Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 42
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
VOLUME 42 (MARCH 17 - 31, 2021): KEEP IT MOVING
When I was a child, I truly believed I might someday be able to read all the world’s books. By my tweens, I’d settled for trying to work through every book in my hometown library.
Decades after those impossibly naive dreams died, I remain haunted by all the books I won’t read and stage productions I won’t see, films I won’t watch and music I’ll never hear, places I won’t go and essays I’ll never write. All of which has been driven home anew for me during the past year.
By making so much theater available online, the pandemic has been both blessing and curse – and not just because it regularly highlights the tension between my gratitude for being able to stream theater and my longing to actually be in a theater, as part of a community making and watching plays.
Unable to do so, I streamed more than 500 full-length shows this past year, while simultaneously watching an equal number of theater-related shorts, interviews, panels, and vodcasts. But I nevertheless barely scratched the surface, proving anew that the more you know, the more you realize how little you know. My theater knowledge has taken quantum leaps forward, all while making me feel ever more backward – more acutely aware than I’ve ever been of all I’ve somehow missed and how little I understand, despite decades of devotion to this art form.
Which is exactly as it should be.
Umberto Eco strongly believed that one’s library should be stuffed with books one hasn’t and never would read (mine sure is, and I only own a third of the 30,000 volumes he did). Such a library would, Eco insisted, keep one humble as well as curious: Aware that the sky has far more stars than one could count or even see, you would never presume that your map of the constellations or your understanding of the universe is anywhere near complete.
To paraphrase the great Twyla Tharp (pick 18 below), being cognizant of all there still is to do and see will inspire you to make as much as you humanly can of every single day (there’s a reason this column keeps invoking Emily’s analogous epiphany upon returning to Grover’s Corners in Act III of Our Town). Or as musician Makaya McCraven said in a recent New York Times feature about artists reflecting on their pandemic year, “you got to get off your ass and keep hustling and doing the work” of trying to understand and (re)create the world. To return to my astronomy metaphor, we all must work harder to connect the dots in the constellations mapping how artists speak to each other and how each of us speaks to them and the world.
All by way of justifying my significantly longer list of picks this week. My “excuse,” such as it is: I’ll be on vacation for a week and spend most of a second week driving to and from. That means there’ll be no column on either March 24 or March 31; I’ll be back on April 7. I wanted to ensure that attention gets paid to some of the many productions that will open while I’m gone – even if cramming 20 picks into this week’s column necessarily means saying significantly less about each individual selection.
Even in all those past columns where I’ve written at much greater length about many selections, I’ve always been mindful of the words with which the impossibly prolific Henry James concluded one of his New York Edition Prefaces: “There is really too much to say.” There will always be too much to say; give yourself the chance, Tharp insists, and “you will always be drawn forward into a new adventure,” making for a “long and curious life . . . we have to be curious about what’s next and not afraid of going to a new place.” Even, Tharp insists, if you know that you’ll never arrive.
Here’s hoping your journeys into the new worlds I’ve profiled below help you draw a bigger and more inclusive map of the world. If so, please let me know (and if not, let me know that, too!). 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. See you on April 7.
Selections for Volume 42 (arranged chronologically by date of opening; citations and links also included, in order, as endnotes):
1. In the Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams (PBS):
Even if you’ve previously seen this excellent, hour-long documentary about the months culminating in the opening of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical, this is a perfect time to rewatch it – and not just because free viewing ends on Friday night (March 19) or because the much-anticipated film debuts three months from tomorrow (June 18!). Strongly reminiscent of Every Little Step, the extraordinary documentary about the making of A Chorus Line, this piece captures the ongoing allure of theater for all those outsiders to whom it gives a voice – while ensuring attention gets paid to all their hard work in trying to be heard. It also includes candid and moving clips featuring cast member (and Forward Advisory Company member) Karen Olivo.
