Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 48

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 48 (MAY 12, 2021): Six Plays by Six Women

OK, so my title this week doesn’t have quite the same ring as 46 Plays for America’s First Ladies, the stupendous, currently streaming Forward production (through May 23).

But in the spirit of 46 Plays – which consistently embrace stylistic, political, and historical difference – I offer six plays written by women who both embody and inscribe such difference in plays stretching from Peru to Palestine and from New York to Japan.

Consider this week’s offerings as a supplement to the must-see 46 Plays, in which smart casting choices in each play showcase the rich diversity and inherent possibility of a country containing multitudes. As conceived by director Jen Uphoff-Gray, 46 Plays continually challenge us to expand our sense of the possible, even when we’re ostensibly confined and framed by the most stringent of rules and traditions. I’d like to think that each of this week’s picks do the same.

I offer them to you on the one-year anniversary of the day Forward asked me, after we’d just finished recording a Theater Forward podcast, to offer periodic streaming recommendations to our audience. My first weekly column appeared six days later, on May 18, 2020.

A lot has happened in our world since then, much of it horrific. But this past year has also seen a bracing awakening – in our country and within the theater community – that will forever change how we frame the way we work and what we make on each of the stages where we play.

“Space is synonymous with time, and time with history,” says one of the First Ladies you’ll meet in 46 Plays. “So often a critique of the space is a critique of its occupants.”

And, one might add, an invitation to rearrange far more than the furniture as we consider the heap of living through which an exclusionary house might become an inviting home, offering liberty and justice as well as hope and love to all, as we play out our dreams for a better world.

Which individual plays within 46 Plays speak most to you, and why? I’d love to know, and I’m sure Jen would, too. 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, I defy you to watch this new clip from Northern Sky Theater – brought your way courtesy of Artistic Director (and Mount Horeb native) Jeff Herbst alongside Associate Artistic Director (and Forward alum) Molly Rhode – and not smile, as they announce a 2021 Northern Sky season that will unfold before actual audiences in their two beautiful Door County artistic homes: WATCH

Second, and also speaking of reopenings, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss’ fabulously fun musical Six – which had been scheduled to open on the same day last March that Broadway closed – has come roaring back, with a just-announced Broadway opening of October 3 (performances begin September 17). Here, to put you in the mood, is the just-released Broadway trailer: WATCH

Third, here’s onetime Wisconsin actor Carrie Coon on the Rolling Stone series First Time, in an interview recounting many firsts in her career, from working in Wisconsin on motion capture during graduate school at UW-Madison to working with the likes of David Fincher and Justin Theroux: WATCH

Coon has been on my mind because Steppenwolf has just announced that it will reopen come Fall with Coon reprising her role in Bug, which had closed early because of the pandemic; here’s a trailer from Winter 2020’s galvanic production: WATCH

Fourth, here’s Sofia Coppola’s gorgeous new 25-minute film (starting just shy of 6:00 on this link; available until 6:59 CDT on May 20) marking the return of New York City Ballet to its Lincoln Center home. In their bodies and their steps, one can sense the pent-up joy of performers moving again, in the rehearsal rooms and on the stages where they make magic. I dedicate this one to the magnificent cast of 46 Plays: WATCH

Fifth and finally, here’s Joffrey Ballet’s world premiere, currently available for free, of Nicolas Blanc’s Under the Trees’ Voices (set to Ezio Bosso’s Symphony No. 2; costumes by Blanc and Wisconsin native Eleanor Cotey). Clocking in at just 30 minutes, it joins Heather Christian’s Prime (see pick one below) in saying as much to me as any piece since last March about all we’ve been through, while nevertheless insisting – as Bosso’s evocative music regularly does – that even in our darkest hours, there’s still reason for hope. As I’ve admitted on various occasions, in another life I’d have loved to be a dance critic. Watch this piece and perhaps you’ll understand why: WATCH

Selections for Volume 48 (citations and links also included, in order, as endnotes):

1. The Ghosts That Live Among Us (Animal Wisdom; American Conservatory Theater and Woolly Mammoth Theatre):

I first mentioned Heather Christian’s Animal Wisdom all the way back in Volume 2. Thanks to Forward Director of Marketing and Communications Scott Haden, an ecstatic, piano-playing Christian has been part of the Mike’s Picks graphic from the beginning; Christian’s work has been profiled in numerous weekly columns. Christian’s Prime, which I described in Volume 2 as a “gorgeous ten-song cycle exploring our daily emergence from night into a new dawn,” was later chosen by IndieWire as the best podcast of 2020 (listen HERE).

