Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 44
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 | VOLUME 43
VOLUME 44 (APRIL 14, 2021): THE PRICE WE PAY FOR THE ROLES WE PLAY
In his unfinished novel The Garden of Eden, the most defiantly masculine of our great writers created a male protagonist who wanted to be a woman. As Ken Burns and Lynn Novick make clear in their recently released Hemingway, an androgynous Ernest Hemingway wrestled with his self-fashioned, inherently destructive cult of machismo all his life. “For all his bravado,” Burns noted in a recent interview, “there is also a curiosity, sympathy, and even a gender and sexual fluidity to him. His toxic masculinity never evaporates, but it’s not all that’s there.”
Especially in the short stories and novels like A Farewell to Arms, one sees this more flexible and open-ended Hemingway: the (wo)man behind the he-man myth – or, as Hilton Als wrote in his characteristically insightful review of the Burns/Novick film, the Hemingway who longed to be a girl in love with a powerful woman (Als has long been one of our best thinkers on mythologies of race and gender; I’ll have more to say about his most recent project, for New York Theatre Workshop, when the second of its two parts is released).
That’s how great art works: it helps us see when we don’t know how to look, liberating us from the blinding, socially constructed shackles of race, class, and gender. Nationalism, imperialism, and capitalism. Creed, country, and clan. Our need to label and judge, condemn and conform.
In short, great art deconstructs the damaging definitions in which we imprison ourselves, dying a little death each day because we can’t muster the courage to live what we intuitively know – emphatically including the fact that gender is a spectrum, and that every one of us is simultaneously both and neither “man” and/or “woman.”
Each of this week’s picks explores what happens when imposed ideas of who we should be and what we must do thwart our efforts to see the world, its peoples, and ourselves as they actually are and might yet become.
Some of these selections end in tragedy – akin to what happened to Hemingway, whose great gifts were eroded by his narrow view of what it means to be a man. Some of these selections suggest that we can overcome such limiting ideas of how things “must” be, learning instead to explore a more expansive world of multiple, infinitely textured selves. Such transition and transformation is what the best theater invariably delivers – helping us to become better, by challenging us to be human.
What play or playwright has done most to change how you see yourself and the world? I’d love to know. You can reach me through Forward at firstname.lastname@example.org or directly at email@example.com. As always, both “theater” and “Fischer” are spelled with an er.
First, here’s the trailer for Shadow/Land, first play in a projected ten-play epic by Erika Dickerson-Despenza (2021 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize winner) about Hurricane Katrina, its aftermath, and the consequent diaspora from New Orleans; it began airing yesterday as an audio play (free, although registration is required) courtesy of Public Theater: WATCH
Second, talk about an embarrassment of riches: Here’s a second Assassins reunion (you can find info on the first, still streaming for free, at Volume 40), in which Classic Stage Company is bringing together members of the original 1990 cast, the Tony-winning 2004 revival, and its own upcoming production (originally scheduled to open last April). There’ll be appearances by Hillary Clinton as well as André DeShields, Raúl Esparza, Audra McDonald, and George Takei; there’ll also be a conversation between Sondheim and book writer John Weidman. It takes place tomorrow night (April 15) and it’s free, but you need to register. You can do so here: REGISTER/WATCH
Third, I’m thrilled to share news of Court Theatre’s just-announced Black Baroque, a series of conversations beginning today and featuring Black theatermakers working with, against, and through Baroque culture in this contemporary historical moment. During the next month, Noémie Ndiaye will chat with choreographer Bintou Dembélé and playwrights Keith Hamilton Cobb (American Moor) and Debra Ann Byrd (Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey). Court has assured me that if you can’t make the live talks, they’ll be recorded and posted in the near future. The talks are free; you can learn more and register here: REGISTER/INFO
Fourth and finally, how could I not join Madison Opera and Forward alum Emily Glick as they celebrate libraries in general (and one especially wonderful library in particular), in this song from the exquisite She Loves Me (a musical which should have bested Hello, Dolly! for the 1964 Tony and which, as it happens, has a lot to say about this week’s theme of escaping one’s constricting roles and learning to be oneself): WATCH
Selections for Volume 44 (citations and links also included, in order, as endnotes):
1. Love the One You’re With (Cock; Studio Theatre):
John leaves longtime partner M, a man, and falls hard for W, a woman. Torn between two lovers, John can’t decide who he is or wants to be. Is John wrong for wanting to die with all his options open? Is the most important quality in a relationship its prescriptive status – single or married, gay or straight, children or childless – or rather the qualities of the person one’s with? What happens when one’s sense of self evolves? Or when the different selves we project and the multiple others we love involve conflicting and competing multitudes we can’t consistently contain?