2. Dream (Royal Shakespeare Company):
Led by Puck, actors in a specially created motion capture space take us on a journey into one of Shakespeare’s most magical places, in this adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that combines a symphonic score, gaming technology, and digital imagery with actors in motion-capture suits for a live, interactive experience in which the audience (as fireflies) participates in shaping the story. That interactive version of the 50-minute show runs approximately $14; you can also simply watch, without interacting, for free. Either way, pay attention to the time difference between the live performance in London and your couch (London does not switch to daylight savings time until March 28). Through March 20.
3. The Last Five Years (Out of the Box Theatrics and Holmdel Theatre Company):
Cathy and Jamie are back, in a site-specific performance of this poignant Jason Robert Brown musical that was rehearsed remotely but will be performed from a New York City apartment; your ticket price ($29-$39) depends on whether your viewing is livestreamed or on demand. Nicholas Edwards stars as Jamie, telling the story of love gone wrong chronologically; Nasia Thomas stars as Cathy, moving backward over the same five-year period. Through March 28.
4. The Aran Islands (Irish Repertory Theater):
Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, the Irish Rep is offering a new, made-in-Ireland digital version of its 2017 production, involving a stage adaptation of the journals J.M. Synge kept during annual visits between 1898 and 1902 to Ireland’s lonely western outpost. That land and its people would inspire Synge and repeatedly inform his work during the final decade of his short life. Again directed by Joe O’Byrne, Irish actor Brendan Conroy reprises his 2017 performance, in a filmed production that streams for free (donations encouraged) through March 28. Registration is required.
5. The Picture of Dorian Gray (Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre, New Wolsey Theatre, Oxford Playhouse, and Theatr Clwyd):
Oscar Wilde’s novel – in which the protagonist’s portrait ages while he himself remains forever young – aptly captures the narcissistic way in which we cultivate online selves that are increasingly disconnected from who we really are. Henry Filloux Bennett takes that idea and runs with it, in a new adaptation featuring a star-studded cast led by Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk) as Dorian Gray. Available on demand through March 31; tickets (roughly $17) give you 48-hour access.
6. Passing Through (Goodspeed Musicals):
Following its summer 2019 run at Goodspeed, there was talk that Wisconsin native Brett Ryback’s musical (book by Eric Ulloa) would be going to New York. The pandemic scuttled those plans, at least temporarily. All the more reason to welcome Goodspeed’s decision to make its archive film of the 2019 production available for streaming (through April 4; a $25 ticket gives you 72-hour access). Based on the true story of a disaffected young man who walked across the country trying to find harmony in his country and himself, it’s been compared to Come From Away, another ensemble-driven piece that embodies our collective efforts to come together despite everything conspiring to tear us apart.
7. My Joy is Heavy! (Arena Stage):
In Volume 14, I praised the Bengsons – a married songwriting duo I described as a cross between Pete Seeger and Sufjan Stevens as abetted by Janis Joplin – for choosing life over death through the “exuberantly ecumenical pantheism” with which they confronted the pandemic. Tonight (March 17) at 6:00 CDT, they kick off Arena Riffs – a filmed musical series – with a 27-minute piece on cultivating joy in difficult times. Following tonight’s premiere, it will stream (for free) on Arena’s website.
8. The Sound Inside (Audible):
As directed by the phenomenal David Cromer and starring Mary-Louise Parker as a lonely writing professor seeking solace through fiction, Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside was one of the best plays I saw anywhere in 2019. Cromer directs the original 2019 cast (Parker and Will Hochman) in this audio production, scheduled for release by Audible tomorrow (March 18). If you’d rather see it from stage, check back in April, after I’ve had a chance to watch TheaterWorks Hartford’s filmed stage production, streaming on demand from April 11-30.
9. Romeo y Julieta (Public Theater):
Following his exquisite radio production of Richard II for Public Theater over the summer (discussed in Volume 10), Saheem Ali continues his audio exploration of Shakespeare’s canon through this bilingual radio production of Ricardo Pérez González’s adaptation. Lupita Nyong’o plays Julieta; Juan Castano is Romeo. Available for free (with registration) starting tomorrow (March 18); the Public is also providing free access at its website to a dual-column script allowing one to follow along in English and/or Spanish.
10. Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Lincoln Center):
Relive memories of Forward’s 2015 staging of Christopher Durang’s play, in this first of four planned free streams of past Lincoln Center productions coming your way this Spring (the remaining three, all featuring excellent plays, are The Royale, Marys Seacole, and The Wolves). Kristine Nielsen, David Hyde Pierce and Sigourney Weaver play the three comically mismatched siblings, in a production that streams from tomorrow night (March 18) through April 11; registration is required.
11. Natural Shocks (Third Avenue Playhouse):
Michael Cotey directs Jennifer Vosters in the Third Avenue Playhouse reading of this intense Lauren Gunderson piece, during which a woman in a basement awaiting an approaching tornado reflects on the much more disturbing violence that’s been swirling around her for a long time. Gunderson will join Cotey and Vosters for a discussion following the reading, which is free (you must register in advance). March 19 at 7:00 CDT.
12. Neat (Renaissance Theaterworks):
Playwright Charlayne Woodard pays homage in Neat to her Aunt Berneatha, who suffered permanent brain damage as a baby because of a segregated hospital system. Forward alum Marti Gobel reprises her 2012 RTW performance, playing two dozen characters in a production streaming from Friday (March 19) through April 11. Tickets are $43; discounts are available for seniors, veterans, students, educators, artists, and patrons under age 40.
13. Oedipus (Internationaal Theater Amsterdam):
British director Robert Icke’s modern-day imagining of Sophocles’ great tragedy unfolds on a 21st-century election night, as a politician’s moment of triumph devolves into nightmare. Drawing raves during a brief Edinburgh run in 2019, Ickes’ play streams live this coming Sunday (March 21) at 8:00 pm CET (2:00 pm CDT, because CET remains on standard time until March 28). With English and French subtitles.
14. Galatea (Women’s Project Theater and Red Bull Theater):
Loosely inspired by John Lyly’s 1585 play Gallathea, MJ Kaufman’s Galatea features a trans love story set against the backdrop of a climate crisis: Two young women from a village threatened with flooding escape to the nearby woods disguised as boys and fall in love. Streaming live on Monday (March 22) at 6:30 CDT under Will Davis’ direction, Galatea will then be available on demand through Friday, March 26. Tickets are free, although donations are encouraged.
15. Love in the Lockdown (The Telling):
British playwright and musician Clare Norburn was three months into a new romantic relationship when lockdown changed her world and her love life. One year later, she’s reliving that experience – and drawing on The Telling, the medieval musical ensemble of which she’s a member – in her latest effort to marry story and song: a nine-part serial involving a playwright and musician, weathering the pandemic as they fall in love while collaborating on a project to adapt Boccaccio’s The Decameron. I’ve watched the first two episodes; they’re funny, quirky and delightfully meta, while conjuring our collective state of mind one year ago and meditating on what it means to be an artist in the middle of a pandemic. They also feature some exquisite 14th-century French and Italian love songs performed by members of The Telling (Norburn sings). Episodes three and four drop next week (March 23 and 24), giving you plenty of time beforehand to watch episodes one and two (together, the first two episodes run less than 30 minutes).
16. Paradise Blue (Williamstown Theatre Festival):
Dominque Morisseau’s Paradise Blue – set in a Detroit jazz club in 1949 and part of Morisseau’s Detroit trilogy that also includes the Forward-produced Skeleton Crew – debuted at Williamstown in 2015. With an assist from Audible, Williamstown is now bringing it back as an audio play starring Blair Underwood and also featuring André Holland, Kristolyn Lloyd, Simone Missick, and Keith Randolph Smith. Ruben Santiago-Hudson directs this production, which will be available from Audible starting March 25.
