Who: Santino Fontana, Arjun Gupta, John Ortiz, Alison Pill, Nicholas Pinnock, Jamey Sheridan, Lorraine Toussaint
What: World premiere livestreamed play
Where: Public Theater website and YouTube channel
When: July 8, 7:30, through August 4, 11:59 pm
Why: On March 3, Coal Country opened at the Public Theater, but it had to close nine days later because of the pandemic lockdown. Written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, directed by Blank, and featuring songs by Steve Earle, the show dealt with the Upper Big Branch mining disaster that killed twenty-nine men in West Virginia in 2010. (On April 5, Earle gave a solo Coal Country Quarantined concert on Facebook Live, including details about the story.) Undeterred, Blank and Jensen have gotten right back to business and are now ready to premiere their next project, The Line, a digital drama directed by Blank based on interviews with first responders and essential health-care workers in New York City’s fight against the novel coronavirus. The impressive cast, performing from wherever they’re sheltering in place, consists of Santino Fontana, Arjun Gupta, John Ortiz, Alison Pill, Nicholas Pinnock, Jamey Sheridan, and Lorraine Toussaint, with original music by Aimee Mann. “In spring 2020, we conducted anonymous interviews with NYC frontline medical workers battling the Covid-19 virus,” Blank and Jensen explained in a statement. “Through these interviews, we began to see care as a radical response to institutionalized violence and the systems that perpetuate it. Created from quarantine in ‘rapid response’ to this national emergency, The Line presents a fundamental redefinition of what it means to protect and serve, examining the fault lines in our system through the words of the brave people who show up every day to care for us all.”
The sixty-minute play debuts on the Public Theater website and YouTube channel on July 8 at 7:30 and can be streamed through August 4 at 11:59 pm. “We owe our lives to the frontline workers who are fighting through the Covid-19 crisis, and they have an astounding story to tell — one that demands we listen,” Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis added. “The pandemic has exposed deep fissures in our country, and these brave women and men are throwing light into those dark places. Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen are masters of the docudrama form, and in The Line they are demonstrating an artistic rapid response that is impressive and vital.” Husband and wife Jensen and Blank previously collaborated on The Exonerated, about wrongly accused men and women on Death Row, and Aftermath, about Iraqi civilian refugees in Jordan; they are indeed masters of the form, so don’t miss The Line, which is being presented for free although donations to the Public will be gladly accepted.
I’ve been writing about New York City arts and culture since May 2001, focusing on events that require people to leave their homes and venture out to museums, theaters, movie houses, restaurants, botanical gardens, clubs, and other venues to experience art, film, dance, plays, music, nature, and other forms of entertainment.
But as of March 12, all of that was shut down. I had anticipated that twi-ny would effectively be shut down as well, but to my surprise and delight many arts institutions, once they realized they would be closed for a long period of time, embraced the situation and began making works they presented over Zoom, Instagram Live, Facebook Live, YouTube, and their own sites. I was initially worried that I would not know what to do with the sudden free time I had — I’m used to going out five or six nights a week, covering whatever is happening in the city — but soon enough I was ridiculously busy watching and writing about the endless stream of productions being made for the internet and, often, about the pandemic itself, exploring ideas of loneliness and confinement and, once the George Floyd protests began, equality, racism, and freedom. It’s been exciting navigating through so much creativity and following how so many individuals and companies are experimenting with online technology in ways that are not only thrilling to watch but beckon toward the future, with the ability to reach a global audience all at the same moment, at the touch of a button.
And so, as we celebrate America’s 244th birthday — one in which we have come to understand that we have a lot of work to do to face a shameful past that continues into the present — and most of us will be partying from wherever we are sheltering in place, it’s also time to celebrate the ingenuity of actors, directors, artists, writers, musicians, composers, dancers, choreographers, journalists, comedians, thinkers, and others who are making this crisis so much more bearable than it could have been.
Below are the first of hopefully only two This Week in New York Pandemic Awards, honoring the best in live programming that took place between March 13 and June 30. The only rule is that there has to be a live facet to it — either occurring at that minute and/or with an interactive element such as a live Q&A or live chatting. Depending on how the reopening goes and with many arts venues unlikely to start having in-person audiences until 2021, we will be back in December for what we fervently hope will be the second and last Pandemic Awards.
BEST NEW PLAY
Arlekin Players Theatre, State vs. Natasha Benin, based on Natasha’s Dream by Yaroslava Pulinovich, translated by John Freedman, directed by Igor Golyak, performed by Darya Denisova. Filming live from their bedroom, married couple Igor Golyak and Darya Denisova collaborate with an inventive team to come up with an ingenious participatory experience that has been extended through July 12 (free).
The Public Theater, What Do We Need to Talk About? Conversations on Zoom, written by Richard Nelson, with Jay O. Sanders, Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy, Laila Robins, and Stephen Kunken. Richard Nelson adds an unexpected chapter to his Apple Family Plays as Richard, Barbara, Marian, Tim, and Jane gather together on Zoom to take stock of their lives once again in this poignant, moving work that closed June 28. But you can catch up on the clan again in Nelson’s follow-up, And So We Come Forth — The Apple Family: A Dinner on Zoom, which continues on YouTube through August 26.
