Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 8
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 8: JULY 8, 2020: SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
This week’s selections offer plays as old as Molière’s Tartuffe and as new as a 2020 world premiere. But both these and the other selections this week suggest what Madisonians shuttling between Forward Theater (with a commitment to generally newer work) and American Players Theatre (with a commitment to generally older work) already know: Both classic and contemporary plays can and do speak to the way we live now.
Good plays, of whatever vintage, reveal an expansive, ongoing ability to tell us the truth about who we are, all we’re not, and everything we might yet be. That’s why we’ll never outgrow Shakespeare. But it’s also why attention must be paid to the current explosion of new work, in what’s rightly being called a Golden Age of playwriting.
And, finally, it’s why director Igor Golyak (see pick 2 below) gets it exactly right in suggesting that Zoom and technologies like it are offering “a new door to the theater.” Half of this week’s picks involve Zoom productions. And while I haven’t yet seen one of them (it won’t go live until this coming Saturday; see pick 5 below), I can enthusiastically state that the other two (see picks 1 and 2 below) represent major advances in how theater artists are bringing us together, even as we remain apart.
As always, you can play your own role in being social while shrinking distance by sharing what current theater experiences excite you. You can reach me through Forward at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact me directly at email@example.com.
First, in anticipation of a free streaming this Friday, July 10 (7:00 CDT) of a 2009 concert she gave at Broadway's Minskoff Theatre, here is the divine Bernadette Peters, in renditions of Not a Day Goes By (2009) and No One is Alone (2008) making clear yet again that nobody (not even you, Patti) sings Sondheim better:
Second, Brian Stokes Mitchell offers a just-recorded, infinitely hopeful vision stretching from sea to shining sea of the country we might still someday become, in this gorgeous and inspiring take on America, the Beautiful (be sure to read his accompanying message).
Selections for Volume Eight (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. Tartuffe (Molière in the Park): A hypocritical and sanctimonious huckster poses with a Bible while philandering and plundering his way to power. Sound familiar? It’s actually the plot of Molière’s justly beloved Tartuffe, but the similarities between the 17th century and our current moment come through loud and clear in the new Zoom version of Tartuffe starring Raúl Esparza as the conniving cleric and a cross-dressing Samira Wiley (Orange is the New Black; The Handmaid’s Tale) as his gullible victim. Directed by Lucie Tiberghien for Molière in the Park, it streams for free through July 12.
Much like the landmark 2013 rep productions of Tartuffe and The Misanthrope at Chicago’s Court Theatre, neither of which I’ll ever forget, most of the principals in this Tartuffe are Black – one of many ways in which Tiberghien underscores the vibrant, ongoing relevance of Molière’s sharply satiric comedy. What Court makes clear in so much of its work and Tiberghien here drives home is that our great plays aren’t the fussy costume dramas we’re often given; they’re brilliant commentaries on the social condition that remain as relevant today as when they were written.
While this Tartuffe has some of the technical glitches that come with nearly every Zoom production I’ve watched, it also marks a major step forward in theater companies’ increasing familiarity with such technology. There’s a genuine backdrop. There’s actual – wait for it – blocking. And, of course, there’s the reliably wonderful Esparza, who along with Wiley and Jennifer Mudge (as the maid Dorine) are the standouts in a uniformly strong cast.
2. State vs. Natasha Banina (Arkelin Players Theater): An adaptation of Russian playwright Yaroslava Pulinovich’s Natasha’s Dream, this live one-actor show from Boston’s Arkelin Theater comes closer than any show I’ve yet seen during the pandemic to capturing the experience of live theater.
Like many shows I’ve seen during the past four months, this riveting one-hour story of a Russian orphan is performed over Zoom; unlike nearly all of those shows, this one defiantly shatters the fourth wall. We’re the jurors presiding over Natasha’s trial for manslaughter; we can see each other. Actor Darya Denisova sees and makes direct appeals to us (even calling some of us out by name). This piece brings to mind Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment; imagine Raskolnikov making a direct appeal to you as a juror (and yes, you’ll vote at the end of Natasha’s trial).
When I watched Natasha state her case this past Sunday, I was joined by jurors from Ecuador and Australia, Canada and cities throughout the United States; after the 50-minute show, Denisova and director Igor Golyak chatted with us all for more than 40 additional minutes, in one of the best talkbacks I’ve ever attended (and as a regular attendee at Forward’s reliably stimulating talkbacks, that’s saying something).
