Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 45

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 45 (APRIL 21, 2021): RISE UP!

He’s reportedly kicked so many holes in his office walls that they had to be covered with plants. Pushed an assistant out of a moving car. Fired one employee for bringing him the wrong breakfast muffin and another employee on the way to a childhood friend’s funeral. Tried to undermine playwright Bruce Norris’ career following a dispute over an HBO pilot episode. Sued amateur theater companies to block their performances of To Kill a Mockingbird. Engaged in a racist exchange with the chief of Sony about President Obama’s taste in movies.
He throws phones and food. During one of his frequent tantrums, he smashed a computer monitor on an employee’s hand, requiring that employee’s trip to the emergency room.

In what universe is such reported behavior by theater mogul Scott Rudin – who amidst mounting pressure announced Saturday that he was stepping back from “active participation” in his Broadway productions, whatever that means – even remotely tolerable? How can all of us who’ve talked so much and with such passion about building back better even look ourselves in the mirror, if we won’t consistently call out such bullying abuse and refuse to work another day with people who perpetrate it? How can any of us in good conscience purchase tickets when Broadway reopens to any Scott Rudin show, even if his “nonactive” participation means he’ll pull strings for awhile from behind the curtain?

Forward Advisory Company member Karen Olivo (she/they) answered those questions last week by making clear that they won’t be returning to the Broadway production of Moulin Rouge!, in which they’d starred and for which they’d been nominated for a Tony. “The silence about Scott Rudin: unacceptable,” Olivo said in an Instagram video (see first bonus pick below). “That should be a no-brainer.”

Castigating the culture of fear that’s allowed so many creatives to keep silent about Rudin for so long, Olivo wondered aloud: “what are you afraid of?” “Shouldn’t you,” Olivo continued, “be more afraid of not saying something and more people getting hurt?” “Cruelty,” wrote L.A. Times theater critic Charles McNulty of Rudin on Sunday, “isn’t the path to excellence. And opportunities to work with the best shouldn’t entail putting up with the worst.”

Rudin isn’t a producer of Moulin Rouge!; in nevertheless saying goodbye to Broadway, Olivo made clear that their cri de coeur extended beyond Rudin’s male toxicity to an entire Broadway culture, which consistently puts profits before people (doing so with disproportionately white and/or male leaders, administrators, and creatives).

And which also consistently puts commercially driven, lowest-common-denominator pabulum before artistic innovation, political risk, and intellectual commitment.

“We’ve become too dependent on their enhancement money,” worried longtime New York Theatre Workshop Artistic Director James C. Nicola about Broadway, in announcing last week that he was walking away from a job he’s held for more than three decades. “If it’s a large project and it doesn’t have commercial enhancement, it’s probably not going to happen,” Nicola continued. “I think that’s something we as an industry need to be really concerned about.”

It’s no accident that I’ve consistently referred in this column to Chicago – not New York – as the greatest theater city in America. Or that I lambasted New York’s narcissistic and insular me-first theater culture in a recent Theater Forward podcast. New York theater is bloated with self-regard, an insatiate cormorant that preys upon itself while churning out reams of subpar, derivative work, from meh jukebox musicals to boring remakes of second-tier Hollywood movies. Meanwhile, much of the best work in theater is being made elsewhere, with the sort of artistic, political, and personal integrity that Olivo rightly craves.

In an excellent interview with American Theatre published on Saturday, Olivo dared to imagine a future for theater that left Broadway behind, so that “we could start looking at models in which cities have their own theater, and they create an ecosystem around that theater or a cluster of theaters.” “It could,” Olivo continued, “be all over the United States . . . we’d have better stories, we’d be talking about so many different things.” No surprise to those of us here in Wisconsin: Olivo specifically cites Forward Theater as an example of the sort of company that might flourish in a different and better American theater ecosystem.

“I’m going to make art with the people that I think match my integrity, who want to do it right,” Olivo said last week. I can’t wait to see what that portends, for Olivo’s future as an artist and for the industry that they’ve dared to imagine might be better.