BEST SHORT PLAY SERIES
The Homebound Project. Benefiting No Kid Hungry, each iteration of the Homebound Project consists of ten short pandemic-related solo tales by an all-star team of writers (Michael R. Jackson, Sarah Ruhl, C. A. Johnson, Sarah DeLappe, Qui Nguyen, Anne Washburn, Samuel D. Hunter, Bess Wohl, John Guare, Clare Barron), directors (Steven Pasquale, Leigh Silverman, Jerry Zaks, Trip Cullman, Danya Taymor), and performers (Amanda Seyfried, Daveed Diggs, Diane Lane, Blair Underwood, Phillipa Soo, Zachary Quinto, Mary-Louise Parker, William Jackson Harper, Jessica Hecht, Marin Ireland), streamed for a limited time; the fourth edition is scheduled for July 15-19 (minimum donation $10).
The 24 Hour Plays. These Viral Monologues are divided into thematic groupings called rounds that comprise intimate solo plays between four and fifteen minutes in length, with Tony Shalhoub, Marin Ireland, Daveed Diggs, Ashley Park, Santino Fontana, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Jake Gyllenhaal, Cynthia Nixon, David Hyde-Pierce, Maddie Corman, Michael Cerveris, Elizabeth Marvel, Brandon J. Dirden, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Ethan Hawke, and others in works by Lynn Nottage, Kristoffer Diaz, Donald Margulies, Lydia Diamond, David Lindsay-Abaire, Preston Max Allen, Jonathan Marc Sherman, and more, each iteration benefiting a different charity based on that round’s topic (free).
BEST PERFORMANCE IN A SHORT PLAY
Diane Lane, Let’s Save the World, written by Michael R. Jackson, The Homebound Project. Academy Award nominee Diane Lane is luminescent in Pulitzer Prize winner Michael R. Jackson’s bright, shiny tale about angels and hope.
André De Shields, “A Father’s Sorrow,” written by Shaka Senghor, The 24 Hour Plays. Tony winner De Shields is a force in Shaka Senghor’s “A Father’s Sorrow,” playing Elder Qualls, a priest whose son has been incarcerated.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY A HUSBAND-AND-WIFE TEAM
Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody, Twitter, directed by Gideon Grody-Patinkin. Nearly every day, Gideon Grody-Patinkin takes out his smartphone and records his parents, actors Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody, as they have breakfast, experience computer problems, discuss TikTok, and just live life during a pandemic; this is about as real as it gets, and it’s funny as hell.
Tony Shalhoub and Brooke Adams, Happy Days, written by Samuel Beckett, Plays in the House, part of Stars in the House, hosted by indefatigable pandemic MVPs Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley. After beating their coronavirus infections, Tony Shalhoub and Brooke Adams, who have been married since 1992, revisited Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, which they toured with in 2015, performing it live from their bedroom for Stars in the House, with proceeds benefiting the Actors Fund.
BEST PERSONAL STORY TOLD BY A PLAYWRIGHT
Lynn Nottage, “Pilgrims,” TrickleUP NYC Artists Network. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage shared a remarkable true story about a tree in her backyard for TrickleUP, a grassroots subscription video platform (minimum donation $10/month) with short performances by a wide range of talent including Suzan-Lori Parks, Taylor Mac, Kathleen Chalfant, Lucas Hnath, Jane Houdyshell, Tonya Pinkins, Jefferson Mays, Rachel Chavkin, Miguel Gutierrez, Paula Vogel, Faye Driscoll, Thomas Jay Ryan, Dominique Morisseau, Basil Twist, Latanya Richardson Jackson, Alan Cumming, and many more, benefiting artists affected by the Covid-19 cancellations.
BEST REUNION READING
LAByrinth Theater Company, Our Lady of 121st Street, A LAByrinth Virtual Reading and Benefit, written by Stephen Adly Guirgis, with Elizabeth Canavan, Liza Colón-Zayas, Scott Hudson, Russell G. Jones, Portia, Al Roffe, Felix Solis, David Zayas, Bobby Cannavale, John Doman, Laurence Fishburne, Dierdre Friel, David Deblinger, and Elizabeth Rodriguez. The LAByrinth Theater Company gave a blistering Zoom reading of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s 2002 play about a group of people gathering for the funeral of a murdered nun whose corpse has gone missing; the acting, led by David Zayas and Bobby Cannavale, was the best I’ve seen online during this crisis.