Arkelin is offering one final free performance of State vs. Natasha Banina this coming Sunday, July 12 at 7:00 CDT, after which Golyak and Denisova will go “on tour” in performances sponsored by theaters all over the country.
3. Mood Music (Old Vic): Two decades ago, playwright Joe Penhall rocked London (and won an Oliver) for Blue/Orange, his acerbically funny and prophetic play involving a Black patient in a psychiatric hospital who becomes a pawn in a power struggle between two white doctors (it packs even more of a punch now than it did when it debuted). In 2018, Penhall unveiled the well-reviewed Mood Music, his first play in five years. It involves a similar power struggle; this time, the victimized pawn is a talented female singer and the prize is intellectual property rights to her hit single. Think #MeToo.
Old Vic is making its archival film of the world premiere production available for free for six days, starting July 8. This is the second such release from Old Vic; I included the first, A Monster Calls, as the third pick in Volume 3. The filmed performance of Monster was moving and beautiful, giving me high hopes for this piece.
Penhall is a playwright who has long been suspicious of how asymmetrical power relationships work – and of the latent will to power that’s inevitably in play when those at the top profess to be acting in the best interest of those who are not. Even – especially? – among artists, with whom professions of “collaboration” often mask something far less collegial. Old Vic is, after all, the theater company once run by Kevin Spacey.
4. Summer Stock Streaming Festival (Mint Theater Company): When speaking of making the old new again, I can’t help but think about New York’s fabulous Mint Theater Company, which repeatedly (re)discovers old chestnuts you’ve probably never cracked and makes them freshly delicious. The Mint has just announced a two-week summer festival that will let us savor three of its recent offerings – while simultaneously offering two weeks of employment to the 30 actors and stage managers who originally helped make those productions happen. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with "Mint" in the subject line to receive the password.
The archival films made from these productions were each shot with three cameras, which gives me high hopes that they’ll be a cut above much of the archival footage we’ve seen online in the past several months. Alphabetically by title, the three shows are:
* George Kelly’s The Fatal Weakness, a 1946 Broadway hit (marking Ina Claire’s return to Broadway) that the Mint resurrected in 2014. After 28 years of being madly in love with her husband (the fatal weakness), Ollie Espenshade confronts the truth that he’s a cheating scoundrel.
* Harold Chapin’s The New Morality, which made its debut five years after this gifted young playwright died on a French battlefield during World War I. Set on a London houseboat in 1911, The New Morality tells the story of Betty Jones’ efforts to restore her household and save her marriage. In her review of the Mint’s 2015 production, New York Times critic Alexis Soloski described Chapin’s play as “a jigger or two of Harley Granville Barker, a measure of Shaw, [and] a dash of Wilde.”
* Hazel Ellis’ Women Without Men, a 1938 play revived by the Mint in 2016. Set in the teacher’s lounge of an elite Irish boarding school for girls, it features faculty members stuck with each other; they’re low on options in a profession that’s become a job and in which they’re treated like servants. Think The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, crossed with The Children’s Hour.
The Mint has put together an excellent Festival page, filled with information about all three shows and the playwrights who wrote them; there’s also materials (including photos) from the Mint’s revivals. While the shows are free, you must send an email to email@example.com, with the word Mint in the subject line, to receive the password you’ll need to access them. The three shows will run simultaneously, for you to view in whatever order you please, through July 19
5. Queens Girl in the World (Hangar Theatre): Playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings is looking back on her 1960s youth as a Black teen in this one-actor play, which features heroine Jacqueline Marie Butler toggling between her Queens neighborhood and an elite, predominantly Jewish day school in Greenwich Village. Having received overwhelmingly positive reviews during its 2015 Washington debut, Queens Girl comes our way in a virtual production courtesy of Ithaca’s Hangar Theatre, which is presenting it as part of an entire summer season of newly (and therefore virtually) presented work. Starring Vernice Miller inhabiting multiple characters and directed by Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr., it will be presented live this Saturday night at 6:30 CDT; a $20 ticket gives one access to the performance through midnight on Monday, July 13.
