS OF LOVE
Even in kindergarten, during which tallying one’s cards and chocolates was a competitive sport, I was never a fan of America’s candy-hearted holiday, in which sugared love is expressed through Hallmark saccharine while leaving the lonely hearts out in the cold. There’s something almost unbearably smug about Valentine’s Day.
Equally important, Valentine’s Day peddles a version of love which is exclusive and claustrophobic, while raising impossible expectations about what any single relationship can deliver. This cardboard cut-out of a holiday projects an idyllic, singly dimensioned image of love and marriage which dooms us to perpetual disappointment and therefore sets us up to fail. Worst of all, it leaves no room for championing more expansive definitions of love involving friends and community. Country and cosmos. All creatures, great and small.
Contrast the more inclusive, communally oriented vision of love in Shakespeare’s great comedies. In Much Ado About Nothing, for example, the love between Beatrice and Benedick doesn’t just save the two of them. It also transforms their world. At the very moment when this dynamic duo finally owns up to all they feel for each other, they harness that energy to repair the damage done by the more cramped and competitive version of love threatening to tear their world apart.
It’s worth noting that nothing about the course of love between these two runs smooth; while they’re smart and charismatic, they’re also prickly, difficult, and prone to fight (they’d be right at home in a Sondheim musical, as if we needed any more reason to anoint him America’s Shakespeare).
Hero and Claudio may exchange Valentine’s Day cards. But I’d wager a pint of good English ale that Beatrice and Benedick never will. They don’t need to shout their love from the rooftops. They’re too busy living it – working out their seemingly intractable and endless differences and disagreements, through the sort of hard conversations that allow us to grow together, in fall and winter as well as spring and summer.
This week’s selections explore the seasons of love – as well as its discontents and disappointments – from multiple angles. Some of the relationships featured below falter or fail; all of them prove difficult. But from the great tragedy that is Romeo and Juliet (pick one) to the deceptively simple look at marriage in Act 2 of Our Town (pick five), each of them wrestles with the nature of love; the relationship between individual love and the larger world; and how, in the words of one of the greatest love songs ever written, love can simultaneously leave us feeling sorry and grateful, regretful and happy. Which, as Sondheim insists throughout another song from this same landmark musical, means being alive.
What plays about love mean most to you? I’d love to know. You can reach me through Forward at firstname.lastname@example.org or directly at email@example.com. And as always, both “theater” and “Fischer” are spelled with an er.
First, check out Wisconsin actor Chiké Johnson and Milwaukee Rep fave Zonya Love, two of the actors giving us a first look at Mfoniso Udofia’s On Love, a series of seven short vignettes, poems, and songs showcasing eight different types of love. Presented through MCC LiveLab (this Valentine’s edition is being dubbed LoveLab), On Love streams live tomorrow (Feb. 11) at 5:30 CST and then on demand at MCC’s YouTube channel through February 25 (tickets are $7): TICKETS
Second, here’s the trailer for Tarah Flanagan and Christopher Gerson’s smartly adapted and animated rendition of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s gothic feminist classic, The Yellow Wallpaper. Commissioned by Actors Theatre of Louisville and streaming for $3.99, it gave me my 24 most heart-thumping minutes of this past week: TICKETS
Third, in preparation for the devastating Act III of Our Town (pick five below) and courtesy of Houston’s Alley Theatre, here’s a rare opportunity to view two distinct dramatizations (one told through a series of stills and the second through a series of doodles) of Strindberg’s short story A Half Sheet of Paper, driving home that love and life are “fragile” and easily lost. It streams for free through Saturday (Feb. 13) as part of the Alley’s digital season: WATCH
Fourth and finally: Reviewing the Stratford Festival’s 2010 production of The Tempest that starred an 80-year-old Christopher Plummer as Prospero, former New York Times critic Charles Isherwood rightly wrote that “to hear Mr. Plummer . . . is to be bewitched by a spell that only authoritative classical actors can cast.” In a statement issued upon Plummer’s unexpected death following a fall this past Friday, Stratford Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino referred to Plummer as Stratford’s “North Star ,” adding that “we shall not look on his like again.” Here’s two clips from that 2010 Stratford Tempest, issued by Stratford following Plummer’s death. I miss him already.
