Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 40

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 | VOLUME 39


VOLUME 40 (MARCH 3, 2021): LIFE BEGINS AT 40

On May 18 last year, this column first appeared as a stop-gap measure, designed to offer theater-starved audience members some streaming options until we got back to normal a few months later. That projected timeline – and my accompanying assumptions regarding the desirability of ever again returning to “normal” – were incredibly naive. So was the theater community’s own understanding of how fully this pandemic-induced pause would forever transform the way we think about what theater even is and should be, moving forward.

Most of that first column’s recommendations involved archival streams and discussion panels, but one of my picks unwittingly gave a hint of what was to come: playwright Richard Nelson was taking his beloved Apple family – previously featured in a quartet of magnificent stage plays – online, for the first of three Zoom plays.

This 40th column features a Zoom play reading from Wisconsin. An audio play from Los Angeles, of an Australian play directed from London. An exciting live stream, spliced with prerecorded footage, from Cincinnati. An old-fashioned archival recording (yes, there’s still plenty of those!) of a great play from Chicago. And a genuine theater-film hybrid from London.

During the past two weeks, I’ve also watched an interactive live show allowing me to toggle between cameras for different angles of New York-based actor Michael Guagno’s live performance as an agonized Franz Kafka. I’ve stared into the face of Chicago-based actor Deanna Reed-Foster, who could see me as she delivered an intimate, one-on-one performance from her kitchen of a new Lydia Diamond script. And I’ve been eagerly waiting my daily fix from London of Athena Stevens’ serialized two-hander about how toxic masculinity not only disempowers but also divides women (I’ll have much more to say on Stevens’ serial next week; I’ve included a link below if you want to start watching now).

As playwright Caridad Svich (see pick 5) tweeted last week: “Theatre ppl: stop saying ‘when we are back.’ We’re here. And lots of us are making things. Against all odds.”

Not only are brilliant creatives like Svich making things. They’ve also forever transformed what we mean by theater. Future theater and how it’s consumed will incorporate ever more elements from the worlds of film and gaming as well as radio and television. It will increase opportunities for actors to not only work on a physical stage, but also from their homes anywhere in the world, thereby increasing work opportunities while reducing our carbon footprint. It will be more accessible to potential audience members with disabilities, as well as those whose age (the comparatively young and old) pose additional barriers to attendance. And it will – it simply must – pay more attention to the gross injustices in the world it claims to reflect and interpret but all too often ignores while instead serving up bland helpings of escapist entertainment.

Theater will no longer just take place in a building; it will instead be in our homes and churches as well as our schools and playgrounds and prisons, to a greater degree than ever before. Returning to its roots, theater will be in, of and inseparable from the community. It will break the conformist, corporatist stranglehold that consistently limits what we see as well as where and how we see it. And when it’s performed from a traditional stage, it will include some of the exciting changes in form and design that have been made during this past year. If theater wants to stay relevant, it will have no choice.

To steal from Dylan, theater was so much older then, back before the pandemic. It’s younger than that now, newly relevant and as awake as it’s ever been to aesthetic and political changes offering us a chance to build a better and more open future. “When we say theater,” says a character in the Svich play I profile in pick 5, “we also mean the world.” All the world is indeed a stage. Let’s take our stages to the streets and around the world, proving anew that this venerable old art form is also forever young, with ever more to say, to all the people.

How has your sense of theater changed during the past year? How have those changes influenced your hopes and expectations for what theater can and should now be? I’d love to know. You can reach me through Forward at info@forwardtheater.com or directly at mjfischer1985@gmail.com. And as always, both “theater” and “Fischer” are spelled with an er.