How do you want the world of post-pandemic theater to be different? And what part are you willing to play on the world’s stage to make it happen? I’d love to know; your hopes for our collective future inspire and challenge me to work harder and do better, on every stage where I play. As has Olivo, yet again, playing their greatest role yet in an already distinguished career.

You can reach me through Forward at or directly at As always, both “theater” and “Fischer” are spelled with an er.

Bonus Selections:

First, here’s Karen Olivo’s Instagram statement last week stating a fundamental truth that we all know in our hearts and so often fail to practice in our professional lives as theater artists: People matter more than profits: WATCH

Second, here’s Kyle Abraham’s When We Fell, a gorgeous new ballet which captures so much about the twin pandemics we’re enduring – as well as the love and hope suggesting a world beyond both (be sure, too, to watch Return to Form, the accompanying documentary on how Abraham’s piece was made during a residency bubble in upstate New York; it’s filled with the hope so many creatives are currently feeling that we’re going to emerge stronger for all we’ve been through): WATCH

Third, courtesy of American Players Theatre, here’s the inaugural episode of APT Core Company Member Gavin Lawrence’s In the Wake of Our Shadow, a monthly vodcast celebrating Black artists while simultaneously expanding how we define “canonical” texts and “classic” art (for more, see Volume 40). Lawrence couldn’t have chosen a better first guest: UW-Madison poet, novelist, and playwright Amy Quan Barry (whose play The Mytilenian Debate was a Wisconsin Wrights selection and was featured in Volume 6; I also discussed Barry’s novels in Volumes 6 and 20). Barry and Lawrence read Barry poems, discuss the meaning of “classical” and “canonical,” and talk about the interaction between playwright and production in this fascinating, wide-ranging discussion: WATCH

Fourth and finally, here’s the third 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 two installments, profiled in Volumes 34 and 40, respectively, remain available). This third installment explores the nature of love, wrestling with the hard truth that love is always imperfect and that every love affair ends, in break-up or in death. All the same, Guettel makes clear, better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all: WATCH

Selections for Volume 45 (citations and links also included, in order, as endnotes):

1. Remembering Helen McCrory (Medea; National Theatre):

“She may be a monster,” Helen McCrory (Narcissa Malfoy, to Harry Potter fans) said of Medea, shortly before embodying her in the most harrowing of more than a dozen productions of Euripides’ great play that I’ve seen. “But there is something glorious in the purity of her intent.”

That’s vintage McCrory, coming more than a decade after she’d written an essay for The Guardian vigorously defending Anna Karenina while embodying Anna for a BBC television series. No actor of McCrory’s generation did more to help us understand why desperate women make seemingly inexplicable choices, trapped as they are living in a world they never made that gives them few options and fewer outlets for expressing all they feel.

And now McCrory is gone; over the weekend we learned from husband Damian Lewis that she’d had cancer and that it has killed her. At age 52.

It’s a devastating loss for theater. “Imagine what we would have lost if Judi Dench, Maggie Smith or Helen Mirren had died in her early 50s,” wrote Ben Brantley in his appreciation of McCrory. I can’t. I won’t. I must.


Directed by frequent collaborator Carrie Cracknell, McCrory’s performance in Medea (2014) takes the measure of all we’ve lost; like every performance in this well-conceived production, it’s haunted by the sense that things might have gone differently and that characters might have chosen otherwise, until McCrory makes the case for why Medea chose as she did. McCrory’s Medea isn’t insane. In this Medea’s view of the world, she’s simply out of options. By play’s end, McCrory’s Medea has become Mother Courage, burdened by a history she cannot escape as she embarks on a trail of tears that will last all her life.

I shed a few of my own while revisiting this production Saturday night (you can rent it for $9.99). For Medea, and for McCrory. She was one of the truly great ones.

I’ve included, here, McCrory’s Anna Karenina essay and Brantley’s appreciation, as well as a link to the National’s 2014 production of Medea and a wonderful 30-minute interview she gave about the role. Finally, I’ve included a clip from McCrory’s wrenching performance as Hester Collyer in the 2016 National production of Terrence Rattigan’s Deep Blue Sea.

