Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 49
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 | VOLUME 47 | VOLUME 48
VOLUME 49 (MAY 17, 2021): Stand Together or Fall Apart
Before her death four years ago, one would regularly run into Steppenwolf Theatre Artistic Director Martha Lavey attending productions of other theater companies all over Chicago (I once ran into her twice in the same day, at separate shows in Chicagoland taking place more than 25 miles from each other).
Lavey never saw these companies as Steppenwolf rivals; she considered each and every one of them as codependent parts of one ecosystem. And she therefore promoted other companies’ work with the same enthusiasm that characterized her cheerleading for Steppenwolf itself.
Among the many reasons I’m proud to be part of the Forward Theater family is its similarly enthusiastic support for the entire theater community. Through Artistic Director Jen Uphoff Gray’s vodcasts with Wisconsin artists last summer; the 56 episodes (and counting) of our Theater Forward podcast; our direct, material support for the LaFollette High drama program; our Wisconsin Wrights festivals and Monologue festivals (the next Monologue festival is coming up in late June!); our consistent and substantive support for theater artists during this pandemic (Forward awarded more than 2 percent of all Equity contracts in the entire United States during the past year); and columns like the one you’re currently reading, Forward has regularly championed and supported others’ work.
Lest I be accused of shameless virtue signaling, let me be perfectly clear: supporting theater artists and other theater companies isn’t only about altruism or “doing the right thing,” important as these motivations obviously are.
Supporting other artists and their companies recognizes that the survival of theater depends on each of us supporting one another and our respective work, in ways that reflect the rich diversity of the country we call home. And this in turn means supporting every local company, large and small, so that there is work.
Some theater companies in our region have done a much better job of offering such support during the pandemic. I’m not going to name names; doing so runs counter to the spirit of this introduction and to the overall health of the theater community I love and support.
But make no mistake: we all know who the stragglers are – those companies that only promote themselves and their own shows, evincing no curiosity about and making no effort to see others’ productions. Such companies and their leaders can insist all they want that they care about building relations with the community; every theater company with a pulse, now, insists that it cares about building relations with the community. The rest of us know better. We’re watching. And we have long memories.
Newsflash: one’s fellow theater companies are a vital part of that larger community. Each of those companies helps ensure artists have enough work. At their best, such companies challenge our frequently monochromatic views of the world. These companies’ plays talk to us, just as plays talk to each other, helping us see new features in the work we do and make. Such companies help grow and educate an audience, increasingly equipped to compare and contrast the alternative pluralisms that allow us to honor our multiple selves.
As we emerge from this pandemic, here’s hoping that we see much more collaboration among regional theater companies in the years to come. Through shared world premieres, of the sort that Chicago’s Neo Futurists and Forward are making together with 46 Plays for America’s First Ladies (still available to stream through Sunday – your loss if you miss it!). Through co-productions, of the sort that Milwaukee’s Chamber Theatre and Forward have built together in the past. Through festivals and readings, days of action and joint initiatives, on the stage and in the streets. Through loving care and exuberant cheerleading for each other and the theater community we make and nourish together, one production at a time, from Sturgeon Bay to Spring Green and from Madison to Milwaukee. The people united will never be defeated.
In the spirit of the above, what 2021-22 plays, other than those announced as part of Forward’s upcoming 13th season, are you most excited to see? I’d love to know (and love to add them to my rapidly filling schedule!). You can reach me via email 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 a new PBS documentary (hosted by Vanessa Williams) reviewing the challenging year artists have been through, their resiliency in continuing to innovate and therefore perform, and the hope for a better, more caring and inclusive future through which the arts might continue to challenge us to be our best selves. Featured footage includes Karen Olivo performing in Moulin Rouge!, as well as clips from several productions recommended in this weekly arts guide during the past year: WATCH
Second, in a week during which numerous Broadway shows announced opening dates come Fall, here’s Patti LuPone, choking up as she contemplates returning to work while making clear that without an audience, there’s no show: WATCH
And here’s the West End trailer for the gender-swapping Company that had transferred to and been set to open on Broadway last March; this past week, we learned it would be back (with LuPone very much in the house) come December: WATCH
Third, from the Atlantic for Kids division of Atlantic Theater Company, here’s another knockout from playwright Idris Goodwin: an audio drama profiling Muhammad Ali (back when he was still named Cassius Clay) from the beginning of his amateur career as a tween through his return to segregated Louisville after the Rome Olympics. As with his excellent Hype Man: A Break Beat Play (see Volume 44), Goodwin here explores the tension between the personal and the political, as the young Ali balances his individual goals as a boxer with an awakening consciousness of the civil rights struggle unfolding around him. This hour-long production is free with registration: WATCH
Fourth, from Music Theatre of Madison, here’s the homepage (including trailer) for An American Mythology, a smartly conceived concept album featuring Wisconsin BIPOC artists interrogating the myth of American exceptionalism while suggesting stirring alternative histories of their own. Co-directed by Adam Qutaishat and Nathan Fosbinder, some of the tracks have already been released; the remainder will be rolled out during the duration of May and into June (you can check out the lyrics and artist statements for each track now, in a digital program embedded in the album’s homepage).