Bonus Selections:

First, here’s American Players Theatre Core Company member Gavin Lawrence, announcing an exciting new video series (monthly, he hopes) celebrating Black artists while simultaneously expanding how we define “canonical” texts and “classic” art: WATCH

Second, here’s the second installment in the free MasterVoices rendition of Myths and Hymns, Adam Guettel’s glorious 1998 song cycle about the yearning for transcendence in a secular world (the first installment, profiled in Volume 34, remains available). This installment explores the nature of work: why we strive, what it gets us, and how it might help us build a better world rather than losing our bodies and ourselves. It’s 20 incredible minutes, showcasing some great voices (here’s looking at you, Shoshana Bean and Michael McElroy) as well as one of the grooviest poodles you’ll ever see: WATCH

Third, courtesy of Studio Tenn in Franklin, Tennessee, here’s a link to next Monday’s latest edition of Studio Tenn Talks, involving a 30th anniversary Assassins reunion of the original Playwrights Horizons cast (including Studio Tenn Artistic Director Patrick Cassidy) as well as Stephen Sondheim, John Weidman (book), Jerry Zaks (direction), Paul Gemignani (music direction), and Michael Starobin (orchestration). From 7:00 CST on, they’ll be sharing stories about how Assassins came to be, while also singing from the score; if you can’t make it on Monday, the entire episode will subsequently be available at the Studio Tenn YouTube page: WATCH

Fourth and finally, here’s the link to purchase a $31 ticket giving you access for 31 days to 31 tales by Slovenian playwright Rok Vilčnik; they’ll be delivered by 31 artists (including many beloved Wisconsin actors) from around the world. Invoking our greatest hopes and dreams while asking some of the big questions, A Cosmic Fairy Tale A Day Keeps the Doctor Away comes our way courtesy of Milwaukee’s consistently inventive Theatre Gigante. It will be available for purchase throughout the month of March; you can treat the tales as a daily meditation or binge them all at once: TICKETS


Selections for Volume 40 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):


1. Blowing in the Wind (An Iliad; Court Theatre):

Jim DeVita first saw Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson’s An Iliad – a mesmerizing and devastating adaptation of Homer’s poem – a decade ago, in a 2011 Court Theatre production starring Timothy Edward Kane as the world-weary Poet desperate to make us see that war is not and never has been the answer. “I was both blown away and devastated,” DeVita told me, during an interview three years later. “When it ended, I couldn’t move.”

I saw that Court production and had the exact same reaction. As I would again, after watching DeVita’s own unforgettable performances of An Iliad at Milwaukee Rep in 2014 and American Players Theatre at 2015.

But even if you saw both of these Wisconsin productions featuring one of the Badger State’s finest actors, I urge you to check out this 2020 iteration of the Court’s original 2011 production, again featuring Kane and now set in Chicago’s Oriental Institute, where Kane walks his audience through several rooms of artifacts, including a fragment from a first-century copy of Homer’s poem. As the Poet suggests in this piece, we can’t ever hear this story often enough.

An Iliad

The pandemic prematurely closed this 2020 Court production, thereby limiting the number of people able to hear Kane sing the Poet’s message. Never fear: A multi-camera recording made during the run last Spring is offering all of us the chance to hear the Poet yet again; the quality of the Court’s trailer suggests a film delivering all the intensity I remember from Kane’s performance ten years ago. The Court’s production streams from today through March 31; individual tickets are $25, with discounts for viewers under age 30.


2. A Day in the Life (Typical; Soho Theatre):

Christopher Ibikunle Alder was a decorated British war hero, but that didn’t save him from dying in 1998 on the floor of a British police station, pleading that he couldn’t breathe while British policemen made monkey noises from across the room. If this all sounds too painfully familiar, Ryan Calais Cameron’s one-hour play – a standout at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe that went on to a sold-out run at London’s Soho Theatre and has now been filmed – might be too much for you. In an interview, Cameron noted he was inspired by Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over; the two plays have a great deal in common (see Volume 3 for a discussion of Spike Lee’s outstanding film of a Steppenwolf Theatre performance of Pass Over).

Typical

But as embodied by a terrific Richard Blackwood on a nearly empty stage, Cameron’s 60-minute play honors a man’s life even as it adamantly refuses to whitewash his death. Much of Typical is darkly funny, as we’re taken through Alder’s last day in scintillating rap-inflected rhyme. It’s as dazzling and wide-ranging a ride down a lively mind’s stream of consciousness as we get from Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses, and it’s filled with the same sort of insecurities and uncertainties involving a man who is only ever seen as an outsider – and who can only fully be himself when he’s in the privacy of his own home.