Selections for Volume 37 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. Cut Him Out in Little Stars (Romeo and Juliet; Metcalfe Gordon Productions):
Set in the aftermath of a pandemic, this new adaptation of the Bard’s play was made during one, with the help of Zoom rehearsals, Perspex screens, CGI scenery that conjures a stage and auditorium, and frequent Covid testing – especially before the kissing. Derek Jacobi narrates while Sam Tutty (Olivier Award winner) and Emily Redpath play the star-crossed lovers, leading a diverse cast that drives home anew what happens to love in a world riven by hate.
Directed by Nick Evans, this tale of star-crossed lovers runs from February 13-27; if you purchase a ticket by tomorrow (February 11), you’ll receive a 40 percent early-bird discount on the $28 price tag. The “black mantle” of night invoked by Juliet won’t cover you while watching; although this production is filmed, it must be viewed during prescribed hours in Brit time: either 8:30 am CST or 1:30 pm CST.
2. The Company We Keep (Simply Sondheim at Signature Theatre; Sondheim @90 Roundtable; Porchlight Music Theatre):
During the past 30 years, Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia has produced more of Sondheim’s work than any theater in the United States. One can see why Sondheim trusts Signature with his material by watching the recently filmed and just-released Simply Sondheim, a star-studded revue that Signature crafted and premiered in 2015. Gorgeously filmed in Signature’s MAX Theatre over three days this past November and accompanied by a stellar 15-piece pit with orchestrations by longtime Sondheim collaborator Jonathan Tunick, the 12-member cast includes many Signature regulars as well as rising star Solea Pfeiffer (Hamilton), Norm Lewis, Conrad Ricamora, and a show-stealing Emily Skinner.
Unlike many revues, Simply Sondheim traces a clear dramatic arc, from the buoyant hope of young love through life’s disappointments, which can curdle love and so much else. While it leans heaviest on Company and Follies, this revue makes room for 14 different Sondheim titles, including rarely heard numbers from Assassins, Bounce, and Passion. It will run you $35, and it’s worth every penny. Simply Sondheim can be streamed through March 26.
You can warm up for Simply Sondheim with the crowning conclusion to Porchlight Music Theatre’s consistently stupendous Sondheim @90 Roundtable series, in which Porchlight Artistic Director Michael Weber has been joined each week by three guests to focus on a particular Sondheim musical (see volumes 1 and 31). Weber wrapped things up on Saturday night with Company, in a discussion that included Raúl Esparza (Bobby in the 2006 Broadway Company), Goodman Theatre Artistic Director Robert Falls, and longtime Sondheim actor and director Lonny Price. It’s an outstanding conversation, which is par for the course in this great gift of a series, every episode of which remains available for free viewing at Porchlight’s YouTube channel.
3. Chekhov in Tampa (Anna in the Tropics; San Diego Rep and Amigos del REP):
I’ve always suspected that the lush language in Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer-winning Anna in the Tropics might read as well or even better than it plays. Seventeen years after I saw this play in Washington, San Diego Rep and Amigos del REP are now giving me a chance to test my hunch, in a live staged reading this coming Monday (February 15) at 7:00 CST (available for free, although a $10 donation is suggested for those who can afford it).
Cruz’s play invokes one Russian (Tolstoy and Anna Karenina) while channeling another (Chekhov, especially in Three Sisters) as we visit a 1929 Cuban-American cigar factory in which a new lector has been hired to read to the workers while they roll cigars by hand. But life begins to imitate art when this lector reads from Tolstoy’s great novel of adulterous passion, exposing the lovelorn lives of women who want more than crumbs from the American Dream, their men, and life – while confirming anew that love and marriage don’t always keep company.
4. The Bed You Lie In (Katie Roche; Mint Theater Company):
From Yeats and Synge and O’Casey to Friel, McPherson, and O’Rowe: Irish drama is invariably presented as a story of the dudes, which leaves no room for Hazel Ellis (see volume 8) and Marina Carr, Emma Donoghue and Marie Jones, Christina Reid and Elaine Murphy and the unaccountably forgotten Teresa Deevy, who was a major player in Irish theater in the 1930s. Deevy’s best known play, Katie Roche, is now streaming through March 28 courtesy of Mint Theater Company’s three-camera archival recording of its 2013 production. While it streams for free, you must register at the Mint’s website to obtain the requisite password for viewing.
