Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 6
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 6: JUNE 22, 2020
With the solstice here, it’s high time to take some virtual voyages – into the woods and also across the sea – toward the undiscovered countries of the self: all those multitudes we each contain and rarely acknowledge. Ranging from 2,500-year-old Greek plays to brand new ones right here in Wisconsin, each of this week’s selections tally the cost of playing by traditional rules and outmoded rituals that keep us from fully seeing ourselves and genuinely hearing each other.
I’d love to hear from you regarding what you’re watching and listening to. You can reach me through Forward at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact me directly at email@example.com. As always, both my last name and theater are spelled with an “er.”
Let’s get started with a timeless burst of joy, featuring an acrobatic, gravity-defying Andrea Martin singing No Time at All, from Diane Paulus’ American Repertory Theater production of Pippin in 2012-13. It will make you want to fly – and convince you, as theater so often does, and as Forward did just this past season in its production of For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday – that you’re never too old to begin.
And now that you’re ready to dance, here’s a wild and fun dance-party rendition of The Bacchae by the Classic Theatre of Harlem. For $10 through June 26, you can watch a 70-minute mash-up of Euripides, Jimi Hendrix, and Prince by acclaimed adaptor Bryan Doerries, about whom I have much more to say in my second pick below.
Selections for Volume Six (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):.
1. Wisconsin Wrights New Play Festival (Forward Theater Company): Missing the excitement of new theater? Look no further, as Forward Theater unveils a virtual version of its biennial festival devoted to new plays by Wisconsin playwrights. Zoom readings of three plays will be offered on their website over the three successive nights of June 25-27 at 7:00 CDT each night (it’s just like the old days: to see the show, you must watch it live).
Featuring some of your favorite Wisconsin actors, directors, and designers, each play streams live and is followed by a trademark Forward talkback, led by Forward Artistic Director Jennifer Uphoff-Gray. I read all three scripts as a Wisconsin Wrights judge. Bottom line: you’re in for a great time. And it’s free.
There’s plenty of detail (including playwrights’ statements and cast lists) at Forward’s dedicated Wisconsin Wrights festival page. Here’s a 30,000-foot overview.
June 25 brings us Greer DuBois’ The Year Without Summer. No, not 2020 but rather 1816 (thanks to the 1815 eruption of an Indonesian volcano). A young Englishwoman visits her aunt in an Italian villa; what ensues is E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View crossed with exuberant cosplay, good music, and great conversation. It bends gender and upends standard tropes involving romantics and soldiers, ingénues and their chaperones, and war and peace.
On June 26, we’re treated to Eric Schabla’s Sapiens, in which an academic’s research project at the zoo morphs into a timely meditation on how we might rethink taxonomy – and thereby deconstruct binaries involving race, sex, and so much else. Schabla also explores what the triangulation between capital, power, and knowledge is doing to the American university system. Madisonians know a bit about that.
Closing the festival, celebrated author Quan Barry – check out her recently published novel We Ride Upon Sticks, in which a girls’ field hockey team crosses The Crucible with The Wolves on the site of the Salem Witch Trials – makes her playwright’s debut as author of The Mytilenian Debate.
In Barry’s play, a famous Black heart surgeon breaks the news to his adult daughter that he and his young wife are about to have a baby – something the daughter wants but doesn’t have in her own marriage with a white jazz musician. What constitutes a parent? Why do we have offspring? How are these questions inflected by race? Barry explores these and related issues while connecting the dots to the Mytilenian Debate during the Peloponnesian War. How? Watch with me on Saturday night and find out. I’ll catch you at the talkback.
2. Antigone in Ferguson | The Oedipus Project (Theater of War): We’re still reading and performing the classic Greek tragedies for a reason: they transcend their moment, offering us a means of better understanding our own. Bryan Doerries’ community-oriented Theater of War project movingly confirmed this truth in its 2018 coproduction with Harlem Stage of Antigone in Ferguson. An adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone, it connects Creon’s refusal to bury Polynices and our own government’s consistent desecration of Black bodies – including that of Michael Brown, left to rot on Ferguson’s streets for hours after he’d been shot and killed.
