Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 46
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 | VOLUME 45
VOLUME 46 (APRIL 28, 2021): Hey Hey, My My, Streaming Shows Can Never Die!
While we watched Scott Rudin crash and burn last week (see Volume 45), another huge theater-related story was unfolding in the wings: On the 246th anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord, a newly formed organization called the National Theatre Network issued its own shot heard round the world.
Spearheaded by founding members the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, and the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York, the National Theatre Network announced that it will partner with Broadway on Demand to offer a fully integrated digital content platform allowing theater fans from all over the world to enjoy the best of American regional theater.
The National Theatre Network will launch on May 15, with a filmed adaptation of the Bushwick Starr’s 2017 production of Heather Christian’s Animal Wisdom (I discuss this production in Volumes 2 and 16, sharing a few clips from the Bushwick Starr production in Volume 2; I also shared additional work from the ridiculously talented Christian in Volumes 2, 3 and 32).
Three days after the National Theatre Network was born, the Royal Shakespeare Company announced its summer plans. Yes: live productions involving social distancing will be made available for virtual viewing. But there’s more: for the first time in its long history, the RSC will open its rehearsal room throughout the rehearsal process. For three weeks in June, online viewers can be in the room where it happens during rehearsals and the final run-through of Henry VI Part One. I’ll be there, up with the morning sun and coffee in hand for the daily warmup. Really, can you think of a better way to start your day? I’m genuinely asking.
Three days after the RSC announcement – and as I write these words on Sunday, April 25 – I’m eagerly anticipating the latest Sunday night installment from Chicago of The Infinite Wrench Goes Virtual, the weekly Neo-Futurists show(s) (see pick one below). The Neos have been making virtual deliveries of their long-running weekly program since the pandemic began, and they’ve attracted enough subscribers like yours truly to make it a paying proposition. “Neo-Futurism at its core is about speaking your truth and telling your story from an honest place,” Neo-Futurist Artistic Director KR Riiber said in a Chicago Tribune interview. “That could happen in any medium.”
Could happen, is happening, and will continue to happen. When it comes to the explosion of virtual theater, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. Really, why would you even want to try?
As I observed in Volume 40, virtual theater has not only expanded theater companies’ profile and reach, while making those companies’ work more accessible to individuals unable to attend in person because of age, distance, and disability. Equally important, virtual theater making has also expanded what theater can do. And while I can’t wait to be back in the Playhouse at the Overture Center watching Forward shows live, I’m also thrilled that friends in Chicago and New York as well as family in Florida can now easily watch them with me, virtually sitting next to me and chatting with me afterward about what they’ve experienced.
Forward Managing Director Julie Swenson got it exactly right, in explaining during episode 50 of our Theater Forward podcast why streaming is here to stay: “One of the best things that happened in this crazy year,” Julie said, “is that Forward Theater was able to share our work with people all over the country . . . I don’t want to lose them. That would really break my heart.” Mine too, Julie. Mine, too.
What streaming theater is keeping your heart beating this week? I’d love to know. You can reach me through Forward at email@example.com or directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. As always, both “theater” and “Fischer” are spelled with an er.
First, exactly one year after Sondheim’s landmark 90th Birthday celebration gave us an early glimmer of hope during one of our darkest hours, let’s revisit a song that marks how far theater artists have come in the past year, all because they’ve consistently had the courage to move on. Here’s Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford at Sondheim’s 90th Birthday bash, reprising their starring roles in the 2017 Broadway production of Sunday in the Park with George – a production which, it’s worth noting, reopened New York’s legendary, long-dormant Hudson Theatre: WATCH
Second, here’s an outstanding 2018 production of Kurt Weill’s long-lost Zaubernacht (1922), ingeniously updated by choreographer Jody Oberfelder in a mash-up of Brothers Grimm and latter-day witches, giants, and trolls (Trump and Weinstein among them), whose dreams of world domination are scuttled by a mischievous Pussy Hat brigade and their fearless 11-year old leader, a girl coming into her own: WATCH
Third, here’s a special edition of Brian James Polak’s The Subtext podcast, featuring 18 creatives describing a play that’s been particularly meaningful to them (if you want to further expand your library of plays to read, check out the recommendations included within the wonderful book The Play That Changed My Life). “Sometimes,” playwright and actor Deb Hiett says as one of Polak’s 18 guests, “you need to witness how rich and expansive and deliciously multi-dimensional great storytelling can be.” This episode of The Subtext resoundingly confirms the truth that Hiett speaks: WATCH
Fourth and finally, here’s Chloe Zhao’s acceptance speech upon making Oscar history Sunday night, offering a message that’s driven home in her terrific film and that never gets old: WATCH
Selections for Volume 46 (citations and links also included, in order, as endnotes):
1. Time Future Contained in Time Past (The Infinite Wrench Goes Viral; The Neo-Futurists):
Last week, I watched the 52nd weekly episode of The Infinite Wrench Goes Viral, through which Chicago’s Neo-Futurists have channeled the tumultuous year we’ve just been through in the way they know best: short plays (30 in 60 minutes) of the sort the Neos have been staging for more than three decades (pre-pandemic, The Infinite Wrench was staged live, thrice each weekend).
