Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 47

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 47 (MAY 5, 2021): Homeland Redux

This past week brought the best batch of good news for local theater since the pandemic shut it down 14 months ago.

On Monday, Next Act Theatre released its production of 9 Circles (profiled in Volume 46), in which Casey Hoekstra gives one of the best performances I’ve seen on any stage in the past year. On the same day, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre released The Thanksgiving Play (see pick two below), capping a four-play virtual season in which every production was a hit.

On Tuesday, fresh from rehearsals for its exciting upcoming production of 46 Plays for America’s First Ladies (opening this Saturday!), Jen Uphoff Gray swapped her director’s hat for her Artistic Director’s hat to announce that Forward would welcome audiences back for the 2021-22 season (which will simultaneously be streamed).

Next season’s stellar Forward line-up: Adrienne Kennedy and Adam P. Kennedy’s Mom, How Did You Meet the Beatles?; Jordan Harrison’s The Amateurs (with almost the entire cast that was in rehearsal for this play when the pandemic shut last year’s production down); the world premiere of Wisconsin novelist and poet Quan Barry’s The Mytilenian Debate (see Volumes 6, 20, and 45 for more on the phenomenally talented Barry); and Sarah Gancher’s brilliant, funny, and bracingly ambitious Russian Troll Farm (featured in Volume 25).

Also on Tuesday, Door County’s Northern Sky Theater announced that it had been greenlighted to give live performances before audiences this summer in both Peninsula State Park and Northern Sky’s beautiful indoor Gould Theater, which had opened just months before the pandemic struck. Meanwhile, American Players Theatre began rehearsals Tuesday for its first outdoor show, James DeVita’s An Improbable Fiction; APT also announced last week that the upcoming run of its first indoor show, Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, has sold out. Both productions open this month.

On Wednesday, Steppenwolf Theatre announced a live 2021-22 season before audiences that will include plays by Rajiv Joseph, Tina Landau, Tracy Letts, and Tarell Alvin McCraney; a new adaptation of The Seagull will mark the long-awaited opening of Steppenwolf’s intimate Round Theater.

Also on Wednesday, the American Theatre Critics Association announced its five finalists for the 2020 Steinberg New Play Award, which recognizes the best plays that premiered professionally outside of New York City last year. An astounding four of the five finalists enjoying stage debuts in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season had opened in Chicago: J. Nicole Brooks’ Her Honor Jane Byrne (Lookinggglass Theatre; see Volume 45), Isaac Gómez’s The Leopard Play (Steep Theatre), Jason Narducy and Brett Neveu’s Verböten (House Theatre), and Korde Arrington Tuttle’s Graveyard Shift (Goodman Theatre). (Full disclosure: I’m a judge for this prize).

Capping off the week, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater roared back to life last Friday night, opening a live production before audiences in the Quadracci Powerhouse involving Chicago actor Alexis J. Roston channeling Ella Fitzgerald (through May 23).

“Even in this pandemic-driven moment, during which we can see productions from all over the world, there’s no substitute for spending time with the actors and companies right here at home,” I wrote last November in Homeland (Volume 24), a column that focused exclusively on local theater. And while I’ve been sharing such local experiences since this column debuted last May, this week’s good news on the local theater front warrants an encore. This week’s column is therefore entirely dedicated to local theater: that great and glorious artistic ecosystem stretching from Door County to Chicago and from Milwaukee to Spring Green.

Geographically and culturally, Madison’s Forward Theater is in the middle of it all, offering a home to artists throughout this region. And it’s worth noting in this context that Forward’s production of 46 Plays for America’s First Ladies (did I mention that this not-to-be missed show is opening Saturday night?) is a rolling world premiere, being presented in tandem with a production last Fall by the Neo-Futurists in Chicago (see Volume 45 and pick three below). Q.E.D.

In addition to 46 Plays for America’s First Ladies, what local theater are you most excited to see on screen and/or in person as we move toward summer? I’d love to know. You can reach me via email through Forward at or directly at As always, both “theater” and “Fischer” are spelled with an er.

Bonus Selections:

First, here’s the latest in a periodic series of public panels on various theater-related topics sponsored by Chicago’s Jeff Awards Committee (of which yours truly is a member). Held last month, this latest panel features Chicago creatives Rohina Malik, Ronnie Malley, and Martin Yousif Zebari, offering reflections on polycultural theater in relation to their own efforts to share stories from the SWANASA region (South West Asia, North Africa, and South Asia) on stage: WATCH

Second: here’s Malik, Malley, Zebari and Forward Advisory Company member Jo Chalhoub joining other members of Chicago’s newly formed Medina Theater Collective in introducing this exciting new theater company while underscoring why we need it (next week, just in time for Nakba Day, I’ll be profiling MTC’s mid-May production of Palestinian playwright Hannah Khalil’s Scenes from 73* Years): WATCH