BEST ZOOM SHAKESPEARE NOT IN THE PARK
Theater of War, The Oedipus Project, with Frances McDormand, John Turturro, Oscar Isaac, Jeffrey Wright, Frankie Faison, David Strathairn, Glenn Davis, Marjolaine Goldsmith, and Jumaane Williams, translated and directed by Bryan Doerries. Theater of War, which specializes in presenting ancient Greek and modern plays and examining them through a razor-sharp sociocultural lens, put on a stunning Zoom reading of several scenes from Sophocles’s Oedipus the King, followed by a community discussion about elder care, relating the play to what is happening in nursing homes during the pandemic; Oscar Isaac as the doomed ruler tore the house down with an unforgettable finale.
BEST ZOOM NOT-SHAKESPEARE NOT IN THE PARK
Molière in the Park, Tartuffe, directed by Lucie Tiberghien, with Raúl E. Esparza, Samira Wiley, Kaliswa Brewster, Toccarra Cash, Chris Henry Coffey, Naomi Lorrain, Jared McNeill, Jennifer Mudge, Rosemary Prinz, and Carter Redwood. Molière in the Park founding artistic director Lucie Tiberghien and cofounding producer Garth Belcon usually stage works by Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, aka Molière, in Prospect Park, but this summer season they have gone virtual, staging an exciting adaptation of Tartuffe on Zoom; the fab production design by Kris Stone makes it look as if the performance is taking place on the gorgeous estate of Orgon, one of the main characters. The cast features Raúl E. Esparza as the villainous scoundrel Tartuffe and Samira Wiley as Orgon (free; extended through July 12 on YouTube).
BONUS: BEST ZOOM BUM
Raúl E. Esparza, Tartuffe, Molière in the Park. Four-time Tony nominee Raúl E. Esparza shocked and excited the audience when he dropped trou during the first performance, setting the chat board on fire with squeals of delight from fans all over the world at the sight of his bare bottom.
BEST INTRODUCTION TO A PLAY
Simon McBurney, The Encounter. From May 15 to 22, St. Ann’s Warehouse streamed a recording of The Encounter, a primarily one-man play about human contact that uses sound in extraordinary ways, from his London-based Complicité company. McBurney stretches the bounds of what we think we see and hear in his spectacularly inventive lockdown-related introduction, toying with technology like a master magician with a fantastic, childlike sense of humor and wonder.
BEST THEATER INTERVIEW SERIES
Red Bull Theater Company, RemarkaBULL Podversations. Red Bull has been busy during the coronavirus crisis, presenting reunion readings of such previous productions as Coriolanus and The Government Inspector as well as talks with actors about specific speeches from the theatrical canon, what they call “RemarkaBULL Podversations,” including Elizabeth Marvel discussing and delivering the “Cry Havoc” speech from Julius Caesar, Michael Urie exploring the “Queen Mab” monologue from Romeo & Juliet, and Chukwudi Iwuji digging deep into the “Homely Swain” soliloquy from Henry VI.
BEST AWARDS SHOW
Broadway Black, The Antonyo Awards, directed by Zhailon Levingston. The inaugural Antonyo Awards was an eye-opening experience as the best in Black theater was celebrated in ways that the Tonys and others would never be able to; it was all the more powerful given that it took place on Juneteenth as the country was reaching critical mass over the George Floyd protests and the Covid-19 pandemic.
BEST LIVE OUTDOOR CONCERT
Dropkick Murphys: Streaming Outta Fenway, with special appearance by Bruce Springsteen. Boston’s Dropkick Murphys took over an empty Fenway Park with a ferocious two-hour live set that had me dancing like a madman in my home office. It reached a nearly impossible crescendo when Bruce Springsteen joined in from his New Jersey farm. The benefit for Feeding America, Habitat for Humanity Greater Boston, and the Boston Resiliency Fund can still be seen here; be sure to crank it up to eleven.
Hello from FitzGerald’s: @StayAtHomeConcert caravan with Jon Langford. British troubadour Jon Langford, of the Mekons, the Waco Brothers, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, the Skull Orchard, and Wee Hairy Beasties, traveled through the streets of suburban Chicago regaling the neighborhood with jaunty songs delivered on the back of music club FitzGerald’s white truck, his saucy humor and lovely acoustic songs as intoxicating as ever.
BEST SOLO A CAPELLA PERFORMANCE
Brian Stokes Mitchell, “The Impossible Dream.” One of the most inspiring moments of the pandemic occurred nightly after the 7:00 clap as Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell, trying to regain his voice following a difficult battle with Covid-19, stuck his head out his West Side apartment window and crooned “The Impossible Dream,” changing a few words to honor the essential health-care workers who helped him and who continue to lead the fight against the virus despite the inherent risks. Mitchell had to stop doing it when the crowds reached unsustainable levels, making social distancing itself impossible.