All these heady existential questions are on the table in the phenomenally talented Mike Bartlett’s provocatively titled play, which challenges us to think about how and why we choose (or whether we must choose), in a world that’s uncomfortable with ambiguity, loves to categorize, and places a premium on monogamy. Bartlett also delivers these goods in riveting, funny, and fast-paced scenes that play well in director David Muse’s smartly conceived Studio Theatre production.
Having staged an award-winning production of Cock for Studio Theatre seven years ago, Muse has rethought his 2021 Cock as a triangulation between Zoom, theater, and film. That approach is spot-on for Bartlett’s minimalist play, in which words become props and convey actions, underscoring the disconnect between what we say and what we do – as well as our frequent illusion of being together when we’re so frequently fractured, apart, and alone. Cock will make you think while it simultaneously entertains, but only through its close on Sunday. Tickets (with the handling fee) are $45.
2. Fight the Power (Hype Man: A Break Beat Play; A.R.T., Company One Theatre, and San Diego Rep):
When a hip-hop act’s MC is white and the hype man is Black, there’s already a baked-in tension, no matter how far back they go. When the hype man steps out of his supporting role, morphing from party animal to make a political statement during a nationally televised performance, ensuing trouble is almost inevitable.
Idris Goodwin’s play leans into it, in this deep-cutting exploration of white privilege and cultural appropriation. In rebelling against his supporting role, Verb the hype man confronts the unexamined assumptions through which white MC Pinnacle has failed to be the ally and brother he’s always imagined himself to be. Caught in the middle, mixed race beatmaker Peep One further complicates the story, noting that Verb can be as obtuse about gender as Verb insists Pinnacle is about race.
Originally staged in 2018 and now presented as a theater-film hybrid, Hype Man unspools the sort of conversations all of us need, as we collectively explore reshaping the historically asymmetrical, racially inflected power structures within theater. Goodwin’s play also asks tough questions about the relations between art and politics, while simultaneously exploring how both are distorted by the smell of money and the lure of fame. Hype Man streams through May 8; tickets are $25, with a pay-what-you-can option.
3. Doubling Down on Strindberg (adaptations of Miss Julie by National Theatre and New Earth Theatre/Storyhouse):
“Strindberg’s plays regularly transcend his sexism,” I wrote in 2016, reviewing the American Players Theatre production of Creditors. “His plays can do more to make us think hard about how patriarchal power structures work than can many more modern plays that preach to the converted,” I continued.
No Strindberg play better makes that case than Miss Julie, laced with misogyny but also an indictment of patriarchy that simultaneously demonstrates the intersections between gender, power, class and, in two currently available adaptations written in the wake of the landmark Yael Farber adaptation, race.
Miss Julie (Amy Ng adaptation)
The stronger of the two, the Amy Ng adaptation being livestreamed from Britain through April 17 ($22) by New Earth Theatre and Storyhouse, is set in 1948 Hong Kong, as Mao’s Communists bear down and the Brits struggle to justify their persistent claims of racial superiority in light of their rapid capitulation to the Japanese. Ng tilts the play toward the maid Christine, while imagining a Julie who has more agency than Strindberg’s original (Jean, here, is a Chinese servant). True to the historically fluid moment in which it’s been set, Ng’s version suggests the possibility of alternative endings, thereby raising the stakes and heightening the tragedy.
