I'm compiling this list of online theater options on World Theatre Day, which feels more than a little ironic. Theaters all over the world are now shut down for the foreseeable future in light of the COVID-19 disaster.
Removing the liveness from live theater and putting it on the flat screen can be a tricky proposition. But from PBS's venerable Great Performances series to a number of small local companies who are putting together original content in quarantine, you can still enjoy theater without leaving your house. (And particularly in the case of the small scrappy locals, consider tossing them a donation in return for their creative largesse.) This is a partial list of some of the options available. We'll be updating our streaming events listings throughout the shutdown. If we've missed one of your favorites, let us know!
LOCAL, LOCAL, LOCAL
The Infinite Wrench Goes ViralTrust the Neo-Futurists to find a way to keep delivering their weekly allotment of "30 plays in 60 minutes," pandemic or no pandemic. Their signature show is now available to donors through Patreon, with the lineup changing weekly. The challenge of creating short plays in isolation is one the Neos meet head-on here by using small-scale props to create video performance art, along with carefully edited videos of the cast speaking to each other from their remote locations that do an admirable job of capturing the camaraderie of the live ensemble.
An intro from artistic director Kirsten Riiber, filmed in the Neos' empty theater, urges you to set your own timer to capture the feel of the live show. But if you decide, as I did, to go past the 60 minutes to watch all the pieces? Well, as Riiber says, "Fuck it. We are in uncertain hellish times and you can watch all the plays you want."
You can either choose the order yourself from a menu of links, or let a shuffle option do it for you. The lineup when I watched included whimsical interludes, like Leah Urzendowski's For Immediate Press Release, in which she steps out on her porch to excitedly yell to the empty street "Maury Povich is still on!"—the kind of mundane observation that takes on near-revelatory meaning when you're in the throes of cabin fever.
Perhaps my favorite was Dan Kerr-Hobert's Less, The Fish, a sweet tale of a man trying to get his goldfish (who lacks a tail) home on a plane right after 9/11 and finding that people were far more supportive of this attempt than he imagined. The story unfolds through a series of cartoon storyboards with voiceover, and without referencing our current calamity, it suggests the small ways we find to help each other out in crisis. But it's the Neos, so you can tune in each week and find something different as long as this shit goes on. neofuturists.org.
Theater Wit filmed their last show, which had to shut down prematurely, in front of a live audience, and you can see that audience in this streaming version of Mike Lew's story about a teenage boy with cerebral palsy whose thirst for power and vengeance mirrors Shakespeare's Richard III. (Thank god petty and vengeful leaders aren't in charge now, right?) It's ticketed and available only at the times the live performances would have been happening, and there are online postshow discussions open to the audience afterward. Through 5/3 at theaterwit.org, $28.
Berwyn's 16th Street Theater also goes with the ticketed streaming option for Steven Strafford's brutally honest and frequently hilarious solo show (filmed at Steppenwolf's LookOut series last year) about his three-year bout with meth addiction. Postshow discussions with Strafford via Zoom follow the Thursday and Friday evening performances. Through 4/4 at 16thstreetheater.org, $12.
Because what could be better to watch right now than a five-and-a-half-hour dystopian noir epic? Goodman Theatre offers a free streaming version of their 2016 production, adapted and directed by Seth Bockley and Robert Falls from Roberto Bolaño's novel about disappeared women, boxing, academics, and a whole lot more. goodmantheatre.org.
If you're missing the chance to wander through Chicago's neighborhoods and celebrate the diversity of the people and the food, Albany Park Theater Project is here to help with a free streaming version of this ensemble-created show, available any time through Vimeo. aptpchicago.org.
Dedicated to sci-fi and fantasy, Otherworld offers a menu of online options—some free, some available through donations—on YouTube and Patreon, from free weekly installments of Improvised Dungeons & Dragons (created with Out on a Whim) to Stupid Shakespeare's take on Pericles, PickleRickicles, which had to end its run early due to the COVID-19 shutdown. They're also offering a reading series via podcast and their monthly open mike, Theatre of Ted, as a Facebook Live event on Saturdays. otherworldtheatre.org.
The Magic Parlour
Magician and House Theatre of Chicago ensemble member Dennis Watkins, whose long-running The Magic Parlour is on hiatus during the shutdown, brings "up-close" magic into your home in two ways. For Magic Mondays (beginning April 6), Watkins will post a video to his show's Facebook and Instagram accounts, letting viewers learn a trick or two of the trade, as well as some background on the stories and history behind magic.
On Thursday, April 2, 6 PM, you can join Watkins on Facebook for Magic Parlour Happy Hour, a free digital version of what is normally a VIP aftershow experience, involving sleight of hand, mind reading, and a virtual Q&A where you can learn more about his life in magic and his family's legacy in the art.
GOOD AND NATIONWIDE
The Hunchback Variations
A friend recently declared Chicago playwright and Theatre Oobleck cofounder Mickle Maher "our Samuel Beckett." If you somehow haven't seen his genius at work, then check out the free YouTube stream of this play, in which two famous deaf men—the dead-but-real Ludwig van Beethoven and the dead-but-fictional Quasimodo from Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame—recall their failed attempt to create a famously impossible sound cue from Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. It's presented courtesy of Houston's Catastrophic Theatre, which has produced a lot of Maher's work over the years. On Wednesday April 1 at 6 PM, Maher and members of the Catastrophic team will join together in a virtual Q&A. catastrophictheatre.com
If you've got a Netflix subscription, there are some popular streaming theater options available, including Bruce Springsteen's Springsteen on Broadway and John Leguizamo's Latin History for Morons. Netflix.com.
Some full productions from PBS's long-running series are available free, including Kevin Kline's 2017 Tony Award–winning performance in Noël Coward’s Present Laughter, Kenny Leon's acclaimed 2019 Shakespeare in the Park production of Much Ado About Nothing, and former Chicagoan John Logan's drama about American expressionist painter Mark Rothko, Red, starring Alfred Molina. All three are available through 5/27; see website for complete schedule. pbs.org.
The UK's premier home for live drama has been available stateside for the price of a movie ticket on big screens around the country for years. But during the shutdown, they're offering free full-length plays on YouTube every Thursday, beginning April 2 with the online premiere of the comedy One Man Two Guvnors, starring James Corden, who won a Tony for his performance. Each show will be available for one week only. nationaltheatre.org.uk
This Berlin-based company has opened up its video vaults during the global shutdown, including their production of Henrik Ibsen's verse epic, Peer Gynt, with an initiative they're calling "Coercive Measures." Much of the content will be available with English subtitles. schaubuehne.de v