Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Treading Water, Valiantly

  Treading Water, Valiantly

(l. to r.) Daryl Robinson, Michael Jeffrey Lucas, Todd Cooper, Jim Graysmith

Heidi Swinford, Allen Cruz

Andrew Bolden, Sarah Marie Young

(l. to r.) Alexis Wilson, Kaelin Curran, Morgan Brown

Michael Jeffrey Lewis, Sean Fleming

By Tom Wachunas

“…And the night was alive/ With a thousand voices /Fighting to be heard /And each and every one of them /Connected to me...”

- lyrics by Maury Yeston from “The Night Was Alive” for Titanic – The Musical

   A confession: At this writing, I am overcome with mixed feelings in a sea of sad ironies. Not the least of those is that opening night of the Players Guild production of Titanic – The Musical came so soon (May 17) after the sudden passing on May 9 of 55 year-old Scott Sutton.

   Through decades, his work as lighting designer and sound engineer brought  magical dimensionality to hundreds of Players Guild productions, including the spectacular artistry of his final project in April, Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s not unreasonable to think that processing the loss of such a vital and beloved member of the Guild family might profoundly affect how the cast members - directed by Jonathan Tisevich – would rise to the challenge of insightfully focusing their hearts and minds on navigating the Titanic narrative (story and book by Peter Stone, music and lyrics by Maury Yeston). And that’s another irony. For here is a story - an operatic voyage, really – about unexpected tragedy, the promise and fragility of human dreams, and mortality itself.

   So in one sense, perhaps the emotive core of this show is to be found in the genuinely valiant efforts of the performers to somehow bind the weighty pall of their personal bereavement to the hopes, aspirations, and worldviews of the people they’re portraying. Still, the energy pouring from the stage is a wandering one, feeling oddly sporadic and numbing at times. It’s as if all these characters can do is to dutifully tread the cold water of circumstance.

   To be fair, the undermining flaws in this production are, for the most part, not the fault of the clearly gifted cast (though there are some distinctly off-pitch singing passages), but rather in the decidedly flaccid songwriting. While the live orchestra conducted by Steve Parsons plays superbly enough (as it always does), the music as a whole is not particularly remarkable.  The melodies themselves are largely impotent, doing little to evoke palpable urgency or suspense, despite some impassioned delivery from accomplished singers. Though too few and far between, the moments when the music is at its most powerful are those featuring choral singing from the full company, magnificent in its sheer aural opulence of thunderous, soaring harmonies.
    There are some compelling dramatic scenes here that keep this “ship of dreams” afloat long enough for us to savor intervals of authentic anger, pathos, tenderness, and exhilaration. Daryl Robinson is a quietly riveting  picture of brooding obsession as he plays Andrews, the designer of the Titanic who never stops looking at his blueprints. As Captain Smith, Jim Graysmith is a cold figure, stern and aloof in the night atop his bridge, seemingly uncaring about the safety of his passengers. Similarly uncaring, Todd Cooper is sinister hubris and unbridled pride personified in his role of Ismay, Titanic’s owner, insisting that his property set a new trans-Atlantic speed record. In a startling song titled The Blame, the three of them engage in a chaotic flurry of insults and vicious finger-pointing as the ill-fated vessel begins to sink.

   On a gentler note, Heidi Swinford is all impish charm in her role of Alice Beane, a second-class passenger humorously swooning over and idolizing the wealthy first-class celebrities on board, all bedecked in flamboyant period costumes designed by Stephen Ostertag (oh! those ridiculous ladies’ hats!). Kaelin Curran, Alexis Wilson, and Morgan Brown are deliciously animated as a giddy trio of young, third-class Irish women, each named Kate, each dreaming of the good life in America. Meanwhile, Sarah Marie Young as Caroline, along with Andrew Bolden as Charles, are thoroughly captivating as they look forward to married life. Their duet, I Give You My Hand, is especially commanding.  Another most tender and endearing duet, The Proposal / The Night Was Alive, features Sean Fleming playing a stoker named Barrett, and Michael Jeffrey Lucas as Bride, who works in the ship’s teletype room. As Bride taps out Barrett’s dictated marriage proposal to his distant girlfriend, the two men are joined in a mesmerizing moment of contrapuntal harmony. 
   The set designed by Joshua Erichsen is a transfixing apparition of steel ramps, scaffolds, railings, and columns superimposed with projected mechanical drawings. It effectively captures the metaphorical spirit and epic scale of the historic vessel, described in the song In Every Age as, “…a  human metropolis... A complete civilization! Sleek! And fast! At once a poem and the perfection of physical engineering...”

   A complete civilization indeed. Sleek, fast, destined for disaster. Perfection? To a point, yes, as in…perfectly ironic.