Having previewed the entire album, I can’t wait to see MTM make good on its goal of adapting An American Mythology for the stage; collectively, its compelling songs embody its narrative arc, which suggests that we might yet awake from the nightmare of our shared history to tell new and better stories. Those stories are created and presented by Clara and Christian Adams, Maaz Ahmed, Jackey Boelkow, Anthony Cao, Camille Hunt, L.E.X., Autumn Maria Reed, Hayley San Fillippo, Kailea Saplan, Shayne Steliga, and Mark Wurzelbacher: PREVIEW/PURCHASE
Selections for Volume 49 (citations and links also included, in order, as endnotes):
1. Insight (Molly Sweeney; Third Avenue Playhouse):
Once upon a time, the title character in playwright Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney could see things the rest of us can’t even begin to imagine. Then Molly, blind, had surgery in an effort to restore the sight she’d lost during infancy.
In a play that has everything to do with the magic of storytelling and the meaning of theater, Friel’s Molly champions her hard-earned conviction that we don't need to see to believe. But her husband and a doctor – both men, both of much more limited imagination – see things differently.
Who’s right? If we see more, do we risk understanding less? Overwhelmed by constant movement and light, do we risk losing the peace and quiet that allow the imagination to flourish? How might these questions resonate today, amidst the nattering and insipid intrusions of dumbed-down, lie-filled social media? What might they mean for a formerly isolated Ireland?
You can wrestle with these questions yourself while watching a Third Avenue PlayWorks reading on Friday night. Forward Artistic Associate Karen Moeller stars as Molly, in a cast that also features Forward Advisory Company member Michael Herold as Molly’s husband and Door County favorite Doug Mancheski as Molly’s doctor. Yours truly will facilitate a live talkback afterward with director Robert Boles and the cast. The reading gets underway at 7:00 CDT and is free with registration.
2. Desire in the Dark (Crave, Chichester Festival Theatre):
I’ll go to the barricades for the late, great Sarah Kane; the fact that her plays are rarely produced in the United States says a great deal about how timid and conventional our theater frequently is. In this fourth and most poetic of her five plays, Kane again explores the desires that dare not speak their name, the cruelty and violence that frequently accompanies them, and the loneliness we feel as we crave connection between our impossibly isolated selves. Its four characters are never named. But each of them is unforgettable as they search for meaning and love in a blasted world.
Crave is, in short, the perfect pandemic play, which goes a long way toward explaining why Chichester livestreamed it last November all over the world. I missed the chance to see it during its brief run then and have been craving the chance to see it ever since. Chichester is making that possible, in a stream-on-demand of its November production that runs through next Wednesday, May 19 (as it has just become available, I was not able to watch it before my deadline for this week’s column). Just over $21 will provide you with 72-hour access to the stream.
3. A Doubleheader with Caridad Svich (Maryland Film Festival and Theater in Quarantine/La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club; CultureHub):
It’s been a busy month for the seemingly tireless Caridad Svich (see volumes 40 and 48).
Svich’s play installation The Little Hours (a shorter version of a slightly longer piece) debuts tomorrow night (May 20) under the auspices of La MaMa and Theater in Quarantine (see Volumes 32 and 48); you can watch a live performance at 6:00 CDT or 8:00 CDT and on demand thereafter (viewing is free). The story of two poet friends at a point when one of them becomes ill, it’s being billed as “an investigation of faith, love, and grace” as “we wait and dream in the little hours for a radical utopia . . . even while the world crumbles.” All true enough, but those words don’t do justice to this lyrical story about poets’ fears of vanishing wor(l)ds – and these poets’ simultaneous, stubborn faith that their passionate fire will burn on, for as long as they sustain the courage “to push everything else away” and listen instead to the sound inside.
Fugitive Dreams | Trailer
Fugitive Dreams | Tickets
After watching The Little Hours, you can cap your night with another story of a duo trying to make sense of a fallen world through the well-reviewed Fugitive Dreams. In this film, Svich teams with Jason Neulander in an adaptation of her play Fugitive Pieces, about the unlikely friendship between a woman who’d tried to kill herself and the man, battling PTSD, who stops her. Mary and John’s ensuing journeys through a dreamscape Midwest give us a road movie touching on homelessness, mental illness, and addiction, while offering the hope that compassion and love might yet allow us to make it through the darkness to the dawn. You can stream it through the Maryland Film Fest from May 20-24; $15 buys you 24-hour access.