Miss Julie (Polly Stenham adaptation)
Polly Stenham’s 2018 adaptation for The National ($9.99 for a 72-hour rental) offers no such context. This Julie is a spoiled and frivolous London party girl whose illusory power is based on money rather than status; her contemplated transgression with the Black Jean feels less rebellious and shocking than indulgent, particularly when set against Farber’s South African adaptation. Some strong acting (including Vanessa Kirby as Julie) ensures it’s still worth watching; as Hilton Als once wrote of this great play, it’s “almost impossible to wreck through interpretation.” Strindberg will resonate for as long as sex is entangled with power. But as these two adaptations demonstrate, his work resonates more in some productions than in others.
4. The Overstory (The Lorax; Old Vic):
Just in time for Earth Day next week, Old Vic’s latest live stream brings back The Lorax, its highly acclaimed 2015 adaptation of the Dr. Seuss classic about the battle between a tree-loving Lorax and his onetime friend the Once-ler, who is willing to chop those trees down to make a buck.
Guardian critic Michael Billington described The Lorax as “the best family show since Matilda,” adding that its nearly anarchic sense of play ensures that it scores points without becoming preachy. Billington gave adaptors Charlie Fink and David Greig particularly high marks for their textured portrait of the Once-ler as more than a villainous Gordon Gekko; like so many of us, his road to hell is paved with rationalizations, until he’s ensnared by the twisted logic of greed and growth that he’s aided and abetted.
In this column, I’ve frequently praised the Old Vic for their pandemic live streams, in which we watch actors in real time performing from the Old Vic’s London stage – thereby creating the semblance of a communal event and pointing the way toward our eventual return to live, in-person theater. You can hug trees alongside the Lorax through Sunday, with pay-what-you can tickets beginning at approximately $14. As this is live theater, be sure to account for the time difference (six hours, if you’re on Central Daylight Time) when purchasing (ditto for the New Earth Theatre/Storyhouse Miss Julie).
5. An Unlikely Friendship (Wright/Rand; Northlight Theatre):
The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s best novel (it’s an admittedly low bar), was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, although he’d consistently spurned Rand’s efforts to meet him and hadn’t yet read her novel when they finally met. Despite ostensible differences, they would become friends, given elective affinities involving their similarly free-spirited aversion to the tyranny of convention.
That was enough to fascinate playwrights Jeffrey Hatcher and Eric Simonson (the latter wrote Work Song, a play about Wright that starred Lee E. Ernst in its 2000 world premiere at Milwaukee Rep). Their newly minted Wright/Rand will get a workout this Sunday, in a reading featuring Northlight Artistic Director BJ Jones and Forward alum Tracy Michelle Arnold; it gets underway at 6:30 pm, to be followed by a conversation with the artists. Attendance is free, but registration is required and a donation is encouraged. If you can’t make it Sunday, the reading will be filmed and available for viewing through 6:30 pm on April 22.
References (chronologically arranged, in order of mention):
* Ernest Hemingway, The Garden of Eden (Scribner 1986).
* Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, Hemingway (PBS):
* Erika Dickerson-Despenza, Shadow/Land (Public Theater, trailer):
* Tell the Story: Celebrating Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins (Classic Stage Company; registration):
* Black Baroque (Court Theatre; registration):
* Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (as sung by Emily Glick), A Trip to the Library (Madison Opera):
* Mike Bartlett, Cock (Studio Theatre):
* Idris Goodwin, Hype Man: A Break Beat Play (A.R.T., Company One Theatre, and San Diego Rep):
* August Strindberg (as adapted by Amy Ng), Miss Julie (New Earth Theatre and Storyhouse):
* August Strindberg (as adapted by Polly Stenham), Miss Julie (National Theatre):
* Charlie Fink and David Greig, The Lorax (Old Vic):
*Jeffrey Hatcher and Eric Simonson, Wright/Rand (Northlight Theatre):