BEST FACEBOOK LIVE CONCERT SERIES
Richard Thompson, couch concerts with Zara Phillips. Every few weeks, British musician Richard Thompson, one of the world’s great guitarists and songwriters, takes a seat in his Montclair, New Jersey, living room and performs tunes from throughout his fifty-plus-year career, joined by his partner, singer-songwriter and adoption activist Zara Phillips. Being able to see Thompson’s guitar playing thisclose is worth the price of admission — it’s free, but donations are accepted for the Community FoodBank of NJ — and his wry quips, delivered with a devilish smile, are a joy in these hard times. Thompson will be performing his brand-new pandemic EP, Bloody Noses, in its entirety on July 5 at 4:00; he is also thrilled to finally have a live gig, backing Phillips at a free July 15 outdoor show in Woodbridge.
Chick Corea, Piano Improvisation. Legendary jazz pianist Chick Corea, who turned seventy-nine last month, has been performing gorgeous piano improvisations on Facebook Live, a necessary respite on that platform from arguing politics with high school classmates you haven’t seen in years.
BEST INSTAGRAM MUSIC BATTLES
Swizz Beatz, Verzuz. Hip-hop producer Swizz Beatz is on a mission to support and celebrate living artists during this pandemic, and he is doing so by hosting a series of online battles between Alicia Keys and John Legend, Kirk Franklin and Fred Hammond, Bounty Killer and Beanie Man, Nelly and Ludacris, Erykah Badu and Jill Scott, and Babyface and Teddy Riley.
BEST INSTAGRAM DANCE SHOW
D-Nice, Club Quarantine. Harlem-born D-Nice was the first deejay to get the internet cooking once everything shut down, getting people up and grooving to his live Club Quarantine parties on Instagram.
BEST ZOOM MUSIC VIDEO OF AN OLD SONG
“Raise You Up,” Kinky Boots International Pride Cast Reunion, with Billy Porter, Stark Sands, Annaleigh Ashford, Wayne Brady, Harvey Fierstein, Cyndi Lauper, and more. Reunion videos are hot, but none captured the heat like this Pride anthem from Kinky Boots, performed by an all-star cast.
Modern English, “I Melt with You.” British band Modern English resuscitated its 1982 smash hit with a quarantine edition that is melting the internet, with leader Robbie Grey impressing not only with his vocals but his lockdown look.
BEST SOLO DANCE PERFORMANCE
Jamar Roberts, Cooped, WPA Virtual Commission, choreographed by Jamar Roberts. Longtime Ailey dancer Jamar Roberts’s Cooped is the most explosive five minutes to come out of the arts world during the pandemic; with fierce determination, Roberts investigates solitude, confinement, and the black body, set to a searing score by David Watson on bagpipes and Tony Buck on drums.
Sara Mearns, Storm, WPA Virtual Commission, choreographed by Joshua Bergasse. NYCB principal dancer Sara Mearns glides across her New York City apartment, stopping by the window to assess the world outside, in this sensitive, reaffirming work choreographed by her husband, Joshua Bergasse, and set to Margo Seibert’s rendition of pianist Zoe Sarnak’s “The Storm Will Pass Soon Now.”
Jaqlin Medlock, #GIMMESHELTER, Stephen Petronio Company. Native New Yorker Jaqlin Medlock dazzled in Stephen Petronio’s work choreographed over Zoom for the company’s gala fundraiser, performing breathtaking movement in her apartment.
BEST ZOOM DANCE
Martha Graham Dance Company, Immediate Tragedy, Martha Matinees, choreographed by Janet Eilber. Martha Graham Dance Company has been presenting classic archival footage in its Martha Matinees series, but for Immediate Tragedy, artistic director Janet Eilber reimagined Graham’s lost 1937 solo for a company of dancers over Zoom, moving around the individual Zoom boxes like a thrilling game of Tetris; just magnificent.
STREB, Body Grammar, choreographed by Elizabeth Streb. Elizabeth Streb’s Action Heroes, who combine acrobatics, athletics, and dance on unique apparatuses in jaw-dropping ways, focuses in on the performers’ heads, hands, feet, arms, legs, and torsos in an experimental work that would make Bruce Nauman proud.
BEST TELEPHONE OPERA
On Site Opera, To My Distant Beloved, Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, music by Ludwig van Beethoven, song text by Alois Isidor Jeitteles, additional English dialogue by Monet Hurst-Mendoza, directed by Eric Einhorn, with soprano Jennifer Zetlan and pianist David Shimoni or baritone Mario Diaz-Moresco and pianist Spencer Myer. On Site Opera was in a bind during the pandemic, as the New York City–based company specializes in site-specific productions in unique locations. But it has come up with a splendid alternative, a twenty-minute performance adapted from Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, delivered over the phone for one listener at a time. To enhance the romantic tale of longing, each listener receives emailed love letters prior to either a soprano or baritone calling you up and singing just for you, with interactive dialogue as well. You don’t have to know anything about opera to fall in love with this experience, one of the best — and most unusual — of the pandemic, and even better now that it’s been extended through August 9 ($40).