2. Turn Off Your Phone (The Sound Inside; TheaterWorks Hartford):

“I’ve rarely seen a show that believes in fiction and its power as passionately as this one does,” I wrote in my theater journal on Wednesday, September 15, 2019. It was late afternoon, and I’d just seen Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside (directed by David Cromer and starring Mary-Louise Parker and Will Hochman), a play that’s so good and means so much to me that I was actually afraid to see it again, when learning that TheaterWorks Hartford would be creating a made-in-pandemic theater-film hybrid. Were it not for this column, I’d have taken a pass.

I needn’t have worried. As co-directed at TheaterWorks by Pedro Bermúdez and Rob Ruggiero, Maggie Bofill and Ephraim Birney took me on an equally memorable journey in channeling Rapp’s story of a lonely 53-year-old writing professor at Yale. Bella Lee Baird is saved by fiction after she learns to listen again to “the sound inside,” away from the noise (including, pointedly in Rapp’s script, social media) that makes it so hard for any of us to truly hear and heed the sound of silence.

The Sound Inside

The catalyst who helps her get there is a student, morphed into a character inspired by Crime and Punishment anti-hero Raskolnikov whom she names “Christopher” in a novella she’s writing before our eyes.

That novella is about many things, including the importance of being oneself and listening to one’s inner voice, no matter where this takes you and no matter how unconventional, romantic, and impractical one’s self and its acts may seem. You know, like leaving a hugely successful Broadway production of Moulin Rouge! in which one stars (“Karen makes something that transcends its origins,” I wrote in my theater journal upon seeing Olivo make magic yet again, the day after I’d seen The Sound Inside).

From its opening lines about staring out at a sea of unseen strangers, Rapp’s piece resonates even more from within this pandemic, which has taught all of us to listen harder while underscoring how lonely and adrift we each are and how fragile and precious life is. It’s a time during which fiction has certainly played a major role in sustaining me, as this poetic, beautifully crafted piece will surely succor you. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It streams through April 30; $28 will give you 24-hour access. And yes: I plan on watching it again before my access expires.

3. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (9 Circles; Next Act Theatre):

Honorably discharged after serving in Iraq but now accused of war crimes while there. Labeled as slow and willing to play the part but also wily as a fox. A man consumed by darkness who’s trying to walk toward light.

Like so many American soldiers who served in Iraq, Private Daniel Reeves is as hard to sum up as many of the characters in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which inspired Bill Cain to write 9 Circles. One year after the pandemic closed its planned production of 9 Circles when already deep into rehearsals, Milwaukee’s Next Act Theatre opens a virtual production of Cain’s play this coming Monday (April 26) that runs through May 16. Directed by Milwaukee native Michael Cotey, it will feature the phenomenal Casey Hoekstra as Reeves, in a cast that also includes Next Act Artistic Director David Cecsarini, Chiké Johnson, and Malkia Stampley.

9 Circles (trailer)

9 Circles (tickets)

I first learned about 9 Circles in chatting with Cotey, after driving to Evanston and watching the excellent production he’d directed at Northwestern of Cain’s Equivocation. Cotey brought this play to Cecsarini and Next Act subsequently staged two Cain plays; 9 Circles will be the third. The world premiere of Cain’s The Last White Man, originally scheduled for Next Act this Spring, will now move to the 2021-22 season.

Opening on the heels of President Biden’s announcement that the United States is finally leaving a country (Afghanistan) it never had any business invading, I’m thrilled that Cecsarini is sticking with 9 Circles; it’s a terrific play that asks some very hard questions about whether we have any right to ask all we do of our soldiers. Maybe, next time, we’ll think harder about sacrificing so much for so little.