While I haven’t read and will only first be seeing Queens Girl this Saturday, Washington Post critic Nelson Pressley’s review of a 2015 production notes that the play successfully manages to be both personal and political as well as both nostalgic and tough-minded. Pressley gave Jennings high marks for combining the romantic form of a classic coming-of-age story with a historically tough-minded look at what it meant to be young and Black during some of the most tumultuous years of the Civil Rights movement. “It’s a feel-good show that doesn’t need to make apologies, an entertaining memoir that also comes across as honest,” Pressley writes. “The world has spun a long way from the early 1960s – and, as Jennings prods us to recognize, not so far at all.”
While counting down to Saturday night, you can learn more about Hangar Theatre and Jennings’ play from the latest episode (Number 36 and counting!) of Theater Forward, the twice-monthly Forward Theater podcast about all things theater. In this episode, Forward Artistic Director Jennifer Uphoff-Gray interviews Michael Barakiva, Hangar’s energetic and infectiously enthusiastic Artistic Director.
You can also spend time before Saturday night in getting to know the playwright: Jennings is featured in two streaming series sponsored by Round House Theatre in Washington, D.C.
In the first, Playwrights on Plays, Jennings offers the tenth and final installment of weekly interviews in which playwrights discuss favorite plays; Jennings goes with Hamlet and King Hedley II (one episode also features Wisconsin fave Aaron Posner riffing on his beloved Shaw). In the second, Jennings offers the tenth and final installment of Homebound, Round House’s web serial about life during the pandemic. (I watched the first and plan to continue; it’s quirky, funny, and oh so true to the ways this moment has literally reshaped how we see ourselves!)
6. The Copper Children (Oregon Shakespeare Festival): In 1904, a train of Irish Catholic orphans was sent west from New York City to a small copper mining town in eastern Arizona, where the local priest had arranged for the children’s adoption by Mexican families. But while the Mexicans were similarly Catholic, they were poor and reviled; the predominantly white Protestants in town couldn’t stomach the thought of this savage “other” raising white children (never mind that the Irish often weren’t considered white in 1904).
What happened next is the subject of playwright Karen Zacarías’ The Copper Children, part of Oregon Shakes’ multi-decade American Revolutions project, a cycle of 37 new plays involving moments of change in American history. The world premiere production of The Copper Children had recently opened at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival when the pandemic shut it down. Through July 15, Oregon Shakes is making an archival recording of the production available for $15.
Such recordings weren’t originally intended for distribution to a wider audience, and this one suffers some of the same problems afflicting many of those I’ve watched: uneven sound quality and limited angles. Nor is the deliberately Brechtian, didactic nature of Zacarías’ storytelling going to appeal to all comers. Zacarías intended The Copper Children as a dark sister play to her exuberant Destiny of Desire, a delightful homage to Mexican telenovelas that Milwaukee Rep streamed a few months ago in lieu of the Rep’s canceled live production. If The Copper Children often feels similarly melodramatic, that’s by design.
But The Copper Children grows in power and intensity as it progresses, and it sheds invaluable light on a disgraceful, little-known episode in American history. It also asks fascinating questions about the intersection of race, class, and gender as well as how such categories get constructed. How, for example, did Irish children viewed as non-white when their train left New York become white by the time they’d arrived in Arizona? The Copper Children explores many such questions, while providing distressing confirmation of Faulkner’s adage that “the past is not dead. It’s not even past.”
References (in order of mention):
* 2009 Bernadette Peters Concert (streaming live at 7 CDT July 10):
* Stephen Sondheim (as sung by Bernadette Peters), Not a Day Goes By: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TSb4DJGZqzY
* Stephen Sondheim (as sung by Bernadette Peters), No One Is Alone:
* Brian Stokes Mitchell, America the Beautiful:
* Molière, Tartuffe (Molière in the Park): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RmGzfjO-W-M
* Yaroslava Pulinovich, State vs. Natasha Banina (Arkelin Players Theater):
* Joe Penhall, Mood Music (Old Vic):
* Mint Theater’s Summer Stock Streaming Festival (email firstname.lastname@example.org with Mint in the subject line to receive the password):
* Caleen Sinnette Jennings, Queens Girl in the World (Hangar Theatre):
* Playwrights on Plays (Round House Theatre):
* Homebound (Round House Theatre):
* Zooming Your Theater Season Like a Boss (Forward Theater Podcast 36):
* Karen Zacarías, The Copper Children