BEST INTERVIEW SERIES
92nd Street Y, 92Y Online. The 92nd Street Y has always featured a great lineup of guests from across the artistic, sociocultural, culinary, and geopolitical spectrum, and it’s been no different during the coronavirus crisis, with its doors on the Upper East Side closed for the near future. But that hasn’t stopped the Y from presenting live, online talks about just about any topic imaginable, with celebrities galore and hot-button issues. Many of the events are free, but you have to pay for some of the archived discussions. Our favorite is a free one with Pamela Adlon chatting with her friend Mario Cantone, a wild and woolly conversation that never lets up.
Ken Davenport, The Producer’s Perspective. Theater producer Ken Davenport has been one of the busiest guys during the lockdown, speaking with dozens of theater stalwarts about the state of the industry and what they’re doing during the crisis. Among his sixty guests have been Alan Cumming, Kate Rockwell, David Henry-Hwang, Jason Alexander, Marilu Henner, Kenny Leon, Jenn Colella, Santino Fontana, Ashley Park, Dominque Morisseau, and Kerry Butler, with Steven Pasquale, Danny Burstein, and Raúl E. Esparza coming up.
BEST FILM & TELEVISION REUNION SERIES
Josh Gad, “Reunited Apart.” Cuddly, lovable Josh Gad lets his fan-geek show by bringing back the casts of classic films from the 1980s and ’90s, and you might be shocked to see that just about everyone participates from wherever they are sheltering in place. So far he has brought together the cast and crew of Ghostbusters, The Goonies, The Lord of the Rings, Splash, Back to the Future, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, all of which can be watched for free on YouTube, with donations accepted for specific charities.
BEST ART TALKS
The Frick Collection, “Cocktails with a Curator,” with Xavier F. Salomon. Frick chief curator Xavier F. Salomon has become an internet sensation, hosting “Cocktails with a Curator” every Friday at 5:00, exploring in depth a work from the Frick Collection, relating it to the current crisis, and selecting a cocktail to accompany the fifteen-minute talk. His warm, genteel, engaging demeanor, vast historical knowledge, and love of highballs are just the recipe for an art-starved public. You can also catch him on Wednesdays going around the world in “Travels with a Curator.”
“Art at a Time Like This,” curated by Barbara Pollack and Anne Verhallen. Curators Barbara Pollack and Anne Verhallen have been asking the question, “How can we think of art at a time like this?” since March 17, when they began exploring existing and/or new work by one specific artist a day, Monday through Friday, putting it in context of the Covid-19 crisis and, later, the George Floyd protests. Among the impressive list of participants are Ai Weiwei, Chitra Ganesh, William Kentridge, Petah Coyne, Dread Scott, Laurie Simmons, Mel Chin, Alfredo Jaar, and Mary Lucier. Pollack and Verhallen have also hosted weekly live, interactive Zoom discussions with many of the artists, examining fascinating aspects of the intersection of art and politics. Of course, their basic question focuses on painting, sculpture, video, and installation art, but it also relates to dance, music, theater, literature, film, television, and more. How can we think of any of this at a time like this? All of the above awardees, and everyone else who is creating art during a time like this, should be justly celebrated, not only for entertaining and educating us, but for shining a light on what the world may be like on the other side of this.
Who: Amber Iman, Danielle Brooks, Alia Jones-Harvey, Audra McDonald, Lillias White, Pilin Anice, Jamila Souffrant, Rashad V. Chambers, Lelund Durond, DJ Cocoa
What: All-day virtual conference presented by Black Women on Broadway
Where: Online (information given after registration)
When: Monday, June 29, free with advance RSVP, noon - 10:00 pm
Why: On June 19, I watched the inaugural Antonyo Awards, and it was an eye-opening experience. Sponsored by Broadway Black, the evening celebrated the best of the Black theater community, from actors, writers, and directors to composers, designers, and special honorees. I’ve seen a lot of awards shows, but never one quite like this one, which was by, about, and for the Black community. The presenters and winners made speeches that they probably couldn’t do at the Tonys, the Obies, or the Drama Desk Awards; accepting his Lifetime Achievement Award, Chuck Cooper said, “I am honored, and more than a bit surprised, by this. At this point in my life, it feels like my major achievement was to survive long enough to reach this age being a Black man in America.”
On June 29, Black Women on Broadway, an organization founded by Amber Iman, Jocelyn Bioh, and Danielle Brooks, is hosting the all-day virtual conference “Black Women in Theatre Appreciation Day,” consisting of more than ten hours of panel discussions, interviews, and a closing dance party, chosen through a poll of thirty artists who were asked, “What do you need?” The lineup features “Meditation & Movement” with Pilin Anice at noon, “Money Talks!” with Jamila Souffrant at 1:15, “Producing” with Alia Jones-Harvey and Rashad V. Chambers at 2:30, “Mastering the Art of the Self-Tape” with Lelund Durond at 3:45, “Girl Talk on Zoom” with Amber Iman at 5:00, “The Main Event” with Lillias White and Audra McDonald at 6:30, and “Ladies Night: Let’s Dance!” with DJ Cocoa at 8:00, with Brooks serving as conference moderator.