4. Limousine Liberals (Her Honor Jane Byrne; Lookingglass Theatre Company/WBEZ Radio):

For 25 days in 1981, Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne moved into the city’s notoriously dangerous Cabrini-Green housing project to dramatize her commitment to fair housing and safe streets. It was a virtue-signaling publicity stunt, but that doesn’t mean Byrne wasn’t sincere about trying to tackle Chicago’s infamous segregated housing policies and improve the lives of the resulting victims.

Byrne failed; performative, one-off gestures usually do. But the disconnect between her decent if simplistic intentions and the infinitely more complex realities she’d hoped to fix resonate in our own moment as well as playing true to 1981. Now as then, unspoken assumptions accompanying white privilege and top-down politics thwart efforts to build the allied coalitions we’ll need if we’re to ever achieve racial equality, consensual decisionmaking, and true liberty and justice for all.

Her Honor Jane Byrne

J. Nicole Brooks’ excellent, wide-ranging play, which I saw on opening night last March just before lockdown, has now been retooled as a radio play, with Brooks again directing and the original Lookingglass cast intact. While it’s been bowdlerized for radio (Byrne had a mouth, as do many of the colorful characters in Brooks’ play), the power of the original stage production remains, especially in the hard-hitting and fast-moving second act.

Brooks creates believable characters who collectively cover the waterfront: there’s cops and gang leaders; crooked aldermen and their mob bosses; griots, journalists, and activists; all the young people caught in the literal and political crossfire; and, finally, the mayor who desperately wanted to bring peace and justice to her city but who didn’t always know how to listen when it counted most.

In Brooks’ telling, everyone’s a sinner and there are no saints; this is Chicago, after all. But even if Byrne and her project(s) were sure to lose, this first installment in Brooks’ projected series of plays about Chicago mayors is a winner. You can tune in and listen for free through May 18.

5. Farewell, Compliment! (Romeo & Juliet; National Theatre and PBS):

Filmed over 17 days in the National’s Lyttelton Theatre, Simon Godwin’s 90-minute Romeo and Juliet is already available in Britain and drawing raves from critics on both sides of the pond. Featuring Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley as the star-crossed lovers in a star-studded cast, it’s being made available to American viewers for one month starting this Friday (Shakespeare’s birthday!).

Romeo & Juliet

“The modernity of the interpretation,” gushed critic David Rooney in labeling the production “ravishing,” comes from “an achingly sensitive reading of the text plugged into our current moment . . . This is worlds away from the pallid experience of so much virtual theater seen over the past year since stages went dark for lockdown. It’s a beguiling hybrid experiment in which a four century-old drama appears before our very eyes to dismantle and reassemble itself spontaneously as a living, breathing, timeless love story destroyed by senseless hatred.”

References (chronologically arranged, in order of mention):

* Charles McNulty, Is Scott Rudin’s Apology Enough? (L.A. Times, 4/18/21):

* Rob Weinert-Kendt, Karen Olivo: Leading by Leaving (American Theatre interview):

* Karen Olivo, Humanity is more important than my bank account:

* Kyle Abraham, When We Fell (New York City Ballet):

* Gavin Lawrence (with guest Amy Quan Barry), In the Wake of Our Shadow (American Players Theatre):

* Adam Guettel, Myths and Hymns: Love (MasterVoices):

* Helen McCrory, How Should a Woman Live Her Life (The Guardian, 5/9/00):

Ben Brantley, How Helen McCrory Shone, Even in a Haze of Mystery (New York Times, 4/17/21):

* Euripides (as adapted by Ben Powers), Medea (National Theatre):

* In Conversation with Helen McCrory: Medea (National Theatre):

* Terrence Rattigan, The Deep Blue Sea (National Theatre; Helen McCrory clip):

* Adam Rapp, The Sound Inside (TheaterWorks Hartford):

* Bill Cain, 9 Circles (Next Act Theatre, trailer):

* Bill Cain, 9 Circles (Next Act Theatre, tickets):

* J. Nicole Brooks, Her Honor Jane Byrne (Lookingglass Theatre Company/WBEZ Radio):

* William Shakespeare (as adapted by Emily Burns), Romeo & Juliet (National Theatre/PBS):