4. Fun Home: The Original Version (2.5 Minute Ride; Studio Theatre):
A daughter mixes humor and pathos, as she tries to understand her father’s dark past. That daughter, a lesbian, puzzles out her place in an ostensibly ordinary Midwestern family. Along the way, she self-consciously wrestles with how to (re)present her story through art, while worrying that any effort to describe her family will devolve into a mass-produced cliché.
I could be describing Fun Home, the musical Lisa Kron wrote with Jeanine Tesori that Forward staged in a memorable 2018 production. But I’m actually describing Kron’s 2.5 Minute Ride: a 70-minute love song to a diabetic and blind father with a heart condition who adored rollercoasters – and who escaped Hitler’s Germany as a boy, seven years before his parents were murdered at Auschwitz.
Combining memories of family pilgrimages to an Ohio amusement park, a journey with her father to Auschwitz, and reflections on her brother’s Orthodox Jewish wedding, Kron’s 2001 piece attempts to construct a family history that never quite comes into focus – Kron’s way of suggesting that family ties and the history that binds them remain inscrutable, even as her piece affirms how real and important such ties can be.
Under Joanie Schultz’s direction, Dina Thomas gives us all of that in this restrained and poignant production – filmed from the Studio stage – on which Thomas’ image splits while the slides she shows us blur. 2.5 Minute Ride thereby drives home how hard it is for any of us to ever feel whole, when large parts of our past remain an undiscovered country, despite our best efforts to feel at home within its mysterious walls. Studio’s production streams through Sunday (May 23); tickets (with handling fee) are $45.
5. An Irish Vanya (Uncle Vanya; PBS Great Performances):
Yeah, so shoot me: This is the second production of Uncle Vanya that I’ve recommended since starting this column (see Volume 35). Much as Shakespeare’s big-hearted characters reliably offer hope regarding all we can yet be, Chekhov’s constricted characters continually suggest what happens when life grinds us down and we therefore ignore Shakespeare’s call to action. Chekhov channels the quiet desperation of conforming, blueprint lives as well as any playwright who’s ever lived, and Uncle Vanya captures the resulting desolation better than any Chekhov play
Director Ian Rickson’s West End production of Vanya closed early because of the pandemic; thankfully, Rickson and his cast later returned to the Harold Pinter Theatre, slightly tweaking the stage production for film so that they might give us the great gift of these performances, currently available for free through PBS.
With a nod toward the opening of Andre Gregory’s stupendous Vanya on 42nd Street (if you’ve never seen it, do!), we watch the masked actors arriving at the theater before resuming their work – much as Vanya and Sonya will at play’s end. Rae Smith’s evocative, claustrophobic set – suggesting an encroaching Columbian jungle straight from One Hundred Years of Solitude – embodies the collapsing world and shambling lives of these characters, each at risk of being engulfed by the creeping moral and physical rot that surrounds them.
McPherson’s adaptation modernizes Chekhov’s language without jarring the nerves; I can’t always say the same for McPherson’s occasional confusion of Chekhovian reticence with his own, characteristically confessional Irish monologues. Chekhov is always masterful at conveying how much we leave unsaid; I wish that McPherson had left us more opportunities to read between the lines.
That said, this punched-up version of Vanya is ideally suited for those less familiar with the play, and this cast will forever banish tired and lazy claims that the ennui of Chekhov’s characters means that Chekhov’s plays are boring. This Vanya is an urgent plea that we live our lives fully, lest we realize too late that we haven’t really lived at all.
References (chronologically arranged, in order of mention):
* Akisa Omulepu (producer and director), The Arts Interrupted (PBS Great Performances):
* Patti LuPone, on returning to work:
* Stephen Sondheim, Company (West End trailer):
* Idris Goodwin, And in this Corner: Cassius Clay (Atlantic Theater Co.):
* Various artists, An American Mythology (Music Theatre of Madison):
* Brian Friel, Molly Sweeney (Third Avenue PlayWorks):
* Sarah Kane, Crave (Chichester Festival Theatre):
* Caridad Svich, The Little Hours (or two friends) (Theater in Quarantine; La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club; CultureHub):
* Jason Neulander and Caridad Svich, Fugitive Dreams (Maryland Film Festival, tickets):
* Jason Neulander and Caridad Svich, Fugitive Dreams (Maryland Film Festival, trailer):
* Lisa Kron, 2.5 Minute Ride (Studio Theatre):
* Andre Gregory, Vanya on 42nd Street (directed by Louis Malle; starring Wallace Shawn and Julianne Moore; based on David Mamet’s 1989 adaptation)) (1994 trailer):
* Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya (as adapted by Conor McPherson) (PBS Great Performances):