Here, for good measure, is the Medina Theater Collective homepage

Third, from Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company, allow me to introduce Matthew Yee’s Lucy and Charlie’s Honeymoon, a musical in development involving recently married first-generation “Asian American renegades” who are “embracing the worst of the American dream.” Featuring “guns, grandmas, and original country western and folk songs,” Yee’s road show will get a partial unveiling this week, with a recording of a “barebones” reading of Act I that will be posted on Lookingglass’ social networks from May 6-9. Here’s the show’s home page

Fourth, from Chicago Shakespeare Theater, here’s a link for tickets ($25) to the stronger of the two Chicago Shakes radio plays running through May 16 with the same splendid ten-actor cast: a 100-minute version of Twelfth Night in which the incredible Larry Yando induces more sympathy for Malvolio than the rogue deserves: TICKETS

Fifth and finally, here’s a link to the entire, four-episode season of Court Theatre’s Spotlight Podcast: fully directed actor readings involving poems, stories, and essays from four Black women to whom attention isn’t sufficiently or frequently paid: diarist Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, poet Phillis Wheatley, novelist Pauline Hopkins, and journalist Ida B. Wells. I’ve listened to the first two thus far and they’ve been excellent: LISTEN

Selections for Volume 47 (citations and links also included, in order, as endnotes):

1. A Chicago Hat Trick (Live; Goodman Theatre):

First Goodman gave us the opportunity to watch four archived productions for free (see Volume 41; the last of these, Robert Falls’ outstanding production of Measure for Measure, remains available through May 9). Now, Goodman is rolling out Live, a three-show series in which each production will be live streamed for five performances.

Goodman Live Series

First up is Adam Rapp’s The Sound Inside, one of my favorite new plays of the past few years; I’ve raved about Rapp’s play and recommended prior productions in Volumes 42 and 45. Directed by Falls and featuring Mary Beth Fisher and John Drea, the Goodman production (May 13-16) will be the first live production since the justly acclaimed Broadway run (directed by another native Chicagoan, David Cromer).

Next is Adrienne Kennedy’s Ohio State Murders (see Volume 27), directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene (also the director of the Hamilton national tour) and streaming from June 17-20. Ohio State Murders is Kennedy’s semi-autobiographical story of a young woman attending Ohio State in the early 1950s and confronting murderous racism; it shares numerous themes (including a sustained meditation on cultural appropriation) with the first play of Forward’s just-announced 13th season: Kennedy’s Mom, How Did You Meet the Beatles?

Wrapping things up is Ike Holter’s I Hate It Here (about which I wrote at length in Volume 32, comparing Holter’s play to Brecht’s Fear and Misery of the Third Reich). Forward audiences will know Holter from Forward’s 2018 production of his play Exit Strategy; in this Goodman production, his director will again be long-time collaborator Lili-Anne Brown. I Hate It Here runs from July 15-18.

Because these shows are being live streamed, you must choose a specific performance; tickets for each are available now at $30 ($60 for all three).

2. Giving Thanks to Milwaukee Chamber (The Thanksgiving Play; Milwaukee Chamber Theatre):

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre has done as much as any theater company in Wisconsin during this pandemic year to walk the walk when it comes to staging work by BIPOC playwrights and giving contracts to BIPOC creatives. It’s therefore especially appropriate for MCT to end its virtual streaming season with Sicangu Lakota playwright Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, a delicious send-up of narcissistic and performative white wokesters who never get beyond talk; they’re so intent on looking good by sounding politically correct that they fail to actually make room for non-white performers and perspectives. Again.

The Thanksgiving Play

Revolving around a quartet of white creatives trying to devise an elementary school play to commemorate North America’s indigenous peoples, FastHorse’s satire seemed overly broad to me when I first read her play three years ago. But with MCT’s The Thanksgiving Play unfolding against the backdrop of our increasingly bizarre and dishonest conversations about race, ethnicity, identity, and difference – in a production helmed by a director who is consistently so good at exploring the darkness at the core of every farce – what results is a play speaking hard truths while still making us laugh.

Cue the applause for extraordinary director (and frequent Forward collaborator) Laura Gordon, who coaxes sharp performances from her talented cast (Kelsey Brennan, the dearly missed Torrey Hanson, Eric Schabla, and Hannah Shay). Collectively, they make clear that there’s much more at stake in FastHorse’s own play than the ridiculous elementary school play its characters are busily creating.

Special kudos to costume designer Misti Bradford and composer/Forward fave Joe Cerqua for punching up Brechtian framing pieces that drive home what a poor job we’re doing in educating the next generation to think seriously about this country, its history, and themselves. To steal a line from Torrey Hanson’s character, “it’s the definition of madness.” Through May 23; tickets are $35.

3. Scrambled Eggs (The Egg Wrench; The Neo-Futurists):

In Volume 46 last week, I profiled the Neo-Futurists’ 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: a weekly batch of short plays (30 in 60 minutes) of the sort the Neos have been staging for more than three decades.

