Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 5

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 5: JUNE 15, 2020

My inclusion in this week’s selections of Small Island – the story of immigrants from Jamaica in post-World War II Britain that underscores the isolation of people Black and white, on both of these islands – called to mind the opening of John Donne’s oft-quoted Meditation 17. “No man is an island/entire of itself,” Donne begins, continuing: “every man is a piece of the continent/a part of the main.” Donne concludes by observing that “any man’s death diminishes me/because I am involved in mankind;/and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;/it tolls for thee.”

Putting aside the gender-specific pronouns – Meditation 17 is nearly 400 years old, after all – Donne’s words are especially resonant, now; isolated as we may feel by the corona virus and the virus of racist hate, what unites us could be so much greater than what divides us. As theater continually makes clear. Don’t hesitate to strengthen the land bridge between your island and mine by letting me know what virtual theater-related content you’re watching and would recommend. You can reach me through Forward at or directly at

Bonus Selection: Tony Time

Among the theatrical experiences I’m most missing this June is one we all began experiencing on screens long before the pandemic: the Tony Awards. My favorite of the many online lists ranking best Tony Awards performances of all time is theater critic Adam Feldman’s list of the Top 35 Tony performances during the 53 years the ceremony has been televised (the link below suggests there are only 25 entries, but that’s incorrect; Feldman includes 35 plus his own bonus pick, for a total of 36).

I have my quibbles, as I would with any list; Feldman’s, for example, excludes Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett singing about pies in 1979; the Rent cast singing a timely paean to seasons of love in 1996; and Debbie Allen’s Anita singing America in 1980 (the legendary Chita Rivera was not nominated for her originating performance as Anita, which in any event predates televised Tony Awards ceremonies; the awesome Karen Olivo won her Tony as Anita during a 2009 ceremony in which the featured West Side Story number was the dance in the gym).

But Feldman’s list is both inclusive and informed (he writes excellent and pithy introductions to each entry). It also comes with video links to each entry. Watch a few each day, or binge the entire thing. Either way, your heart will sing. And as a bonus to this bonus, I’ve also included links to each of the three additional, excluded selections that I mention above.

Selections for Volume Five (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):

1. Small Island (National Theatre Live): A major theme in Britain’s anti-racist protests this month has been that country’s systemic racism toward its large Caribbean diaspora – underscoring, as so many of the world’s recent protests have – that the long shadow of slavery, colonialism, and racism extends far beyond American shores.

I’m therefore particularly pleased that the first up among the National Theatre’s latest and (sigh) last batch of free streams (five new ones in all) will be the landmark 2019 adaptation of novelist Andrea Levy’s Small Island, about relations between Jamaican immigrants and white Brits in post-war Britain (while Levy was born in Britain, she was the daughter of Jamaican immigrants).

Small Island will be available for one week beginning this Thursday, June 18. As a bonus, National Theatre dramaturg Ola Animashawun will be curating additional materials addressing Small Island and the National’s upcoming production of Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs in the context of the current global conversation around race and Black Lives Matter (I’ll have more to say on Les Blancs in a few weeks).

Longtime Milwaukee Rep patrons might remember Small Island adaptor Helen Edmundson, from Rep productions of her adaptations of Anna Karenina (2001; starring Deborah Staples) and The Mill and the Floss (2003; Colleen Madden’s first Rep and second Milwaukee show). Edmundson doesn’t do short books (Small Island is nearly 500 pages) or short adaptations; Small Island runs more than three hours. But Guardian critic Michael Billington credited Rufus Norris for directing this “tumultuous epic” with “hurtling energy.” Billington also noted that this production played to “a genuinely diverse audience” while “exercising a truly national function.”

Levy, who died of cancer shortly before the National production opened, ought to be better known in this country. If you haven’t read her novels, I particularly recommend both Small Island and The Long Song, in which we relive the final years of slavery in Jamaica through the eyes and unforgettable voice of female slave Miss July. You can order them both from your favorite independent bookstore. Or consider ordering Levy’s novels from a Black-owned book store, including one of three recommended by Daniel Goldin, the exceptional human who runs my favorite independent book store: Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee. Courtesy of Daniel, here are links to three additional Black-owned bookstores: Source Booksellers (Detroit), Semicolon (Chicago), and Loyalty Bookstore (Washington D.C.). You can also find the links in the notes that conclude this post.

2. Pipeline (Broadway HD): Forward fans are quite familiar with playwright Dominique Morisseau, whose Skeleton Crew – third in a trilogy of plays about the intersection of race and class in Morisseau’s native Detroit – opened the 2018-19 season under Jake Penner’s direction. Morisseau’s next play – the 2017 Pipeline – moved from the assembly line to the classroom. The 2017 Lincoln Center production is now being made available for free streaming by Broadway HD.

Nya (a sensational Karen Pittman) is a Black woman teaching in an overcrowded public school, beset by many of the same problems Forward audiences will remember from the Forward production of Ike Holter’s Exit Strategy (directed by Marti Gobel). Trying to save her son from the school-to-prison pipeline portrayed in Anna Deavere Smith’s Notes From the Field (one of my picks last week, and also one of three Smith shows currently streaming for free), Nya sends him to an expensive private academy. It’s an environment in which institutional racism takes forms explored in Joshua Harmon’s Admissions, which will be directed by Molly Rhode in a Forward production this coming January.