The Infinite Wrench Goes Viral (Trailer)
The Infinite Wrench Goes Viral (Subscription Info)
At Forward, we’ll soon be seeing 46 such plays when Forward unveils the final show of its 12th season: 46 Plays for America’s First Ladies, which the Neos premiered last Fall. Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones described 46 Plays as “consistently creative, inventive and admirably avoidant of the predictable” (I’ll have more to say about 46 Plays next week, in advance of the Forward opening on Saturday, May 8).
In my theater journal, I circled one third of last week’s 30 plays as standouts ( a high percentage for me, when viewing an evening of shorts); none of the 30, which run from 11 seconds to seven minutes (as is true in 46 Plays, most plays run a few minutes), were boring. They catalogued what we’ve lost this past year (friends, houses, innocence). Coinciding with a Spring struggling to be born, they gave me hope (one beautiful piece compared our emergence this Spring to the birth of a calf). Many made me laugh; a few even made me cry.
I’d say more about individual plays, but we won’t have the opportunity to compare notes; 72 hours after each weekly edition goes live on Sunday night, it’s gone. Want in on the addictive fun? A subscription runs a mere $3 each week, ensuring a piping hot delivery of new plays to your email box on Sunday night, for viewing at your leisure during the following three days. It’s a steal of a deal, as well as a hearty appetizer in advance of Forward’s production of 46 Plays.
2. When Ignorance Actually Is Bliss (Love and Information; Guildhall School of Music & Drama):
Virtual theater has made it possible for me to watch (and share with you) productions from coast to coast of plays by Caryl Churchill, the best living English-language playwright (see volumes 21 and 25). This week, I’m suggesting a trip across the pond to Churchill’s native Britain, where one of the world’s topflight performing arts schools kicks off its summer season with a production of Churchill’s Love and Information.
Churchill’s brilliant play offers numerous variations on one of her longstanding themes, going back to her fascination with Foucault in the 1970s: While knowledge may indeed be power, too much of it (and, by extension here, too much information) can undermine both our capacity to love and our basic humanity. Love and Information takes deadly aim at our information society, through which we regularly forfeit our privacy and peace while eroding the mystery through which human beings, individually and collectively, tell stories about themselves and their love for each other.
As with all three of its summer productions, the Guildhall School’s production of Love and Information is free with registration. Four livestreamed productions between Thursday and Saturday (April 29-May 1, on BST time) will be followed by a week of on-demand and captioned viewing (dates for demand streaming have not yet been announced).
Love and Information will be followed by Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play (May 20-25), allowing Forward subscribers to relive memories of one of the greatest productions in Forward’s storied history. Concluding the season, Bola Agbaje’s Oliver-winning Gone Too Far! runs from May 22-27 (I’ll have more to say about Agbaje’s play in a future column, as we get closer to its opening).
3. Beyond the Lighthouse (The Waves in Quarantine; Berkeley Repertory Theatre):
I love the better known Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, but Virginia Woolf’s best novel is The Waves, her 1931 “playpoem” featuring six voices (less characters than aspects of a consciousness) embodying some of the many multitudes within each of us.
Thirty years ago, David Bucknam and Lisa Peterson adapted it as a musical. While Bucknam left us in 1998, Peterson joined forces with two of his onetime students – Raúl Esparza and Adam Gwon – for a 2018 version of The Waves that includes additional music by Gwon.
“You can actually hear the audience crying from the stage,” Esparza said in a 2018 interview, during a brief developmental production run that year. “I haven’t done a lot of shows where that happens, where something really true is being put in front of an audience and they recognize themselves,” Esparza continued.
Perhaps you’ll recognize yourself in a made-for-quarantine version of The Waves: a film in six movements featuring Carmen Cusack, Nikki Renée Daniels, Esparza, Darius de Haas, Manu Narayan, and Alice Ripley. It opens Friday at Berkeley Rep, running through May 28; supplemental events featuring the creatives are scheduled for April 29 and May 6. All of it’s free, but you must register.
4. Freedom Fighter (The Royale; Lincoln Center Theater):
When Jack Johnson’s landmark July 4, 1910 victory crowned him the first Black heavyweight champion of the world, ensuing white riots across the United States made clear yet again just how unfree this country was.
