Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 41

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 38 | VOLUME 40


VOLUME 41 (MARCH 10, 2021): LIVING IN A MAN'S WORLD

What would have happened had Shakespeare had a sister, as gifted as he was?

Virginia Woolf’s question has haunted me now for more than 40 years, as has Woolf’s answer: “To have lived a free life in London in the sixteenth century would have meant for a woman who was poet and playwright a nervous stress and dilemma which might well have killed her.”

Such genius, Woolf surmised, did not make its way on to paper (some of it actually did, which paradoxically reinforces Woolf’s point; despite her advantages of class and education, she herself apparently wasn’t aware of such work). But when “one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Brontë who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture her gift had put her to.”

We meet such women in Caryl Churchill plays like Vinegar Tom and Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (rarely staged, in a world where more than 70 percent of produced plays are written by men). And we meet such a woman in Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia (pick three), a wonderful play about a gifted female contemporary of Shakespeare’s who did publish; we can only speculate about how much more she might have done, had her world been arranged differently.

“Search for this now and you won’t find it,” Morgan’s Emilia tells us, at the end of a scene involving yet another man trying to shut her down. “Look for this in words and it won’t be there. Almost nothing is kept. Nothing is remembered, but in our muscles we feel it,” she continues. “We read what was recorded and we see what is missing.”

“Anonymity,” writes Woolf of such women, “runs in their blood.”

This week’s selections focus on women like Emilia, living in a man’s world while searching for time and space they might call their own. Each of these selections contributes to a more textured and comprehensive understanding of a history that Woolf suggests we revise and rewrite so that herstory can fully emerge.

If we’re in the business as theater makers of telling stories about where we came from, who we are, and what we might yet become, why wouldn’t we want to make those stories and all they dream as expansive and inclusive as possible, so that we might better know ourselves and our world?

The past and present Judith Shakespeares of the world have waited long enough, don’t you think? As we continue our work together to build back better, let’s be better about ensuring that more of these voices (and the voices of trans and non-binary writers who don’t identify as men) are heard. Time’s up.

What are your favorite plays by women, trans, and non-binary playwrights? I’d love to know, and I promise to read any you send my way that I haven’t yet read. 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, from Chicago’s Goodman Theatre: Starting this coming Monday (March 15), Goodman will offer free viewing of archival films from four past productions: Christina Anderson’s How to Catch Creation (March 15-28); Raquel Carrío’s Pedro Páramo (March 29-April 11); Noah Haidle’s Smokefall (April 12-25), and Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (April 26-May 9). I haven’t seen the first two; I wrote rave reviews of the last two (set in a seamy 1970s New York City, director Robert Falls’ Measure is the best production of this play I’ve ever seen). You can register for all four free viewings here: REGISTER/WATCH

Second, and also starting this coming Monday: check out free readings of four new plays by Black playwrights, each streaming for free from San Diego Rep: Vincent Terrell Durham’s Polar Bears, Black Boys, and Prairie Fringed Orchids (March 15); Deneen Reynolds-Knott’s Baton (March 22); Dominique Morisseau’s Mud Row (March 29); and Michael Gene Sullivan’s The Great Khan (April 5). You can learn more about each play and register here: REGISTER/WATCH

Third, on the one-year anniversary this Friday of the day American theaters closed, here’s registration information for Women’s Day on Broadway 2021, a free two-hour event (12:00-2:00 CST) addressing gender equality in and beyond the world of theater. Forward Advisory Company member Karen Olivo will appear on a panel addressing the daunting challenges involving mothering during this pandemic: WATCH

Fourth and finally, here’s a five-minute clip featuring lighting designer and theater archivist Kathy A. Perkins, covering everything from her own experience as a Black designer to why we simply must expand the canon. Perkins’ interview is both part of and underscores what’s driving Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s just-released and absolutely mind-blowing Reset, a project involving six Black cisgender women theater artists, activists, and scholars; each of them has identified the creatives (including Perkins herself) who’ve done most to influence their work.
Reset will deliver hours of inspiring dramaturgical bliss involving interviews, archival footage, and performances; it remains active through March.

Kathy A. Perkins interview

Reset at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company


Selections for Volume 41 (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):


1. Say Their Names (the way she spoke; Milwaukee Chamber Theatre):

I first encountered playwright Isaac Gómez as the impossibly young, smart, and sensitive literary manager who facilitated excellent talk backs following plays at Victory Gardens Theatre. It’s hard to believe that this was just several years ago; in the interval, I’ve seen productions of two Gómez plays (and listened to a third, produced by Steppenwolf Theatre as part of its current virtual season) from his adopted hometown of Chicago. But I’ll be new to the way she spoke, a one-woman Gómez play that Milwaukee Chamber Theatre opens this coming Tuesday, March 16th. It streams through April 11, in a virtual production directed by Lisa Portes and starring Michelle Lopez-Rios ($35 for individual tickets).

the way she spoke

Like Gómez’s play La Ruta, the way she spoke shines a light on the ongoing crisis of femicides in Ciudad Juárez, across the border from Gómez’s native El Paso; like novelist Roberto Bolaño in his magnificent but harrowing 2666, Gómez gives these women a name, while struggling to understand how this nightmare could have ever happened – and why, all these years later, it’s still happening.

