Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 38
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
VOLUME 38 (FEBRUARY 17, 2021): BEYOND CRITICISM
On February 17, 1903 – 118 years ago today – Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in response to a request from Franz Kappus, an aspiring 19-year-old poet who’d asked Rilke to assess his work. In what would become the first of the insightful letters we know as Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke set the tone for what was to come.
“I cannot say anything about the form of your verses,” Rilke wrote, “for I find all such critical intent quite uncongenial. Nothing could be less conducive to reaching an art work than critical remarks . . . everything cannot be so easily grasped and conveyed as we are generally led to believe.”
While Rilke proceeded to say plenty about Kappus’ poetry, he stayed true to these opening words. His thoughts moved beyond what we imagine as criticism of an artifact to ask far more interesting questions, such as what compelled Kappus to write and what that said about Kappus’ relation to the world.
Since leaving the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2018 after 15 years as a book and theater critic, I’ve given a lot of thought to the future of arts criticism. I’d voluntarily left the newspaper when the sort of arts appreciation I champion had become untenable – the result of shrinking space, shortened attention spans, and social media group think.
Watching arts critics’ frequently dismally short-sighted response to this pandemic has confirmed my sense that old-school criticism is on life support.
The arts and the public don’t need narrowly reductive and frequently uninformed assessments about whether a production or installation is “good” or “bad.” We need more of what Rilke provided: appreciative engagement and dialogue that wrestles with what artists are trying to make and do, as well as how their efforts speak to our larger concerns as a community.
Cue the music for the splendiferous first issue of Almanac, a free literary magazine created by New York’s Playwrights Horizons that was published last week. It’s a beautifully designed, 190-page collection of exceptionally thoughtful essays and gorgeous art from directors and designers, actors and administrators, dramaturgs and critics about the past, present, and future of theater.
Playwrights Horizons describes Almanac as “a new kind of publication – one in which a theater and the artists who comprise it come together to take stock of contemporary politics, culture, and playwriting.”
Almanac is just the latest illustration of an emerging phenomenon: arts organizations sharing increasingly polished and comprehensive online content that moves beyond conventional promo clips to offer sustained engagement and discussion about the art being made.
I’ve profiled numerous examples of this sort of engagement, from all over the world, in Mike’s Picks.
All 38 of these columns, as well as all the other “extra” content produced by Forward – including Jen Uphoff Gray’s 2020 vodcasts with Wisconsin arts leaders, Karen Moeller’s incredibly informed preshow lectures, “bonus” play readings for subscribers last Fall, and the 50 podcasts Scott Haden has produced over the past two years – are part of Forward’s own contribution to this rich conversation.
It’s a much better conversation than what one gets these days from most old-school arts journalism (there are some distinguished exceptions). “If the arts keep evolving,” asks cultural critic Jose Solis, “why has criticism remained essentially the same since the 19th century?”
Great question. Publications like Almanac – or ArtsScene, a just-launched and Wisconsin-based arts magazine to which I contribute – point toward an answer. So, I’d like to think, do the words you are reading right now, through which we are talking with one another, in a shared solitude that joins my writing and your reading as part of a longer conversation.
What are you looking for in our collective conversation about how we engage with art? What sort of contributions toward this conversation would you like to see from me in this column and from Forward generally?
Please continue (and strengthen!) the conversation by letting me 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, what can only be described as a major theatrical event: Here’s the trailers and rental information for both parts of Marianne Elliott’s landmark National Theatre production of Angels in America (each part rents for $9.99 for three days), which subsequently took New York by storm. The National released Angels last week along with productions of Antigone and David Hare’s adaptation of Behind the Beautiful Forevers:
Second, from Women of Color on Broadway, here’s a new dance montage of Summertime that incorporates spoken word and focuses on the next generation of creatives of color: WATCH
Third, here’s Cynthia Erivo channeling Aretha on the trailer for the upcoming National Geographic mini-series (premiering March 21) about the Queen of Soul, for which the awesome Suzan-Lori Parks serves as showrunner: WATCH
Fourth and finally, here’s a link to the free production tomorrow night (Feb. 18, 6:00 CST) from Flushing Town Hall in Queens of the second installment in this month’s Black History Trilogy: Lillias White’s Divine Sass: A Tribute to the Music, Life and Legacy of Sarah Vaughan (the third installment, on February 26, features André De Shields, who wrote and will perform Frederick Douglass: Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory): WATCH
Selections for Volume 38 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. Lost Illusions (Fifth of July; Third Avenue Playhouse):
How do we move on after the days of anger? I could be speaking of 2021, but I’m actually referring to July 1977, as the characters in Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July try to make sense of their free-wheeling activist past at Berkeley.