Animal Wisdom

All by way of celebrating Saturday’s long-awaited release of a filmed Animal Wisdom: an adaptation of the Bushwick Starr’s 2017 production that Ben Brantley described as a “one-of-a-kind opus” by a “singer and composer of blazing creative ambition” who “has set out to create nothing less than a bona fide, full-scale requiem for the dead in our lives.” I described Animal Wisdom back in Volume 2 as “a musical séance in which [Christian] channels the mysterious voices we’ve forgotten how to hear.” In the wake of this past year, do you need more to understand why, in Volume 16, I described this upcoming production as one “I can’t wait to see”?

A co-production by American Conservatory Theater and Woolly Mammoth Theatre that also marks the auspicious debut of the National Theatre Network (described in Volume 46), Christian’s piece streams from May 15 through June 13; single viewer tickets are $19. To give you a taste of what awaits you, I’m again including the 26-minute PBS profile of Christian, supplemented by music from the Bushwick production of Animal Wisdom, that I first shared in Volume 2 last May.

2. Dreaming the Impossible Dream (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter; GALA Hispanic Theatre):

When we last checked in with playwright Caridad Svich in Volume 40, it was to celebrate the world premiere production of her stirring Theatre: a love story, an impassioned celebration of why theater’s stories matter and how easily they’re corrupted, in a business that persistently places profits before people while turning its back on quixotic journeys and starry-eyed dreams.

Svich’s adaptation of Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter – currently streaming from Washington’s venerable GALA Hispanic Theatre after being the first show in D.C. to be performed before live (and socially distanced) audiences – offers a variation on this theme. Which makes it vintage Svich, a writer whose big-hearted, old-fashioned love affair with the romance of storytelling consistently combines with adventuresomely playful postmodernism that gleefully implodes artificial boundaries between high and low culture.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter;

I might be describing Vargas Llosa’s storied career, of which this most beloved and famous of his novels is an exuberantly fun and illustrative example. Like the young Vargas Llosa himself, its semi-autobiographical protagonist falls for an older, non-biological aunt. It makes no sense to their conventionally moralistic families in 1950s Lima, but so what? Love, as Julia notes, consistently transgresses reality – much like the stories of young Mario’s second muse: Bolivian scriptwriter Pedro Camacho, whose soapy radio dramas are all the rage in Lima.

Svich does an excellent job in streamlining Camacho’s tangled skein of stories, highlighting the parallels between their melodramatic (in the best sense) plots and the developing romance between Mario and Julia. With both humor and pathos, her play simultaneously gives new life to old questions about the tango between stories and life; between love and morality; and between high literature and popular culture – all while keeping a wary eye on the threats posed by creeping corporatism to the very survival of stories in an age of mechanical reproduction.

Bottom line: Svich’s joyful play delighted me. I’ll wager it delights you, too. It’s streaming in Spanish (English subtitles available) for $25 through June 2.

3. A Palestinian Photo Album (Scenes from 73* Years; Baltimore Theatre Project and Medina Theater Collective):

“For all the writing about them,” mused the late Edward Said in After the Last Sky, “Palestinians remain virtually unknown.” “We have experienced a great deal that has not been recorded,” Said continues. “And the images used to represent us only diminish our reality further.”

Scenes from 73* Years

Irish-Palestinian playwright Hannah Khalil seeks to set the record straight in an update to her Scenes from 68* Years: a kaleidoscopic series of snapshots (a bit like 46 Plays). Within them, Khalil chronicles scenes from life under Israeli occupation, stretching from the horrific expulsions and separations in 1948 through the present, in which ongoing, manifestly illegal Israeli incursions and evictions continue to carve up what’s left of Palestine (East Jerusalem emphatically included). As with Said’s book, Khalil’s Scenes is less interested in scoring points than trying to understand, humanizing Palestinians and their suffering while searching for common ground and driving home that an injury to one is an injury to all. It’s a cri-de-coeur that will simultaneously break your heart.

In a collaboration between the Baltimore Theatre Project and Chicago’s Medina Theater Collective (described in Volume 47), a new production of Khalil’s play will be available online beginning Saturday. Co-directed by Medina Artistic Director Rohina Malik and Najla Said (daughter of Edward Said), Scenes is stage managed by Forward Advisory Company member Jo Chalhoub and features music by Chicago-based musician Ronnie Malley. You can watch through June 13 for $20.

4. Expanding the Canon (The Refocus Project; Roundabout Theatre Company):

In announcing his new vodcast, In the Wake of Our Shadow: Black Voices, Gavin Lawrence challenged his audience to expand its sense of what constitutes a “classic,” which his artistic home of American Players Theatre (under whose auspices this vodcast streams) also continues to do.

Ditto New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company, which concludes its Refocus Project with two more free readings (registration required) of rarely staged plays by Black women: Zora Neale Hurston’s Spunk (1935) and Alice Childress’ Wine in the Wilderness (1969).