Who: Chukwudi Iwuji, Nathan Winkelstein
What: Live discussion of the title character, “a homely swain,” of Henry VI
Where: Red Bull Theater’s website, Vimeo, Facebook Live
When: Monday, June 29, free, 7:30
Why: Red Bull Theater’s RemarkaBULL Podversations streaming series continues June 29 with Shakespearean star and Olivier winner Chukwudi Iwuji discussing Henry VI with Red Bull associate producer Nathan Winkelstein; Iwuji will also perform a passage that includes: “Would I were dead! if God's good will were so; / For what is in this world but grief and woe? / O God! methinks it were a happy life, / To be no better than a homely swain; / To sit upon a hill, as I do now, / To carve out dials quaintly, point by point, / Thereby to see the minutes how they run, / How many make the hour full complete; / How many hours bring about the day; / How many days will finish up the year; / How many years a mortal man may live.” The Nigerian-born British thespian portrayed Henry VI in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s three-part production in 2006-8; on these shores he has played Edgar in King Lear and the title character in Othello for Shakespeare in the Park, Hamlet for the Public Theater Mobile Unit, and the Duke of Birmingham in Richard III at BAM while also winning an Obie for Bruce Norris’s The Low Road. You should also check out Iwuji’s Brave New Shakespeare Challenge performance of the balcony scene from Romeo & Juliet, delivered from his home in Harlem. Future RemarkaBULL Podversations feature the “I am I” speech from Richard III with Matthew Rauch on July 6 and the “All the World’s a Stage” soliloquy from As You Like It with Stephen Spinella on July 13.
Who: Molière in the Park theater company
What: Livestreamed performances and Q&As
Where: FIAF Facebook and Molière in the Park YouTube
When: Saturday, June 27, free with RSVP, 2:00 & 7:00 (show will be available for viewing through July 1 at 2:00)
Why: Molière in the Park follows up its virtual staging of two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Wilbur’s English-language translation of Molière’s The Misanthrope with another seminal work by the French playwright, also translated by Wilbur. On June 27 at 2:00 and 7:00, the Prospect Park-based troupe, in conjunction with the French Institute Alliance Française, will present Molière’s 1664 favorite, Tartuffe, known in French as Le Tartuffe; ou, l’imposteur. The story of a beguiling scoundrel who charms some and infuriates others will be performed by an outstanding cast, featuring Raúl E. Esparza as Tartuffe and Samira Wiley as Oronte, joined by Kaliswa Brewster, Toccarra Cash, Chris Henry Coffey, Naomi Lorrain, Jared McNeill, Jennifer Mudge, Rosemary Prinz, and Carter Redwood. The piece is directed by company founder Lucie Tiberghien, with production design by Kris Stone, video programming by Andy Carluccio, sound and music by Paul Pinto, and animation by Emily Rawson and Jonathan Kokotajlo, as Molière in the Park pushes the envelope in its use of online technology.
“We are disturbed and appalled by the corrosive and dangerously divisive nature of religious double standards and the questionable moral righteousness we are currently witnessing,” Tiberghien and producer Garth Belcon said in a statement. “Turning to Tartuffe with this company of actors and creative team has been healing. Our goal is to reinforce the power of faith, love, and respect for every human life, versus religious posturing for economic or political gain.” Admission to the ninety-minute comedy is free, but advance RSVP is required; donations are gladly accepted. The livestreamed show, which will be available with English or French closed captions, will be followed by a Q&A with members of the company; if you miss either of the live productions, a recording will be available for viewing through July 1.
One of the hallmarks of summer in New York City is the plethora of free outdoor theater, from the Public’s star-studded Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte to such troupes as Smith Street Stage, Hudson Warehouse, Moose Hall Theatre Company, Hip to Hip, the Classical Theatre of Harlem, Manhattan Shakespeare Project, Seven Stages Shakespeare Company, Gorilla Rep, the Boomerang Theatre Company, Molière in the Park, Piper Theatre Productions, the Drilling Company, and more putting on shows in such locales as Morningside Park, Carroll Park, Riverside Park, Inwood Hill Park, Gantry State Plaza Park, Marcus Garvey Park, Bryant Park, Socrates Sculpture Park, the Old Stone House, and even in a Lower East Side parking lot. Since 2000, NY Classical, under the leadership of founding artistic director Stephen Burdman, has presented more than seven hundred site-specific immersive performances of works by the Bard as well as Chekhov’s The Seagull, Molière’s The School for Husbands, Schiller’s Mary Stuart, and Shaw’s Misalliance, among others, in Central Park, Prospect Park, Rockefeller Park, Battery Park, Carl Schurz Park, Teardrop Park, and at the World Financial Center.