The exquisite Wilson has often struck me as Annie Baker avant la lettre; meandering conversations between confused souls take the measure of all they’ve lost, including their youthful dreams of a better world. Haunted by the Vietnam War, the characters in Wilson’s aptly titled play channel the next-day hangover that follows those sparkly and bright myths of American exceptionalism we associate with July 4.
Continuing PlayWorks 2021 – the recently launched spring reading series that I described in volume 36 – TAP is offering a live reading of Fifth of July this Friday night (Feb. 19) at 7:00 CST (it’s free, but you must register). Michael Wright directs a stellar cast that includes Michael Cotey, Sam Douglas, Krystal Drake, Karen Estrada, April Paul, Syd Robbie, Marcus Truschinski, and Tami Workentin.
2. Little Boxes (In & Of Itself; Hulu):
Originating in Los Angeles in 2016 before a run of more than 500 performances in New York, magician Derek DelGaudio’s moving and probing exploration of how we identify ourselves may not change your life. But it will make you think hard about how you live it.
I hesitate to describe In & Of Itself as a magic show, although there’s magic aplenty in it; to categorize DelGaudio’s work in this way plays into the limiting and classifying notions of identity that DelGaudio interrogates and ultimately deconstructs. The newly dead Emily is spot-on when she realizes, in Act III of Our Town, that we’re “all sort of shut up in little boxes.” DelGaudio drives home what we’ve always already known but work hard each day to forget: we don’t need to be.
I realize I’m being cryptic, and that’s deliberate. As DelGaudio himself said in a recent interview, the less people know about his show going in, the better. “Not for the element of surprise,” he said. “It’s just there’s nothing I think you could say that wouldn’t somehow transform the experience before it started. So going into it with a clean slate, I think is the best way to approach it.”
If you don’t have a subscription, Hulu offers a free one-month trial; after watching In & Of Itself, you can binge The Handmaid’s Tale. Which, as it happens, explores how bad things could actually get if we don’t heed DelGaudio’s heartfelt and hopeful message about all we are and might yet still become.
3. Breaking Bad (All the Devils Are Here at Shakespeare Theatre Company; Julius Caesar at Shakespeare@):
Having embodied Hades in Hadestown, who better than Patrick Page to ruminate about evil in a piece subtitled How Shakespeare Invented the Villain?
Page’s qualifications for writing and delivering this newly created piece – in which he makes the case that Shakespeare’s increasingly complex villains helped him (and by extension us) to be more human – actually go much deeper. His roots as an actor are in Shakespeare, including long stints at Utah Shakes and Oregon Shakes; he’s also a playwright. And he speaks movingly, here, of the psychic cost involved in playing Iago – and of embodying Macbeth in four separate productions. The man knows whereof he speaks, and he has a lot to say in 80 packed, consistently mesmerizing minutes.
While moving chronologically from morality plays and Richard III to the romances and Prospero, Page demolishes frequently simplistic assessments and rejections of Merchant of Venice (a play that’s way overdue for a new staging at American Players Theatre). He expands standard definitions of villainy to encompass the histories (Falstaff) and the comedies (Malvolio). Abetted by a first-class lighting and sound design, he’s downright chilling as Iago and Macbeth. Distinguishing Macbeth from Iago, he rightly suggests that “Macbeth’s tragedy is not that he’s evil. Macbeth’s tragedy is that he chooses evil.”
I don’t always agree with Page (an example: he sees the romances as fairy-tale cop-outs written by a man who could no longer live with the evil he’d conjured). But he’s consistently informed and interesting on the Bard. He’s not shy about drawing parallels, both to popular culture and current villains (while never named, Trump is briefly invoked). And he confirms anew that when it comes to understanding evil as with so much else, Shakespeare is always – always – ahead of us. The late, great Harold Bloom may have overstated the case when insisting that Shakespeare invented what we understand as human. But not by much.