Bottom line: Forward patrons might consider Pipeline as their own personal primer addressing a theme arising in Forward plays past and future. It’s an invaluable addition to any self-directed course exploring how a racist American educational system consistently mortgages our country’s future rather than settling unpaid bills from the past.

3. Tilikum (Sideshow Theatre Company): The ostensible subject of Kristiana Rae Colón’s Tilikum is the true life story of an infamous orca that dismembered and partially ate his trainer. But Colón’s play also explores the intersection between profit and captivity, from the Middle Passage to Ferguson and Black Lives Matter – while wondering why so many people get so worked up about cruelty toward animals while simultaneously ignoring this country’s systemic cruelty toward people of color. Colón drives the point home by prescribing that Tilikum the killer whale be played by a “very physically imposing, strikingly large, muscular, athletic Black man.”

Sideshow Theatre’s world premiere 2018 production – intensely physical and gorgeously staged – was nominated for seven Jeff awards (full disclosure: I am a Jeff judge). I’m not sure how the production’s dramatic lighting and projections will play on an archival film, but I won’t miss the chance to revisit this show during its one-time stream at 7:00 pm CDT this Friday, in honor of Juneteenth Day. Sideshow is asking for donations, but it’s also making this stream available for free to those who can’t afford one.

4. Bloomsday! (various): Reviewing a new James Joyce biography in 2012, I called Joyce “the greatest writer of the last century”; the novel Ulysses – chronicling a day in the life of Dublin in 1904 – is his masterpiece. That day – June 16 – has long been known as Bloomsday, thereby honoring both Joyce and this novel’s greatest character: Leopold Bloom.

Cue the 39th annual Bloomsday on Broadway, bringing together writers, actors, and musicians to read from each of this novel’s 18 unforgettable chapters. Stephen Colbert kicks off this year’s virtual celebration at 7:00 am CDT on June 16, in an all-day festival running into the night whose many readers will also include Brian Cox, Hugh Dancy, Claire Danes, Cynthia Nixon, and Fiona Shaw.

You can enjoy a nightcap with Irish Repertory Theater’s production of Yes! Reflections of Molly Bloom, an adaptation by splendid Irish novelist Colum McCann and Aedín Moloney of Ulysses’ final chapter, in which Molly Bloom shares her alternately moving and funny story.

Moloney won an Outer Critics Circle Award for her performance in the 2019 world premiere of Yes!, for which her father – Paddy Moloney, founder and leader of The Chieftains – wrote the score. The online run of Yes! opens on Bloomsday and runs through June 20; while it’s being made available for free, the Irish Rep is suggesting a donation of $25.

Incidentally, mark your calendar for Irish Rep’s next summer online offering: a streaming of Conor McPherson’s The Weir, one of McPherson’s best plays. The Weir did so well at the box office when Irish Rep revived it in 2013 that the company brought it back again two years later. This summer’s online production runs from July 21-25; tickets can be reserved beginning at noon CDT on July 6.

5. The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey (92 Y): If you’ve watched the Oscar-winning Trevor or know about the Trevor Project – the first nationwide 24-hour crisis intervention lifeline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning young people – then you’ve probably seen or heard about James Lecesne, whom New York Times critic Charles Isherwood has rightly described as “one of the greatest storytellers of his generation.”
Author of Trevor and founder of the Trevor Project, this extraordinary writer and performer subsequently gave us The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, based on Lecesne’s 2008 novel about a gay teen who goes missing and is found murdered. In honor of Pride Month, 92Y is making available a free streaming of this beautiful piece – featuring Lecesne in a 2016 performance – throughout the month of June.

Lecesne embodies the hardboiled detective investigating Leonard’s disappearance, as well as the many people whom that detective interviews during his investigation. Collectively, they make clear that Leonard’s joy and light live on and simply cannot – will not – be extinguished.

By journey’s end, that light will have forever transformed the detective himself. He begins by playing to type – even as he slyly subverts our sense of who he is and what he might become. Touched by Leonard, we see the detective grow into the truth he eventually shares with us: “it’s never too late to learn something new.”

Given its subject matter, Lecesne’s 75-minute piece is surprisingly funny; it also reaffirms yet again the “absolute brightness” with which theater can illuminate even the darkest of times. Save it for a tough day, when you’re feeling especially overwhelmed by the hate all around us. It will remind you that the past few months have also been filled with countless examples of love and courage, giving us countless reasons for hope that we can be and do better.

References (in order of mention):

* Adam Feldman, 35 Best Tony Performances:

* Angela Lansbury, The Worst Pies in London from Sweeney Todd (1979 Tony Awards):

* Rent Cast, Seasons of Love/La Vie Boheme Medley, from Rent (1996 Tony Awards):

* Debbie Allen, America, from West Side Story (1980 Tony Awards)

* Andrea Levy (as adapted by Helen Edmundson), Small Island (National Theatre Live):

* Andrea Levy, Small Island (Picador, 2004)

* Andrea Levy, The Long Song (Picador, 2010)

* Boswell Book Company:

* Source Booksellers (Detroit):

* Semicolon (Chicago):

* Loyalty Bookstore (Washington, D.C.):

* Dominique Morisseau, Pipeline (Broadway HD/Lincoln Center):

* Kristiana Rae Colón, Tilikum (Sideshow Theatre Company):

* Bloomsday on Broadway:

* Colum McCann and Aedín Moloney, Yes! Reflections of Molly Bloom

* James Lecesne, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey (2008 novel; Harper Collins)

* James Lecesne, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey (streaming production):