All productions have been shut down this summer because of the coronavirus crisis; parks are open, but crowds are limited to just ten in phase two and only twenty-five when we reach phase three. A California native who lives in New York City with his wife and son, Burdman had been preparing a dual look at King Lear this season, staging on alternate nights Shakespeare’s original, familiar version, which he might have written while in lockdown during a plague, and Nahum Tate’s 1681 “happy ending” adaptation, which was popular for about 150 years and is now seldom performed. On June 25 at 8:00, NY Classical will go virtual with a live, rehearsed Zoom reading incorporating both iterations, a streamlined two-hour show featuring Connie Castanzo, Vivia Font, Josh Jeffers, John Michalski, Jamila Sabares-Klemm, Nick Salamone, and Luke Zimmerman from wherever they are sheltering in place. Directed and adapted by Burdman, the reading is a benefit fundraiser for the company; admission is free, but if you can, you’re asked to make a suggested donation of thirty dollars per person. The money will help fund the full, alternating productions of King Lear planned for the fall. Burdman took a break from online rehearsals to discuss King Lear, Panoramic Theatre, and being a husband and father during a pandemic.
twi-ny: You’ve been sheltering in place with your wife and son. How has that been?
stephen burdman: It’s actually been easier than I expected. The three of us make a pretty good team — and we really travel well together. Fortunately, my wife’s work (which is mostly on conference calls around the world) didn’t change that much and our son adapted to Zoom learning really quickly. His school, the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, did an outstanding job of adapting to this extremely challenging environment while providing great support to the students.
One thing to note is that our managing director, Hillary Cohen, lost both of her parents to Covid-19 in early April. This has been extremely difficult and as a company we have been in mourning. We have decided to close our administrative office on August 10, which would have been her parents’ fifty-first wedding anniversary, as a day of mourning for them and the thousands of other lives lost to Covid-19.
twi-ny: That’s both sad and deeply affecting. When did you decide to do a Zoom benefit reading, and why did you choose King Lear?
sb: King Lear, with alternating endings (both Shakespeare’s and Tate’s), was always our plan for our 2020 summer season. This is the culmination of a three-year project of investigating how Shakespeare’s company toured their shows outside London. In the time of plague, theaters were closed in Elizabethan London, and while we never expected to have a pandemic of our own. . . . We also had great success with both our six-actor Romeo and Juliet as well as the alternating versions of The Importance of Being Earnest, so this project was a combination of these recent experiments.
We auditioned and hired the actors and staff prior to New York State on Pause, and we wanted to make sure to keep our commitments to these wonderful people. In addition to a union salary, they are receiving pension and healthcare. This is an opportunity for us to develop the production with these artists and serve our audience community in the safest way possible.
twi-ny: How have you been able to maintain that?
sb: The core of our mission is that all our programs are free and open to the public. We never want ticket price to be a barrier to accessing our performances, so we have always depended on financially secure audience members paying for their experience and their less fortunate neighbors’ families. In that sense, we are able to maintain because we have a community-oriented “business model.” We play for everybody across the city’s economic spectrum, and those who can support us do.
twi-ny: I’m used to walking through Central Park and suddenly coming upon NY Classical rehearsing out in the open. What was the rehearsal process like for this reading? Have you been watching other livestreamed shows during the pandemic lockdown, either for pure entertainment or research?
sb: Zoom rehearsal has been really interesting. The Zoom format has its strengths and challenges. While I did watch a few other readings and did some best-practice research, I wanted to make sure that we approach this work in line with our signature technique — which is called Panoramic Theatre. We feel it is important that when our audience sees a Zoom reading and then a full production of the same script, there is no disconnect between the two. One should be a natural extension of the other.
Some elements of Panoramic Theatre staging immediately transfer. Our blocking style ensures that, when a character is speaking, they are facing toward the audience. In the parks, this helps the actors’ voices comfortably and sustainably reach as large an area as possible. On Zoom, they are also facing toward the audience, in order to better connect on an emotional level.
twi-ny: What are your thoughts about what theater will be like in New York City on the other side of this? Has the pandemic changed any of your views about how theater is made and/or performed for audiences?
sb: Honestly, I don’t think professional theater will be able to return to prepandemic levels for two to three years. I have many family and friends who live outside New York and they are feeling very wary of visiting the city right now. As I recently said to a major supporter of the company, “When are you going to feel comfortable sitting in a small, dark space with lots of people again?” Theaters that work outdoors, like NY Classical, will most likely produce sooner than most and we are still hoping to produce King Lear as a full production later this year. However, outdoor theaters that rely on bleacher-style seating will have to substantially reduce their attendance expectations.
twi-ny: You’ve been vocal on social media about the Black Lives Matter movement. What are some of the things that NY Classical is doing to address systemic racism?
sb: One of the founding artists and board members of NY Classical — and my best friend — was Black. Don Mayo was a consummate and extremely versatile actor who appeared in everything from August Wilson to Shakespeare, Broadway to regional theater, and was very committed to NY Classical. When he died nearly twelve years ago, we created the Don Mayo Fund for Classical Actors of Color. Since NY Classical started, we have employed many BIPOC artists as significant collaborators on our productions, but we recognize we need to do more.