Just in time for Mother’s Day – and in conjunction with Forward’s opening weekend of the Neo-Futurists’ 46 Plays for America’s First Ladies – here’s a tasty encore: the Neo-Futurists’ special rendition this coming Sunday of The Egg Wrench: 30 of the Neos favorite “egg” plays from the past 30 years. The Neos are promising a show that “scrambles up our perceptions of mothering, reclaiming it as a verb,” while exploring “the way that every human has mothered or has been mothered.” Oh, and they’re also promising it will make you think about breakfast in an entirely new way. What’s not to like?

The Egg Wrench

Written and performed by Neos past and present, this culinary delight goes live on Twitch this Sunday at 3:00 CDT; tickets are $18, with all of the proceeds (yes, all) going to the Chicago Birthworks Collective, composed of more than a dozen birth workers committed to centering Black birthing people in their reproductive experiences.

Want to really scramble your brains? Enjoy an afternoon doubleheader of 46 Plays and The Egg Wrench. 76 plays in one delicious Sunday afternoon? To steal from Sondheim’s concluding line to Sunday in the Park with George, “so many possibilities . . .”

4. Managing the Men (The Understudy; Third Avenue PlayWorks):

Going all the way back to Spike Heels, Theresa Rebeck has made hay from a love triangle involving a woman caught between an alpha male and the usually disappointing, passive-aggressive rival she loves more. Despite their differences, the men in these plays invariably bond, justifiably sending the whip-sawed woman into orbit.

So it goes in Rebeck’s The Understudy, involving an overtaxed stage manager (Roxanne), a handsome but average Hollywood actor looking for some stage cred (Jake), and the journeyman stage actor serving as his understudy (Harry). Harry was once engaged to Roxanne; both men are crushing on her. Their rehearsals, I wrote in my review of the 2014 production at Renaissance Theaterworks, are “straight from Noises Off.”

The Understudy

Because its sparkling dialogue is better than its wobbly plot and awkward entrances/exits, The Understudy is ideally suited for a reading, which is the way it will present on Friday night (May 7) as the latest installment in Third Avenue PlayWorks reading series. TAP has once again assembled a top-notch cast: Katherine Duffy as Roxanne, Chiké Johnson as Jake, and Ryan Schabach as Harry (Alan Kopischke directs). The Understudy gets underway at 7:00 CDT; while you can watch for free, registration is required.

And yes: I did say Third Avenue PlayWorks rather than Third Avenue Playhouse; TAP announced the name change in a press release last week. “The term Works carries a WPA-ish connotation suggesting we are a theater ‘by’ the people and ‘for’ the people,” said co-Artistic Director James Valcq in the press release, which went on to note that the term Works also reflects a partnership with an audience of active, working participants in a collaborative venture.

Music to my ears. And true to what Valcq and co-Artistic Director Robert Boles have built during the past decade.

5. String Theory (The Last Match; Writers Theatre):

Playwright Anna Ziegler’s title “matches” the frame of this play: it unfolds during a U.S. Open Men’s semifinal between an established American superstar and a rising Russian challenger.

But through numerous flashbacks and asides, many involving the American’s wife and the Russian’s girlfriend, Ziegler goes far beyond the white lines as her characters volley on the price of success and why we seek it; ungovernable desire and our efforts to tame it; the aging parents who remind us of death; and the children who give us an intimation of immortality.

The Last Match

That’s a lot of ground to cover in a 95-minute play, and I’ll confess that I wasn’t entirely convinced it would work on stage when I read the script two years ago, despite Ziegler’s characteristically gorgeous serves (she’s one of our smartest and most poetic playwrights).

But under director Keira Fromm and choreographer Steph Paul, it’s game, set, and match with the all-aces cast of Kayla Carter, Heather Chrisler, Ryan Hallahan, and Christopher Sheard in this Writers Theatre production. Fromm’s crisp direction avoids potentially deadly back-and-forth lobs, giving this play the dramatic tension it needs; Paul’s choreography (aided and abetted by the use of film) ensures that the play’s flashbacks never seem contrived or stilted. The Last Match runs through May 30; individual tickets are $40.

References (chronologically arranged, in order of mention):

* Rohina Malik, Ronnie Malley, and Martin Yousif Zebari, Reflections on Polycultural Theater (Jeff Awards Panel, April 5, 2021):

* Introducing the Medina Theater Collective (video):

* Medina Theater Collective Homepage:

* Matthew Yee, Lucy and Charlie’s Honeymoon (Lookingglass Theatre Company):

* William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night (Chicago Shakespeare Theater):

* Spotlight Podcast (Court Theatre):

* Goodman Live Series (Goodman Theatre):

* Larissa FastHorse, The Thanksgiving Play (Milwaukee Chamber Theatre; trailer/ticket info):

* The Egg Wrench (The Neo-Futurists, subscription information):

* Chicago Birthworks Collective (website):

* Theresa Rebeck, The Understudy (Third Avenue PlayWorks):

* Anna Ziegler, The Last Match (Writers Theatre):