17. Fat Ham (Wilma Theater):
“What does the Hamlet narrative look life if it’s queered, and if it’s infiltrated and taken over by people of color?” That’s the question that playwright James Ijames posed for himself in writing Fat Ham, receiving its world premiere in a production opening on March 25 and running through April 10. Filmed on location in Virginia, Fat Ham was shot as a series of long takes, in a theatrical attempt to match the real-time unspooling of a story set during a BBQ celebration of a wedding. Tickets are $37 and give one unlimited on-demand viewing privileges through April 10.
18. Twyla Moves (PBS):
This latest episode in PBS’s American Masters series profiles legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp, who continues to inspire artists and reshape how we think about both dance and life, even during the pandemic. Debuting at 8:00 CDT on March 26, it’s loaded with historical footage selected from Tharp’s more than 160 (!) choreographed works, ranging from ballet to Broadway while also making room for television specials, Hollywood movies, and figure-skating routines. The documentary also spends time with present-day Tharp, as intense as ever while remaining in love with an art form about which she makes clear she still has much more to say. Spend time in advance of next week’s episode at the link below, which includes clips from her past work.
19. Trouble in Mind (American Conservatory Theater):
Alice Childress’ explosive play opened one month before the Montgomery bus boycott, but its skewering of white, virtue-signaling wokesters in theater could have been written yesterday. Nominally a backstage dramedy in which every razor-sharp laugh line draws blood, Trouble in Mind revolves around the standoff between a middle-aged Black actor and her proudly “liberal” white director. You can watch a live ACT reading on March 29 (following a watch party that begins at 8:00 CDT), which then streams through April 4. Tickets begin at $5.
20. The Freewheelin’ Insurgents (Arena Stage):
The second show in Arena Stage’s new filmed musical series (see selection seven above), playwright Psalmayene 24’s piece is being billed as “a love letter to the Black Lives Matter Movement and an elegy for theater,” presented through hip-hop and movement while exploring the nature of protest, our collective reckoning with the past, and the need to foster love and nurture mental health in a time when both seem to be in short supply. Psalmayene 24 was also one of the creatives involved in conceiving and shaping Arena’s The 51st State, a film for which I had high praise in Volume 18. His new piece premieres at 6:00 CDT on March 31; it will be available thereafter on Arena’s website.
References (chronologically arranged, in order of mention):
* In the Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams (PBS):
* William Shakespeare, Dream (Royal Shakespeare Company):
* Jason Robert Brown, The Last Five Years (Out of the Box Theatrics and Holmdel Theatre Company):
* J.M. Synge, The Aran Islands (Irish Repertory Theater):
* Oscar Wilde (as adapted by Henry Filloux Bennett), The Picture of Dorian Gray (Barn Theatre, Lawrence Batley Theatre, New Wolsey Theatre, Oxford Playhouse, and Theatr Clwyd):
* Brett Ryback and Eric Ulloa, Passing Through (Goodspeed Musicals):
* The Bengsons, My Joy Is Heavy! (Arena Stage):
* Adam Rapp, The Sound Inside (Audible):
* William Shakespeare and Ricardo Pérez González, Romeo y Julieta (Public Theater):
* Christopher Durang, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Lincoln Center):
* Lauren Gunderson, Natural Shocks (Third Avenue Playhouse):
* Charlayne Woodard, Neat (Renaissance Theaterworks):
* Sophocles, Oedipus Rex (Internationaal Theater Amsterdam):
* MJ Kaufman, Galatea (Women’s Project Theater and Red Bull Theater):
* Clare Norburn, Love in the Lockdown (The Telling):
* Dominque Morisseau, Paradise Blue (Williamstown Theatre Festival and Audible):
* James Ijames, Fat Ham (Wilma Theater):
* Twyla Moves (PBS American Masters):
* Alice Childress, Trouble in Mind (American Conservatory Theater):
* Psalmayene 24, The Freewheelin’ Insurgents (Arena Stage):