Virtual Arts Guide - Vol. 9
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 9: JULY 15, 2020: THE THEATER WE NEED
The show that’s spoken most to me about our current American moment was actually made in Britain. Although Lorraine Hansberry may be an American playwright, it was Britain’s National Theatre that gave her rarely staged Les Blancs – a play decades ahead of its time which has a great deal to say about race relations and white privilege – the sort of production it deserves.
One of the reasons Britain could take on the financial risk associated with staging Les Blancs is because it actually has a national theater, which receives significant public support. Driving this point home, the British government just announced a $2 billion relief plan for the arts. Even before the pandemic, government spending on the arts in Britain was five times greater than in the United States (even though Britain has one-fifth the population of the United States). Matters are still worse in Wisconsin, which has slipped from 48th last year to dead last this year in per capita spending on the arts (14 cents per capita; next-door Minnesota, which ranks first, spends $7.22 per capita).
Our public sector’s failure to invest in the arts is part of a much larger problem, as suggested by this week’s must-see first pick about front-line healthcare workers in America. But if you believe that the arts can forge a more empathic and generous communitarian vision of all America can be – and if you’re reading these words, odds are you do – robust public investment in the arts should be front and center in any discussion about the future world we want and will fight for.
So as we say goodbye to the free National Theatre broadcasts – my second pick below is the last of the sixteen glorious weekly offerings from the National since the pandemic began – let’s dare to imagine a future in which this country not only boasts a national theater of its own, but also supports theaters throughout the land with the monies they need, so that we might consistently experience the theater we need. Now, more than ever.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this or any theater-related issue, including what shows you’ve most enjoyed or are most looking forward to in the weeks ahead. You can reach me through Forward at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact me directly at email@example.com.
Will all due respect to the Big Apple, Jackie Taylor of Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater gets it exactly right when she says that “Chicago is the cultural center of the world when it comes to theater. Not New York.” Here’s more than 75 artists who’ve helped make it so, offering a rousing pandemic-era rendition of Sweet Home Chicago on behalf of the Arts for Illinois Relief Fund (one of the producers of this impressive piece is Mark Larson, author of Ensemble, a terrific oral history of Chicago theater). It’s six minutes of pure joy: WATCH
You’ll get a similar uplift in watching Rob McClure (Mrs. Doubtfire) as a conductor passing the baton to Memphis Symphony Orchestra assistant conductor Kalena Bovell, who performs a poem about being Black in America before leading a virtual Ragtime reunion of Black artists such as Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell: WATCH
Selections for Volume Nine (citations and links for all selections are included as endnotes):
1. The Line (Public Theater): Documentary theater makers Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen had just opened Coal Country – their play about the West Virginia mine explosion that killed 29 men in 2010 – when the pandemic shut down the Public Theater’s world premiere production. Undaunted, they teamed with the Public to create this alternately harrowing and inspiring account of medical first responders on the ground in New York City this Spring.
Like most of us, I’ve read and watched a ton of material involving what happened in March and April in New York. But I’ve seen and read nothing that says so much in such a short time (the show runs just over an hour) about what being on the front line there must have been like – and about what this pandemic has exposed regarding the ways our broken health care system discriminates against this country’s disproportionately BIPOC poor.
Blank and Jensen – whom Milwaukeeans may recall as authors of The Exonerated, which opened Next Act Theatre’s new space nine years ago – present the stories of seven first responders, including a doctor, nurses, paramedics, and a nursing home administrator. Much like Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy – another documentary play addressing the systemic racism baked into the American health care system – The Line begins by disarming us, as we get to know the seven individuals who will then take us to hell and back. That journey leaves room for all that’s best about who we are, even as it categorically rejects patronizing labels like “heroes.”
I can’t recommend The Line highly enough – both for its own sake and as a reminder that even in this worst of times for the arts, theater continues to play an invaluable role in telling our collective story. It streams for free through August 4.
2. Amadeus (National Theatre): Closing with a bang, the National Theatre’s final free broadcast – running from Thursday through July 23 – brings back one of its big hits: an epic 2016 remount of a piece first seen at the National in 1979. Under Michael Longhurst’s direction, the 2016 production of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus doesn’t just include16 actors and 6 singers. It also features 20 musicians from the Southbank Sinfonia, which is incorporated directly into the action on stage.
Coming off a landmark performance as the first Black Iago at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Lucian Msamati anchors this Amadeus with a titanic performance as the Iago-like Salieri. Noting the radical departure of this Amadeus from past productions, New York Times critic Matt Wolf concluded that it “packs an emotional wallop that transports you directly to the knotty question of genius that was Mr. Shaffer’s abiding concern.”
When the National announced the final five broadcasts culminating in Amadeus, it suggested that the National Theatre at Home initiative would continue in some other form, with details to be announced “soon.” Here’s hoping. Only a handful of cinemas in the United States (and none in Wisconsin or Illinois) are currently offering socially distanced screenings of National Theatre shows, and the National has historically been both reluctant and slow to release films for purchase. I’ll let you know if things change.
3. The Weir (Irish Repertory Theatre): I can think of few playwrights (fellow Irishman Brian Friel would be among them) whose work is better suited to our virtual theater moment than Conor McPherson. Like many Irish playwrights, McPherson’s use of monologues is masterful. But excepting Friel, no Irish playwright better understands the relationship between the monologue, loneliness, and our consequent hunger for stories.