The Refocus Project

Spunk, streaming through Friday, is a chronicle with music of the love story between a charismatic, guitar-playing wanderer and a young, married woman in a rural Florida town; a Hurston adaptation of her own short story, it’s distinct from the George C. Wolfe show of the same name that debuted at the Public and that you might have seen at Chicago’s Court Theatre ten years ago. But Roundabout’s production still has a distinctly Chicago vibe; it’s directed by rising Chicago star Lili-Anne Brown, with music direction by Chicago’s Jermaine Hill. Incoming Victory Gardens Theater Artistic Director Ken-Matt Martin serves as assistant director, and the cast is sprinkled with Chicago actors, including Melody A. Betts and Kelvin Roston, Jr.

In Childress’ Wine in the Wilderness (streaming from May 21-24), a struggling artist working on his masterpiece – a triptych of three women – gets more than he bargained for from an ostensibly perfect model who eventually challenges his preconceived idea(l) of the feminine. Steeped in the Civil Rights moment in which it was written, Childress’ play is also far ahead of its time as it explores issues of gender and class in relation to the struggle for Black liberation. Like her contemporary Lorraine Hansberry – and like the model who resists being typecast in this play – Childress continually challenged preconceived ideas of what it meant to be Black, as well as expectations of the ground Black writers should or could cover. Childress’ play is therefore an ideal capstone to a Roundabout project that’s all about expanding our understanding of what we think we know – including how we conceive the canon of classic texts.

5. Someone In a Tree (All the Different Ways Commodore Matthew Perry Could Have Died Before Opening Japan But Didn’t; Theater in Quarantine and New Georges):

Joshua William Gelb’s latest Theater in Quarantine production – all of them staged from the confines of a 4x8x2 East Village closet – is playwright Julia Izumi’s provocatively titled, alternatively hilarious and deeply moving meditation on the accidents, vagaries, and burdens of History.

All the Different Ways Commodore Matthew Perry Could Have Died Before Opening Japan But Didn’t

Centered on Perry’s 1853 “opening” of Japan, Izumi imagines all the ways Perry might have died before this climactic moment – while eventually recognizing that if Perry hadn’t lived to do the dastardly deed, someone else would have been sent in his stead (so much for the great man theory of history, which regularly thwarts our efforts to see racism as systemic rather than exclusively personal).

Reviewing the colonial fantasies around the world that Perry lived through, embodied, and helped perpetrate, Izumi also wrestles with how we tend to flatten the historically specific differences between, say, the French occupation of Haiti, the genocide of American Indians, the racist colonization of Liberia, the Mexican-American War, and Perry’s Japanese expedition.

Most provocatively, we watch Izumi wrestle with her own Japanese-American identity; her role as a playwright and the related tension between art and political commitment; how we might revise the history we inherit; and whether white artists like Gelb can ever escape the confines of white privilege (aptly visualized through Gelb’s closet).

As is repeatedly true with Forward’s production of 46 Plays, Izumi’s play also calls attention to the act of production itself: how the stories we make get written and continually revised, one emerging sentence at a time (I’m afraid to say more, lest I give away too much regarding how this deceptively simple, extraordinarily rich show unfolds). All leading toward a gut punch of a final five minutes, which brings all these themes home and which made me cry. In a show, mind, that only runs 35 minutes as it moves from farce toward tragedy before ultimately reaching toward hope and redemption.

Incidentally, I’ve showcased Theater in Quarantine before, in a production of yet another piece of amazing work by – you guessed it – the one and only Heather Christian (see Volume 32). Like all of Gelb’s made-in-quarantine productions – one of the great, sustaining gifts during the past year – it’s still available and streaming for free.

References (chronologically arranged, in order of mention):

* Jeff Herbst and Molly Rhode, 2021 Season Announcement (Northern Sky Theater):

* Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, Six (May 6, 2021 Broadway trailer):

* First Time with Carrie Coon (Rolling Stone):

* Tracy Letts, Bug (Steppenwolf Theatre, trailer):

* 2021 Spring Gala (New York City Ballet):

* Nicolas Blanc (with music by Ezio Bosso), Under the Trees’ Voices (Joffrey Ballet):

* Heather Christian, Prime: A Practical Breviary (Playwrights Horizons):

* Profile of Heather Christian and Animal Wisdom (PBS):

* Heather Christian, Animal Wisdom (American Conservatory Theater and Woolly Mammoth Theatre):

* Caridad Svich (adapting Mario Vargas Llosa), Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (GALA Hispanic Theatre):

* Edward Said (with photographs by Jean Mohr), After the Last Sky (Pantheon: 1985).

* Hannah Khalil, Scenes from 73* Years (Baltimore Theatre Project and Medina Theater Collective):

* The Refocus Project (Roundabout Theatre Company):

* Julia Izumi, All the Different Ways Commodore Matthew Perry Could Have Died Before Opening Japan But Didn’t (Theater in Quarantine and New Georges):