NY Classical’s staff completed an intensive Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training program. It really helped us more deeply understand how our non-Black company members have benefited from systemic racism. Now we are actively implementing changes and reimagining our company culture to fully reflect our anti-racist values. It means considering our unconscious biases, checking our areas of privilege, and consistently partnering as equals with more historically underrepresented teammates — casts, directors, designers and technicians, administrators, and board leadership — in producing classical theater.
twi-ny: When you’re not creating or watching theater, what are you doing with your time during these crises? What are some of your other obsessions?
sb: So, in addition to a deep reworking of King Lear, I have spent lots of time with my wife and son, doing projects around the house, reading (I am an avid reader and just finished War and Peace — my final book in a years-long project to read every major Russian classic), and watching a few television series. Right now, my son and I are (re)watching the entire Star Trek (TNG) series.
twi-ny: We recently finished the new Star Trek shows, Discovery and Picard. It looks like your family had a fun virtual Seder. It now seems like Jews will not be able to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in schul. Hopefully we’ll be back in temple by the time of your son’s Bar Mitzvah next spring. How has your family been dealing with that?
sb: Thanks! We had a blast! It was super nice to have family and friends from Los Angeles (my hometown) join us for Seder. As for the High Holidays, I’ve honestly been in a bit of denial. After this reading of King Lear is over, we will begin to consider some options. As for my son, who recently turned twelve and attends a Jewish school, a number of his classmates have postponed their b’nei mitzvahs into 2021. Right now, my wife is teaching him to chant his Torah portion and Haftorah. His grandmother (Bubbie, my wife’s mother) is a Jewish educator and spends time with him every week to study his portion and, ultimately, help craft his Bar Mitzvah speech. We’re very lucky this way, as his uncle (who co-officiated with my late father-in-law at our wedding) will also officiate at his service next spring.
Who: Arlekin Players Theatre
What: Live Zoom interactive theater art experiment
Where: Cherry Orchard Festival Zoom
When: Sunday, June 21, 28, July 5, 10, 12 free with RSVP, 8:00
Why: I’ve watched dozens of livestreamed presentations during the pandemic lockdown, from dance, theater, and music to literature, art, and political discussions. Among the standouts have been Richard Nelson’s made-for-Zoom What Do We Need to Talk About? for the Public Theater, a continuation of the Apple Family Plays; Martha Graham Dance Company’s reimagining of the lost 1937 solo Immediate Tragedy, comprising prerecorded movement from sixteen dancers, the Zoom boxes manipulated in breathtakingly inventive ways; On Site Opera’s To My Distant Beloved, in which a singer and pianist perform Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte over the phone for one person at a time, complete with emailed love letters about loneliness and isolation; and the Dropkick Murphys’ “Streaming Outta Fenway,” a furious live concert held in an empty Fenway Park, where they were joined onscreen by Bruce Springsteen from his home in New Jersey.
But the future of online productions might be best represented so far by Arlekin Players Theatre’s State vs. Natasha Banina, an online adaptation of the Boston troupe’s version of Yaroslava Pulinovich’s Natasha’s Dream, a solo work the company put on at the New Rep Theatre in February 2017. Part of the annual Cherry Orchard Festival, which focuses on Russian arts, State vs. Natasha Banina gets right in your face, literally and figuratively. The forty-five-minute drama features Darya Denisova as Natasha Banina, a young woman locked away in a claustrophobic white room, having been accused of a terrible crime. She speaks directly to the audience, which serves as a jury, as she describes what led her to commit the heinous act.
“See, that’s all a bunch of crap that they’re saying. None of that shit happened. Huh? You wanna hear what I did? Anything else you want?” she declares at the start. She draws on the walls, interacts with animation (from hearts to a spaceman), calls out the names of some of the audience members, and plays with her hair. It’s a sordid and gripping tale of obsession and mental illness, and Denisova gets deep under your skin with an edgy, brave performance boldly crafted for the internet. Director Igor Golyak, who is married to Denisova, shoots the live show from their bedroom, with choreography by Viktor Plotnikov, video by Anton Iakhontov, and music by Vadim Khrapatchev, all of which come together seamlessly. I can’t imagine that the award-winning 2019 stage version was more powerful.
The audience is asked to fill out a survey in the beginning, then render its verdict at the end. The play is followed by a Zoom Q&A in which Golyak and Denisova lay bare their fascinating process, eager to hear what we have to say about the various techniques and what the overall experience was like. Golyak has noted that State vs. Natasha Banina is “a new art form to overcome social distancing, the pandemic, and ultimately unite people in one virtual space by merging theater, cinematography, and video games.” He has also indicated that it’s not limited to the coronavirus crisis, that this presents a unique opportunity to explore the future of theater itself. There are only two performances left, on June 21 and 28 at 8:00; tickets are free, but donations will be accepted to support the Actors Fund’s Covid-19 Emergency Relief Fund. [Ed. note: The run has been extended with additional shows on July 5, 10, and 12.]