I’m therefore particularly pleased that New York’s justly famed Irish Rep is staging a digital production of The Weir, one of McPherson’s best plays (and my personal favorite). Set in a pub in a remote corner of Ireland, The Weir brings together five lonely people, whose stories invoke and try to exorcise the ghosts that haunt them and will haunt you (I’m still haunted by a mesmerizing Milwaukee Rep production I saw 20 years ago that featured the late Jim Baker, Michael Daly, Jonathan Gillard Daly, Jim Pickering, and Kirsten Potter).
Director Ciarán O’Reilly and three of the actors from the Irish Rep’s acclaimed 2015 production (itself a remount of its equally celebrated 2013 production) will appear in this digital version, which runs from July 21-25. Tickets are free, but reservations are required in advance and donations are encouraged.
4. Scraps (Matrix Theatre Company): Following George Floyd’s murder, L.A.’s Matrix Theatre Company made available a free streaming of its 2019 West Coast premiere production of Geraldine Inoa’s Scraps, which had debuted in New York the previous year to generally positive reviews.
Scraps unfolds in Bed-Stuy several months after the police killed 19-year-old Black athlete Forest Winthrop (recalling the Puritans’ invasion of Massachusetts, the name is no accident, in a play that begins by riffing on The Tempest to remind us that “the past is prologue”). Inoa’s play explores what that killing does to the mother of Forest’s young son, her sister, and two men in these sisters’ lives, both of them Forest’s friends.
Expressly invoking James Joyce’s Dubliners, Inoa similarly uses disparate characters to offer a prismatic view of how environment shapes and warps character; here, that distortion involves race. Inoa not only writes gorgeous poetry and excellent dialogue, but also channels four very distinct voices, each responding to this tragedy in unique ways; the two women are especially textured.
The play goes off the rails (at least for me) when it shifts from the naturalism that dominates its first two-thirds into a nightmarish, surrealistic dreamscape involving Forest’s hitherto unseen son. It feels as though Inoa is trying to cram enough issues into her final 30 minutes for several full-length additional plays. But whatever my reservations about Inoa’s radical shift and the play’s ensuing final section, I love watching any playwright with this much talent make such an attempt; Inoa’s final section occasionally calls to mind some of Suzan-Lori Parks’ more experimental work.
5. Heroes of the Fourth Turning (Play-PerView): At the end of 2019, Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning landed on both Ben Brantley and Jesse Green’s top ten New York Times lists of the year’s best plays. In March, it was featured (and published in full) in American Theatre Magazine. In May, it was named a Pulitzer finalist in drama for this year’s best play. In June of 2021, it’s scheduled to receive its regional premiere at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago.
But you need not wait until then to see top-notch actors performing this “deep dive into the struggling souls of red-state dreamers” (Green) – young Catholic conservatives who make “ideological debate seem as fraught and potentially wounding as a boxing match” (Brantley).
This coming Saturday (July 18), at 7:00 CDT, Heroes will be the second of Play-Per-View’s readings on four successive Saturdays. Helmed by the director of the acclaimed Playwrights Horizons production (rising star Danya Taymor), it features the entire Playwrights Horizons cast: Jeb Kreager (Oslo), Julia McDermott, Michelle Pawk (Tony winner, Hollywood Arms), Zoë Winters (4,000 Miles, Small Mouth Sounds), and John Zdrojeski (Billions). Tickets cost $15 (although donations in higher amounts are encouraged); as of July 7, more than 1,000 people had already registered.
Too much American theater involves stereotyped portraits of religious conservatives, in plays involving liberals preaching to the converted. Conversely, Heroes joins Lucas Hnath’s The Christians in challenging us to think a bit harder about what one character refers to as the “spiritual hunger” of those many Americans whom liberals tend to dismiss. (The Christians, incidentally, is scheduled to receive its long overdue Wisconsin premiere this next season, courtesy of Next Act Theatre).
“This is a play about whiteness and the way it works in a particular pocket of America,” Arbery said in an American Theatre Magazine interview. “In the past few years I’ve made the decision to vivisect my own whiteness,” Arbery continued. “So much these days is overly articulated, especially our polarization and hatred. But clear writing about whiteness, from inside it, is weirdly rare.” And, as George Floyd’s murder drives home, more necessary than ever, if white Americans intend to be effective allies in our collective struggle to build a better future.
References (in order of mention):
* Robert Johnson et al., Sweet Home Chicago (as sung by various Chicago artists):
* Mark Larson, Ensemble: An Oral History of Chicago Theater (Midway, 2019):
* Rob McClure, Kalena Bovell, et al., passing the baton for a Ragtime reunion: https://www.instagram.com/tv/CCbcl4mB5uU/?utm_source=ig_embed
* Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, The Line (Public Theater):
* Anna Deavere Smith, Let Me Down Easy (2009; 2016)
* Peter Shaffer, Amadeus (National Theatre trailer):
* Conor McPherson, The Weir (Irish Rep Reservation):
* Conor McPherson, The Weir (2015 Irish Rep Preview):
* Geraldine Inoa, Scraps (Matrix Theatre Company): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLdXs4A7NBw
* Will Arbery, Heroes of the Fourth Turning (Play-PerView): https://www.play-perview.com/
* Lucas Hnath, The Christians (Overlook Press, 2016)
* Next Act Theatre: https://nextact.org/