An excellent, hour-long documentary prepared by PBS’s House Seats series combines interviews and generous slices from a New York performance of Antigone in Ferguson. The New York production joined professional actors with a chorus that included St. Louis cops as well as Michael Brown’s high school teachers; we hear from some of them. The documentary simultaneously asks hard and relevant questions about racism, social justice, and allyship.
Doerries also recently directed a Zoom reading of his adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex; he rightly recognized that a play about arrogant leaders and confused citizens in a time of pandemic and plague might have something to say to us. Featuring an all-star cast that includes Oscar Isaac (Oedipus), Frances McDormand (Jocasta), John Turturro (Creon), and Jeffrey Wright (Tiresias), a May 7 reading drew an online audience of more than 15,000 from more than 30 countries. This Wednesday, at noon CDT, Doerries and his cast do it again; the performance will be followed by a talkback, led by Doerries and framed by community panelists. It’s free, but you must register in advance.
Want more? Doerries’ contemporary translation of four Greek plays – used in Theater of War productions that have played before tens of thousands of combat veterans as well as prison and medical personnel – is available in paperback. And he has written Theater of War, an inspiring chronicle of a career practicing what he herein preaches: these great plays not only teach us about suffering, but also about how we might heal ourselves and our communities. I can’t recommend Doerries’ books or productions highly enough. The Theater of War website offers extensive information (and some video links) regarding Theater of War projects.
3. The Unknown Island (Gate Theatre) - trailer: “History is always selective, and discriminatory too,” wrote Nobel-prize-winning writer José Saramego in The Elephant’s Journey. “Fortunately,” he continued, “the inexhaustible generosity of the imagination” allows us to “erase faults, fill in lacunae as best we can, forge passages through blind alleys that will remain stubbornly blind, and invent keys to doors that have never even had locks.”
Saramego, who knew all about oppression and who died in exile, consistently dared to dream the impossible dream, which explains his short story about a man and woman searching for an unknown island and thereby finding a new and better world. Adapted for the stage by Ellen McDougall (who also directs) and Clare Slater, The Unknown Island runs just 55 minutes. Several of those minutes – surely more powerful in the theater than on this archival, one-camera video – are consumed with the four-actor cast sharing a meal with the audience.
But that communion also speaks to the revolutionary power of the imagination. It embodies Saramego’s parable. And it summons the transformative power of theater itself, which can shatter far more than the fourth wall as it brings light to our darkening world.
Even the narration is handled communally, although I wager you’ll be particularly impressed by rising star Thalissa Teixeira, who gave an acclaimed supporting performance in Simon Stone’s jaw-dropping Yerma, which blew New York away when it transferred from London two years ago.
You can set sail for The Unknown Island for free through June 30.
4. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Globe Theatre) | A Midsummer Night’s Dream (National Theatre/Bridge Theatre): The Athenian woods in one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays constitute an unknown island all their own; the older I get and more productions of it I see, the more strange A Midsummer Night’s Dream becomes. Just in time for midsummer, three of Britain’s best theaters are offering free access to their own estranging productions.
Directed by Dominic Dromgoole, the Globe’s 2013 Midsummer is as clear and well-acted as any production of this play that I’ve seen. There’s nothing radical about Dromgoole’s straightforward interpretation, but that’s not intended as a criticism. This is a clear, beautifully costumed and text-driven staging that’s true to the rhythm of some of Shakespeare’s most gorgeous poetry. I’ll stake a glass of ale on my assurance that anyone watching it will enjoy it, including children and the Bard-phobic as well as lifelong Bardolaters. You can stream it for free through June 28.