Even before Alder’s day goes fatally wrong, the mood in Cameron’s play begins to darken. A bouncer is slow to let him enter a club; he feels out of place once he’s inside. Three white punks taunt him on the dance floor; a white woman makes clear she’s less interested in him as a person than as a piece of exotic flesh. Preserving the play’s theatrical setting while leveraging the advantages of film, director Anastasia Osei-Kuffour steadily closes in, increasingly restricting Blackwood’s range while focusing on his overwhelmed, outraged, and ultimately terrified face.

Cameron wrote this piece with the permission of Alder’s family, which will receive a portion of the proceeds from your ticket (roughly $14 dollars, for a 48-hour rental). Dramatherapist Wabriya King, present on set throughout production, offers viewers a guided meditation after watching the film so that they might reflect on their viewing experience and their bodies’ response to it.


3. Detroit: I Do Mind Dying (Sunset Baby; Third Avenue Playhouse):

Dominique Morisseau’s Sunset Baby may be set in New York, but this phenomenal playwright’s work almost invariably lives in a Detroit state of mind. It’s where Morisseau is from and where she’s now Executive Artistic Producer of Detroit Public Theatre; it’s also the setting for her trilogy of plays about the relationship between race, class, and revolution (artistic as well as political). Under Jake Penner’s stellar direction, Forward staged the conclusion of that trilogy, Skeleton Crew, in 2018.

As with Morisseau’s Detroit trilogy, Sunset Baby is haunted by the dashed dreams of a stillborn revolution and how that plays out for the survivors, including an actual onetime revolutionary and political prisoner. His wife is now dead; he is trying to become the father he’s never fully been by making peace with the daughter he’s never really known (a third character, her boyfriend, sharpens the generational conflict which runs through so much of Morisseau’s work).

Sunset Baby

Continuing PlayWorks 2021 – the recently launched spring reading series that I described in Volumes 36 and 38 – TAP is offering a live reading of Sunset Baby this Friday night (March 5) at 7:00 CST (it’s free, but you must register). Directed by Forward alum Malkia Stampley, the cast includes Forward alums Lachrisa Grandberry and DiMonte Henning as well as Chiké Johnson.

Although it’s written in a very different key with a music all its own, Sunset Baby also offers an intriguing juxtaposition with the meditation on radicalism and its discontents presented in TAP’s recent reading of Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July (see Volume 38). I’m not sure whether that pairing was deliberate; I’d frankly never thought of these two plays in relation to one another. But plays always wind up talking to one another, letting us see new things between them; that’s one of the beauties of festivals like this one.


4. Midnight Oil (Extinction; L.A. Theatre Works):

A man accidentally hits a tiger quoll while driving and takes it to the closet vet’s clinic; soon he’s all-in on trying to save this endangered Australian species.

The catch?

He also runs a coal mining company that’s polluting the very ecosystems he wants to save. That’s the set up in Australian playwright Hannie Rayson’s Extinction, newly released as an audio play by the reliably top-notch L.A. Theatre Works, which has more than 500 such productions in its catalogue (including three Stoppard plays, if you want to follow along while digesting Hermione Lee’s massive new Stoppard biography). You can purchase a download of Extinction for $20.

Extinction

Extinction reflects Rayson’s intent to write a play about the environment in which none of the four characters are all good or all bad. Like Harry the coal exec, each member of this quartet must balance hopes for saving the planet with the realization that some of it will inevitably be lost; as an ecologist in Extinction opines, there’s “no point in squandering your money on a creature past the point of no return” when there aren’t sufficient resources to save them all. The remaining two characters, both younger, are much less willing to engage in such utilitarian calculations; they also get their day in court, as Rayson’s foursome play out variations of age-old debates pitting idealists against pragmatists.

When Rayson turns to these characters’ bed-hopping personal relations, I’m not always as persuaded to go along, but I could say the same for much of Shaw. As with Shaw, what’s noteworthy in Extinction isn’t the plot or even the characters but rather the play of ideas, focused here on topics which get precious little attention in theater, even though they involve questions going to the heart of whether we’ll soon even have a world in which people – let alone plays – can still exist.