Page, incidentally, will be playing the demagogic title character in a radio version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, presented by an international cast on four successive Mondays beginning this coming Monday, February 22 and ending – naturally – on the Ides of March. Presented by the Jersey City-based Shakespeare@, you can access Julius Caesar (as well as prior radio productions of Richard II and The Tempest) for free.
4. The Most Important Profession in the World (Principal Principle, Next Act Theatre):
“I left teaching in 2010,” playwright Joe Zarrow said, while chatting with a critic following the 2014 world premiere of his play Principal Principle. “I wanted to write. But truth is I wasn't really a very good teacher. It’s hard – it’s really hard.” Word.
Zarrow taught high school English in the Chicago Public Schools system; a Chicago teacher’s lounge forms the backdrop for this play, which Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones has described as one of the “very few excellent plays about public education.” Among the conflicts it explores: the pressure confronting educators to “teach to the test” rather than teaching actual kids (a tension that’s also explored in the very different setting for Alan Bennett’s excellent play The History Boys). Zarrow’s play also profiles the conflict in public education between hardened veterans and the legion of young, inexperienced, and frequently white idealists (a tension that’s explored in the Chicago chapters of Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Female Persuasion).
I haven’t yet seen Next Act Theatre’s new streamed production of Zarrow’s play (it opened after my deadline for this column). But I can tell you it’s helmed by Marti Gobel, whose direction of the Forward production of Ike Holter’s Exit Strategy – also about public education in Chicago – was among my 2018 theater highlights. Gobel’s cast includes Forward alums April Paul (The Flick) and Malkia Stampley (Learning to Stay; Good People). The production streams through March 7; tickets run $30 (discounts for students, veterans, artists, and seniors are available).
5. Taking Responsibility (Going Viral):
On a plane from Uganda to Britain, everyone is crying except the narrator, recounting his story for us. Written and performed by Daniel Bye, this 70-minute performance lecture was an award-winning Edinburgh Fringe entry in 2015.
Turns out the narrator is unwittingly spreading a disease that causes people to cry uncontrollably; in extreme cases, they die. Exuding white privilege, the narrator refuses to connect the dots joining him with a disease that first consumes his native Britain and then conquers the world. Instead he flees the country, raging at those trying to track him down with hopes that he’ll collaborate in finding a solution instead of exacerbating the problem.
Written and filmed in the wake of the Ebola epidemic six years ago, Bye’s piece now plays as prophetic, as he walks us through how a virus spreads while offering wide-ranging riffs on developed nations’ neocolonialism and racism toward the rest of the world; the limits of empathy; and the persistent illusion that we can (or should) isolate ourselves from the various tragedies unfolding around us, every day.
At his best, Bye suggests a less persistently autobiographical version of a young Spalding Gray. As he tells this ostensibly personal and private story, we see similarities with our own, thereby underscoring what this in-the-round performance makes clear: we’re all in this together, with everything from the air we breathe to the lives we lead. We can’t fly alone.
You can stream Bye’s piece through Scenesaver, the Brit platform on which every show is free (although you must register); see my prior comments on Scenesaver in volumes 30, 35 and 36.
References (in order of mention):
* Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (trans. Charlie Louth). Penguin, 2013.
* Almanac, Issue 01 (Playwrights Horizons):
* Black Lives Matter (ArtsScene Magazine, Issue 02):
* Tony Kushner, Angels in America Part I: Millennium Approaches (National Theatre):
* Tony Kushner, Angels in America Part II: Perestroika (National Theatre):
* George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, and DuBose Heyward, Summertime (Women of Color on Broadway):
* Suzan-Lori Parks, Genius: Aretha (National Geographic, official trailer):
* Lillias White, Divine Sass: A Tribute to the Music, Life and Legacy of Sarah Vaughan (Flushing Town Hall):
* André De Shields, Frederick Douglass: Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory (Flushing Town Hall):
* Lanford Wilson, Fifth of July (Third Avenue Playhouse, registration):
* Derek DelGaudio, In & Of Itself (Hulu trailer):
* Patrick Page, All the Devils Are Here (Shakespeare Theatre Company):
* William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (Shakespeare@):
* Joe Zarrow, Principal Principle (Next Act Theatre):
* Meg Wolitzer, The Female Persuasion. Riverhead, 2018.
* Daniel Bye, Going Viral (Scenesaver):