I haven’t yet seen a second Midsummer that begins streaming this week: the immersive 2019 co-production of Nicholas Hytner’s Bridge Theatre and the National Theatre that will be available for one week starting this Thursday, June 25. Featuring Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie, it sounds from the reviews like a high-concept cross between an homage to Peter Brook’s ground-breaking 1970 production and what one critic described as a “celebration of queer liberation.”
Some examples: After swapping lines with Hippolyta, it’s Oberon in Hytner’s Midsummer who falls for Bottom. Both the female and male lovers enjoy same-sex clinches. And the dance party concluding the show takes place under a rainbow Pride flag. I can’t imagine a better way of celebrating the 51st anniversary this coming weekend of Stonewall. And the trailer (link below) is as intoxicating as any love potion.
5. For Love of the Theater: Act One (Lincoln Center) and Wise Children (Wise Children/Bristol Old Vic): Moss Hart’s Act One isn’t just one of the best books about theater ever written. It’s also a stirring reminder of why theater matters, as a means of remaking the world we inherit so that we and it might be someone and someplace else. Which also, as it happens, is what’s so wonderful about Wise Children, novelist Angela Carter’s exuberant love song to theater. During this week, you can see inspiring adaptations of both Hart and Carter’s books exploring how and why we become stage struck.
Starring Tony Shalhoub, Andrea Martin and Santino Fontana, James Lapine’s adaptation of Act One, which played Lincoln Center in 2014, is especially good in the scenes featuring Fontana as a young Hart and Shalhoub as George S. Kaufman, working together on Once in a Lifetime, the first of their hits. But as Ben Brantley noted in his New York Times review, the entire show drives home how theater becomes a passion rather than a profession. It plays for free through July 3.
True to Carter’s novel, Emma Rice’s brilliant adaptation of Wise Children – available through noon on Friday, June 26 – is a much looser affair, with roots in panto and the English music hall. Opening as Nora and Dora turn 75 and their father turns 100 in 1989 – on Shakespeare’s birthday, no less – Wise Children takes us through the twins’ lives.
Played by three pairs of actors (white and Black, as well as male and female), it’s a joyous deconstruction of gender; a wickedly smart pastiche of Shakespeare; a loving homage to Irving Berlin and the Gershwins as well as Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields that also struts down Eddy Grant’s Electric Avenue and blends Cyndi Lauper with folk music; and a reminder that theater allows us to transcend biology and revise history by choosing the families and communities with which we identify and in which we live.
In the introduction to Act One, Hart notes that theater allows us to channel our inner child. In her final novel, Carter suggests that theater might allow us to sing this song of innocence even after we’ve acquired the wisdom of experience. Watching these two magnificent shows, who is to gainsay them?
References (in order of mention):
* Andrea Martin, No Time at All:
* The Bacchae (Classical Theatre of Harlem):
* Wisconsin Wrights Festival: https://forwardtheater.com/event/wisconsinwrights
* Quan Barry, We Ride Upon Sticks (Penguin Random House, 2020)
* Antigone in Ferguson (Theater of War/Harlem Stage):
* The Oedipus Project (trailer and link to register):
* Bryan Doerries, All That You’ve Seen Here is God: New Versions of Sophocles and Aeschylus (Vintage, 2015).
* Bryan Doerries, The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today (Knopf 2015).
* José Saramego, The Unknown Island (adapted for the stage by Ellen McDougall and Clare Slater), trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrhvt-jRB7c&feature=emb_title
* José Saramego, The Unknown Island (adapted for the stage by Ellen McDougall and Clare Slater), archived performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUBsVmYH_8Q
* José Saramego, The Elephant’s Journey (Houghton Mifflin, 2010).
* William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Globe Theatre):
* William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (National Theatre/Bridge Theatre trailer):
* Moss Hart, Act One (Penguin Random House, 1959)
* Moss Hart (as adapted by James Lapine), Act One:
* Angela Carter (as adapted by Emma Rice), Wise Children:
* Angela Carter, Wise Children (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1991)