5. The Storyteller (Theatre: a love story; Know Theatre of Cincinnati and Pones):

“More and more often,” wrote Walter Benjamin in The Storyteller (1936), “there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is expressed.” “It is as if,” he continued, “something that seemed inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.”

In Theatre: a love story – Know Theatre’s world premiere production of the prolific Caridad Svich’s latest play – Svich tries to restore that experience while dissecting what went wrong, as theater morphed from intimate sharing to an impersonal and money-driven embodiment of late capitalism, in which ironic cool substitutes for passion while surface replaces substance.

Theatre: a love story

Two quartets – one of actors and the second of dancers – unspool Svich’s genre-imploding tale, a partly live-streamed and partly recorded meditation on why we tell stories, how they devolve when we’re increasingly disconnected from the natural world, and what happens to creativity and commitment when labor is commodified and reduced to exchange value.

Svich is too smart to fall into the nostalgia trap; she knows that even the stories we tell about the country we call the past are tainted and sentimentalized. But she also refuses to dismiss the power and magic of the past and its rituals, feeding our dreams and helping us get up off the couch of the “well-made” drawing room play.

Svich’s play as well as Know Theatre’s bracingly ambitious direction and design defy just about every one of those well-made conventions, and I don’t pretend to have followed every leap being made here in imagining something new. But I also didn’t entirely understand every move made by Anne Washburn when I first encountered her incredible Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play – the Forward production that Theatre: a love story most closely resembles. As Proust recognized long ago, that’s how brave and original art and artists work. Our language simply hasn’t yet found words for all that’s genuinely original in what such artists make and we experience.

You can livestream Theatre: a love story – intercut with prerecorded footage – through March 14; thereafter, you can watch a captured (i.e., prerecorded) performance through March 27 (tickets are pay-what-you-can, beginning at $5). Even with the tech glitches I encountered when watching on opening night, I’d strongly recommend going with the live version. Like Svich’s play, it can be messy. Consistent with Svich’s play and this courageous production, such messiness is also thrillingly true to all that it means to be fully alive, as part of the never-ending love story that represents theater at its best.



References (in order of mention):

* Franz Kafka, Letter to My Father (M-34 Productions):
https://www.m-34.org/kafka

* Theatre for One (Court Theatre):
https://www.courttheatre.org/season-tickets/2020-2021-season/theatre-for...

* Athena Stevens, Late Night Staring at High-Res Pixels (Aegis Productions and Finborough Theatre, trailer):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mvoSt_6Lvhc

* Athena Stevens, Late Night Staring at High-Res Pixels (Aegis Productions and Finborough Theatre):
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLtipa63U6G79XsOSPqR2V2yw2KBnOe-Ub

* Gavin Lawrence, In the Wake of Our Shadow: Black Voices (American Players Theatre):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aooU2pwvFCY

* Adam Guettel, Myths and Hymns 2: Work (MasterVoices):
https://www.mastervoices.org/events/mythsandhymns-chapter2/

* 30th Anniversary Assassins Reunion (Studio Tenn):
https://givebutter.com/stt

* Rok Vilčnik, A Cosmic Fairy Tale A Day Keeps the Doctor Away (Theatre Gigante):
https://www.eventbrite.com/e/a-cosmic-fairy-tale-a-day-keeps-the-doctor-...

* Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, An Iliad (Court Theatre):
https://www.courttheatre.org/season-tickets/2020-2021-season/an-iliad-st...

* Ryan Calais Cameron, Typical (Soho Theatre):
https://sohotheatreondemand.com/show/typical

* Dominique Morisseau, Sunset Baby (Third Avenue Playhouse, registration):
https://www.onthestage.com/show/tap/sunset-baby-15887

* Hannie Rayson, Extinction (L.A. Theatre Works):
https://latw.org/title/extinction

* Hermione Lee, Tom Stoppard: A Life (Penguin Random House, 2021)

* Walter Benjamin, The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov (1936), in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (Hannah Arendt, ed.). Schocken Books, 1969.

* Caridad Svich, Theatre: a love story (Know Theatre and Pones):
https://www.knowtheatre.com/theatre-a-love-story/