Born illegitimate and now a servant, Katie marries for security instead of passion. Deevy is less focused on that fateful choice than its painful consequences – true to form for a playwright more interested in psychology than plot. While an ardent Irish nationalist, Deevy was also highly critical of the subservient role of women, in Ireland and generally; if that stance contributed to her falling out with Dublin’s Abbey Theatre (where Katie Roche debuted in 1936), it nevertheless gives her work even greater relevance today.
There are moments in the early going during which this play can seem fusty. It isn’t. Stick with it till the chill creeps in, exposing what’s cold and hard about a society still as provincial and backward in the 1930’s as Joyce’s Ireland – and simultaneously as modern as the plight of every woman without money or connections, then and now.
Under Artistic Director Jonathan Bank, the Mint has staged three full-length Deevy plays and four one-acts in the past decade, during which it has also published two volumes of Deevy’s work; this new airing of the Mint’s 2013 production coincides with the first-ever international conference on Deevy (being held in Waterford, Ireland). That rescue from oblivion makes for an inspiring story, confirming anew that theater companies producing older plays (the Mint’s mission is to bring back forgotten plays) need not subsist on a diet of dead white men.
5. Remembering Hal Holbrook (Our Town, NBC):
Although legendary actor Hal Holbrook will be best remembered for embodying Mark Twain as so much more than a folksy caricature – Holbrook makes room, for example, for the Twain who was vigorously anti-racist, in the unjustly maligned Huck Finn and elsewhere – he was also a memorable Stage Manager in Wilder’s Our Town. You don’t need to take my word for it; Holbrook’s performance in a televised Our Town from 1977 is available on YouTube (so, for that matter, is a 1967 televised rendition of Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight!). Holbrook’s January 23 death was announced this past week.
In his director’s notes to a 2013 Our Town I saw at UW-Whitewater, the late Jim Butchart observed that Wilder’s oft-performed play is “so familiar as to be a cliché of itself.” “I had the same preconceived idea,” he continued, “that it was an overly sentimentalized version of the good old days.” In fact, as I wrote in my review of the Milwaukee Rep Our Town in 2018, Edward Albee got it exactly right in describing Our Town as “one of the toughest, saddest plays ever written” (with all due apologies to blokes named Williams and Wilson, Albee also got it right in assessing Our Town as “the finest serious American play”).
I wrote at length on Our Town just two columns ago, while I was immersed in Howard Sherman’s moving, just-published oral history of the play (see volume 35 and check out our recently released Theater Forward podcast with Sherman; better yet, buy Sherman’s book!). Suffice it for purposes of this follow-up that Holbrook channels the spirit of Wilder as well as he does the spirit of Twain. I rewatched the NBC production this past weekend, confirming anew my memory of it as among the best productions of Our Town I’ve seen.
Wilder never – ever – devalued the importance of romantic love; this production gives romance its due in a particularly fine Act II. But in Act II of Our Town as elsewhere, Wilder also acknowledged how readily our impulse to live “two by two” can narrow our horizons, turning us inward and making us selfish. Something worth pondering this Valentine’s Day, in a world that’s never needed more love from each and every one of us, working together to build back better.
References (in order of mention):
* Mfoniso Udofia, On Love (MCC Theater):
* Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (Actors Theatre of Louisville):
* August Strindberg, A Half Sheet of Paper (Alley Theatre):
* William Shakespeare, The Tempest (two scenes featuring Christopher Plummer as Prospero at the 2010 Stratford Festival):
* William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (Metcalfe Gordon Productions):
* Stephen Sondheim, Simply Sondheim (Signature Theatre):
* Michael Weber and guests, Sondheim @90 Roundtable (Porchlight Music Theatre):
* Nilo Cruz, Anna in the Tropics (San Diego Rep/Amigos del REP):
* Teresa Deevy, Katie Roche (Mint Theater Company):
* Mint Theater Company’s Teresa Deevy Project (interviews, forums, trailers):
* Thornton Wilder, Our Town (Hal Holbrook as Stage Manager; 1977 on NBC):
* Hal Holbrook, Mark Twain Tonight! (1967 on CBS):
* Howard Sherman, Another Day’s Begun (Methuen Drama, 2021)
* Theater Forward Podcast #49 (Howard Sherman Interview):