On a significantly lighter note, you can watch Gómez last spring in the inaugural episode of Milwaukee Chamber’s much-missed series Drunk Dramaturgy, in which Artistic Director Brent Hazelton, Canadian dramaturg Kimberly Colburn and Gómez talk about dramaturgy, Gómez’s work, and whether the Lake Michigan shoreline constitutes a beach. No, really.

You can also still listen to Gómez’s Wally World, a sharp and funny audio play about low-wage work in a big-box store that’s included in Steppenwolf’s digital season, which I introduced in Volume 24 and further highlighted in Volume 36 (subscriptions run $75, with a $25 discount for artists, essential workers, and teachers).


2. Divide and Conquer (Late Night Staring at High-Res Pixels; Aegis Productions and Finborough Theatre):

I first called your attention to playwright and performer Athena Stevens in Volume 35, where I commended her play Scrounger, an autobiographical account of her battle for basic dignity and respect (Stevens was born with athetoid cerebral palsy).

By the time Scrounger won an Offie (the London equivalent of an Obie) for best new play a month later, Stevens was already rolling out her latest: Late Night Staring at High-Res Pixels, a serial play in 28 parts about toxic masculinity and how it divides women. One episode dropped every day in February; the entire production is now available for binge viewing through March. Episodes average 6-8 minutes and work on the potato chip principle: I defy you to keep any resolution you make to only consume one at a time.

Late Night Staring at High-Res Pixels - Trailer

Late Night Staring at High-Res Pixels - Tickets

The two characters in Late Night are only ever identified as A (Stevens) and 1 (Evelyn Lockley), thereby underscoring their universal but also anonymous status; they’re linked through a man we never meet. He nevertheless dominates large sections of this deliberately claustrophobic play – forcing each woman, usually alone, into tight corners seen from awkward angles, dramatizing their attempts to protect themselves from a threat they only dimly perceive. For “nice” as this man ostensibly is, he gaslights 1, whom he is dating – while using his close, longstanding friendship with A as a weapon to further undermine 1’s already shaky confidence in herself and their relationship.

We realize something is seriously twisted from the first episode: While having dinner with “bestie” A, the man shows A a topless photo of 1 that she’s just texted him. He’ll “share” much more of his love life involving 1 in episodes to come, placing A in the position of betraying another woman by remaining silent when she knows deep down she should speak up by telling him to shut up, get up, and leave.

I don’t want to spoil your viewing experience by saying more, except to add that this piece is expertly produced, intelligently directed (Lily McLeish) and designed (Anna Reid), and gorgeously lighted (Anthony Doran). As was also true of Scrounger, Stevens never loses sight of her overarching and exquisitely wrought dramatic structure, even as she builds tension within each episode.

From an opening mirror shot in episode 1, that structure drives home all the ways these women are not only divided from each other, but also within themselves. Their efforts to see themselves clearly are repeatedly refracted through and distorted by an objectifying male gaze, transforming them into just two more objets d’art: dolls in the beautifully appointed houses where this drama unfolds and in which they’re both trapped.

Special bonus for Wisconsin viewers: One of the books on 1’s shelf in Episode 22 of this London-made show is Amy Goldstein’s excellent Janesville, An American Story, about the lives of various working class families after the closure of the GM plant there. Further proof, in a show offering plenty of it, that both of these women are far more interesting and have far more gravitas than the all-too predictable man occupying way too much real estate in their heads.


3. The Volume of Silence (Emilia; Globe Theatre and Women of the World UK Festival):

I mentioned playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia in passing back in Volume 24, noting that it would be streaming during the ensuing two weeks in November. Now that Emilia is back for the entire month of March under the umbrella of Britain’s Women of the World UK Festival, I can do Malcolm’s rousing, Olivier-winning play the justice it deserves by writing a full entry.

Emilia

Loosely based on the life of English poet Emilia Lanier (née Bassano), Malcolm goes all-in for the theory that Emilia was the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. But Malcom’s play is less about poetic inspiration than theft, and not just of the literary sort she imputes to Shakespeare. Whether the issue is time and attention, labor and sex, or ideas and independence, men are continually trying to steal from this Emilia (played by three actors, in a manner that reminds me of Fun Home).

For all the humor in her play, Malcolm pulls no punches in registering the psychic and economic cost, for a woman who could run circles around most of the men in her life and is easily a match for the Bard himself. But this Emilia didn’t have a room (let alone a life) of her own; in Malcolm’s telling, that’s among the reasons we all know who Shakespeare is while knowing precious little about her.

In trying to balance the scales, Malcolm leans on an all-female creative team; on stage, even the men are played by women (a delicious send-up of a Shakespearean world in which all the women were played by men). The acting is broad and the arguments pointed, but I didn’t care a jot; the fiery, fiercely feminist speech that closes the play made me want to stand up and cheer. Maybe it’s just me, but I was much more moved by this piece than the equally broad, fun, and smart Six (which I also really liked). Malcolm’s play cuts deeper, and with much more passion.