And still is, I reflected, while watching the excellent 2016 Lincoln Center Theater production of The Royale, Marco Ramirez’s smartly written and fast-paced 80-minute play about the lead-up to Johnson’s title fight (Rachel Chavkin directs; a galvanic Khris Davis stars).
Johnson wants to believe that what counts is the content of his character – and his prowess in the ring – rather than the color of his skin. But that still wouldn’t ring true for all too many people in 2021 America, making Ramirez’s play as much about now as then. It’s taking nothing away from the productions I reviewed in Chicago in 2015 and Milwaukee in 2016 to say that the punch thrown by The Royale landed even harder for me during this third round, given this country’s long-overdue focus on a pandemic that’s proven far more lethal than Covid-19.
The Royale resists classic boxing movie tropes about a hero’s rise to glory (think Rocky) or the brutality of the sport (think Raging Bull or Million Dollar Baby), focusing instead on harder questions involving what such glory entails, how it’s often racially coded, what that means, and whether it’s ultimately all worth it.
While a ring dominates the nearly bare stage, Ramirez’s play drives home that Johnson’s biggest battle involves freeing himself, from a shackling history that’s continually warning him to keep his head down and go slow, moving “with all deliberate speed.” The world is a better place because a defiantly proud and loud Johnson adamantly refused to heed such warnings. That’s worth remembering, the next time some self-styled media pundit or stupid politician disparages Black Lives Matters protestors (here’s looking at you, Ron Johnson).
The Royale is streaming for free through May 16 as part of LTC’s Private Reels series; as I noted when introducing the series in Volume 42, the final two entries (dates still TBA) will be archived films of LTC productions of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Marys Seacole (2019) and Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves (2017). Shot with three cameras, LTC is giving us well-produced films of first-rate plays in productions that are truly not to be missed.
5. The English Chekhov (A Picture of Autumn; Mint Theater Company):
See any N.C. Hunter plays lately? I didn’t think so. But his plays were embodied on London stages in the 1950s by the likes of Edith Evans, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael Redgrave Ralph Richardson, and Sybil Thorndike. Add him to the legion of inexplicably forgotten playwrights enjoying second life thanks to New York’s ceaselessly wondrous Mint Theater Company, which specializes in giving new life to old plays (see Volumes 8, 23, 34, and 37).
Hunter has been described as the English Chekhov. He earns the designation in this poignant play, which received a one-night “try-out” performance on the West End in 1951 and then died, until being rescued by the Mint for a 2013 production that the Mint filmed and is now making available for free.
Set in 1951, Hunter’s play profiles an aging family of English aristocrats who no longer have the stamina or money to maintain the home their family has occupied for nearly 200 years. They know they should sell while they can, but will they? Would you, thereby abandoning the ghosts of your ancestors and the place where your own life’s memories have been made?
To steal from an idea developed in the play and articulated by one of its characters, such a dilemma is a not-quite tragedy that flirts with farce; Hunter, like Chekhov, elicits laughs as well as tears. I’d love to see a company like American Players Theatre stage this play; it’s aesthetically strong in its own right while offering a variation on our own ongoing cultural debate about what to keep and what to let go, from keepsakes and houses to playwrights and plays.
A Picture of Autumn streams through June 13; be sure afterward to check out the Mint’s excellent post-show talk, presented by Fordham University English Professor Keri Walsh.
References (chronologically arranged, in order of mention):
* William Shakespeare, Henry VI Part One (RSC Open Rehearsal Project):
* Stephen Sondheim, Move On (as sung by Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford):
* Kurt Weill (as adapted by Jody Oberfelder), Zaubernacht (Jody Oberfelder Projects and Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra):
* Brian James Polak, The Subtext: Plays That Fill You Up (American Theatre):
* Ben Hodges, editor (with a Foreword by Howard Sherman and an Introduction by Paula Vogel), The Play That Changed My Life: America’s Foremost Playwrights on the Plays That Influenced Them. Applause Books, 2009.
* Chloe Zhao’s Oscar Acceptance Speech:
* The Infinite Wrench Goes Viral (The Neo-Futurists, subscription information):
* The Infinite Wrench Goes Viral (The Neo-Futurists, trailer):
* Caryl Churchill, Love and Information (Guildhall School of Music & Drama; registration):
* Virginia Woolf (as adapted by David Bucknam, Raúl Esparza, Adam Gwon, and Lisa Peterson), The Waves (Berkeley Repertory Theatre):
* Marco Ramirez, The Royale (Lincoln Theater Center):
* N.C. Hunter, A Picture of Autumn (Mint Theater Company):
* Keri Walsh Discussing A Picture of Autumn (Mint Theater Company):