You can view the archival, two-camera footage (occasionally spotty lighting and sound, although decent subtitles are available) on a pay-what-you-can basis. Inspired by what you’ve seen, check out the awesome line-up of speakers and panels included in this year’s Women of the World UK Festival (Trailer/Lineup), which runs through March 21; topics range from women in Greek myths to a feminist perspective on AI and from intersectionality to the decolonization of songwriting.


4. Spellbound (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; Southwark Playhouse):

Both Elphaba and Greta Thunberg came to mind while I watched this new musical adaptation of Goethe’s poem (music by Ben Morales Frost; book and lyrics by Richard Hough). In this telling, the sorcerer’s apprentice is Eva (a charismatic Mary Moore), who must save a town and world being undone by greed-induced climate change robbing the sky of its light and humanity of its future.

This apprentice has much more power and moxie than Goethe’s original; like that original, she doesn’t always understand or control the forces she conjures. In this version, that’s a metaphor for the “gulf as wide as the glittering sea” separating Eva from both “the girl I was” and “the woman I’ll be,” as she taps the power of a young woman coming into her own and continually underestimated by everyone around her, including her father. Did I mention that she gets expelled from school for scrawling “down with the patriarchy” in the boys’ bathroom?

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Scheduled to be staged live before Britain’s latest viral surge, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was instead filmed from the Southwark stage; one nevertheless gets a strong sense of the magic that will make this musical fly once the pandemic ends. It’s stuffed with passionate ballads, mesmerizing stagecraft, well-crafted lyrics and, in this version, top-notch voices. Like Wicked, it’s also family friendly without being dumbed down. It will surely visit Wisconsin sometime in the far distant future; meantime, you can claim you were there first by streaming it through Sunday (March 14) for just shy of $30. Note that even though this is a stream, you must watch at an appointed hour; be sure to adjust for the six-hour time difference from London.


5. Gaslighting in London (Miss Holmes; Lifeline Theatre):

What if Sherlock Holmes had been a woman, with all the additional challenges that status would pose for a Victorian? Christopher M. Walsh’s Miss Holmes goes there, in a smart and fun play that Chicago’s Lifeline Theatre staged in 2016 (starring Forward alum Cassandra Bissell, Miss Holmes also received an excellent staging from Wisconsin’s Peninsula Players Theatre in 2018). Featuring its original 2016 cast, Lifeline is bringing Miss Holmes back as a six-episode audio play; the first weekly episode drops Friday. Once the final episode airs, the entire production will remain available through May 2 (tickets are available on a pay-what-you-can basis).

Miss Holmes

While this Sherlock is as fiercely bright as her renowned male counterpart, she’s also periodically confined to an asylum by her own brother – reflecting how readily intelligent women then and now are marginalized as mad hysterics. Meanwhile, sidekick Dorothy Watson must continually remind the men surrounding her that she’s a doctor with a career. A third woman proves to be much more than the sweet angel in the house she initially seems.

In Walsh’s play, women aren’t just underestimated. They’re also apt to be murdered, in a world where they often feel alone and lost – and in which no one is quite who they seem to be on the surface.

Such psychological mysteries are always larger than material clues in the best Holmes stories, among which I’ll count this one. Its gender-bending focus on Victorians’ fear of, fascination with, and violence toward women introduces a mystery that this Sherlock both embodies and intrepidly works to solve, proving anew that you can’t keep a good woman down.



References (in order of mention):

* Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1929.

* Encore (Goodman Theatre):
https://www.goodmantheatre.org/encore

* Black Voices: 2021 Play Reading Series (San Diego Rep):
https://www.sdrep.org/show-detail.php?id=648

* Women’s Day on Broadway, 2021 (Broadway.com; registration):
https://www.womenofbroadway.com/

* Kathy A. Perkins Interview (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHAZrsglWVo&t=266s

* Reset (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company):
https://www.woollyreset.net/#1

* Isaac Gómez, the way she spoke (Milwaukee Chamber Theatre):

* Roberto Bolaño, 2666 (trans. Natasha Wimmer). Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008.

* Kimberly Colburn, Isaac Gómez, and Brent Hazelton, Drunk Dramaturgy (Milwaukee Chamber Theatre):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qFpoX5MSdco

* Isaac Gómez, Wally World (Steppenwolf Theatre):
https://www.steppenwolf.org/tickets--events/steppenwolf-now/2020-21/wall...

* 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

*Amy Goldstein, Jamesville An American Story. Simon & Schuster, 2017.

* Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, Emilia (Globe Theatre and Women of the World Festival):
https://www.emilialive.com/

* 2021 Women of the World UK Festival (trailer):
https://thewowfoundation.com/festival/wow-uk-2021

* 2021 Women of the World UK Festival (lineup):
https://thewowfoundation.com/festival/wow-uk-2021/line-up

* Ben Morales Frost and Richard Hough, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Southwark Playhouse):
https://tsamusical.com/

* Christopher M. Walsh, Miss Holmes (Lifeline Theatre):
http://lifelinetheatre.com/performances/2020-2021/miss-holmes-audio-drama/