Titanic: The Musical /  Through June 2, 2019, on the Players Guild Mainstage, Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave. N, Canton, Ohio  / shows at 8 p.m. on May 24, 25, 30, 31 and June 1 / shows at 2 p.m. on May  26 and June 2  / TICKETS: $32 adult, $29 seniors 65 and older, $25 for 17 and younger / at www.PlayersGuildTheatre.com   and 330-453-7617.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Retinal Poetry

Retinal Poetry

"Fourier" (detail - courtesy Canton Museum)

"Archimedes" (detail - courtesy Canton Museum)


"Boole" (top), and "Cachy"


"De Laplace"

By Tom Wachunas

   “The eye can travel over the surface in a way parallel to the way it moves over nature. It should feel caressed and soothed, experience frictions and ruptures, glide and drift. One moment, there will be nothing to look at and the next second the canvas seems to refill, to be crowded with visual events.”   - Bridget Riley

   EXHIBIT: Organized Ambiguity – Gridworks of David Kuntzman / On view through July 21, 2019 at The Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio / 330.453.7666 / Viewing hours: Monday – Closed; Tuesday - Thursday - 10am-8pm; Friday - Saturday - 10am-5pm; Sunday - 1pm-5pm /

   In the mid-1960s. the emergence of Optical, or Retinal painting (named “Op Art” after the first major New York show  by Cleveland-based Julian Stanczak in 1964) signaled a dramatic shift in thinking about the presence of the painter’s hand – the unique, expressively charged mark – on a two-dimensional plane. This new genre of abstraction essentially eschewed the visceral, individualized painted gesture in favor of smooth surfaces and tight compositional rigidity that often suggested associations with science or technology. More importantly, Op Art embraced the physicality and psychology of the very act of seeing. Op paintings are often quite hypnotic in their playfulness, their sheer illusionism, their delightful tendency to tease and disorient our perceptions.

   In that capacity, David Kuntzman is an inveterate trickster, a gamesman of the highest order. His acrylic canvases, named after mathematicians, are  multifocal gems of pictorial ambiguity rendered with alluring exactitude. These are elaborate, complex fields – at once dense and airy - of variably scaled grids that intersect, collide, or otherwise overlap in contrasting angles. Vibrant patterns that dance, tilting and teetering in elegant pirouettes.

  Kuntzman is a remarkable colorist. His fully saturated hues can produce a sensation of electrified oscillation. And for all their architectonic precision and geometric solidity, the repeated motifs have an uncanny life about them, a pulse. They breathe. All those intricate planes are joined into retinal matrices of fascinating rhythms. They seem to float in and out of focus in an implied infinity, as if carried on a cosmic wind. Even his monochromatic paintings are imbued with subtle vacillations in illusory light, reflected and refracted amidst indeterminate spatial depth.

   Despite appearances, I don’t think the ultimate goal of Kuntzman’s paintings was limited to something so prosaic as meticulously painted grids.  Beautiful as they are, the grids are simple portals to a more transcendent aesthetic experience. In the end, it’s an experience rising from an unfettered desire to be enthralled by the act, the event, of seeing. Kuntzman has articulated that experience with exquisite finesse.  

Friday, May 3, 2019

Looking Beyond Anemic Nostalgia

Looking Beyond Anemic Nostalgia

"Rumspringa" by Russ Hench

"Saccharin" by Jake Messinger

"I Can Resist Anything Except Temptation" by John Bruce Alexander

"Sisters" by William Bogdan

"Elevated" by Heather Bullach

"Summer into Fall III" by Diane Belfiglio

By Tom Wachunas

   “A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, and some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people.”  - Edgar Degas

   EXHIBIT: The 77th Annual May Show, at The Little Art Gallery, THROUGH JUNE 1, 2019, located in the North Canton Public Library, 185 N Main St, North Canton, OH / viewing hours are  Monday – Thursday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. (closed Sundays Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day)

   In years past, I’ve appreciated the Annual May Show at The Little Art Gallery in the same way some folks enjoy the sparkling effervescence of very fine champagne. Though it pains me to think it, the current group of 53 works chosen by jurors Andrew Richmond and Cris Dugan from 81 submissions has, for the most part, all the zest of homogenized milk.  

   This year’s exhibit is a numbing overdose of strictly representational imagery. My intention is certainly not to categorically denigrate the historic precedents for this kind of art (portraiture and figurative, landscape, animal and floral, still lifes). Still, I miss seeing work from some of our region’s accomplished practitioners of non-objective abstraction.

   My overall disappointment, however, isn’t with representational art per se so much as with the largely prosaic and impotent character of the content on display here. Throughout the show there seems to be a reigning spirit of nostalgia for tried and true academic aesthetic traditions, but it’s a clichéd and anemic one. If the gallery were a restaurant, you might feel hard- pressed to find a gourmet-quality meal. That said, there are a few savory entrées (and I’m not referring to the jurors’ award winners) in this hodgepodge of otherwise generic side dishes.

   Russ Hench’s spectacular acrylic on paper, Rumspringa, is a bubbly whoosh of mesmerizing, hyper-tiny textures and patterns – a liquid, kaleidoscopic  dream. And speaking of dreams, there’s the enigmatic surrealism of Jake Mensinger’s oil on canvas, Saccharin. The strange theatricality of it is a salient reminder of the magnetic power of sheer mystery.   

   A more jarring theatricality is in play with John Bruce Alexander’s dizzying mixed media collage, I Can Resist Anything Except Temptation. The work is an explosive rush of maniacal memes and topical tropes about the contagion of societal ills that plague us, all floating inside a glass box like an emergency alarm. A mad jigsaw manifesto written in Hell?

   Don’t be too quick to dismiss the stark simplicity of William Bogdan’s black-and-white woodcut, Sisters. Are these grainy, striated figures floating into, or out of, fragile memory? It’s a fascinating ambiguity at work here, at once alluring and startling in its graceful rawness.  

  Heather Bullach’s oil painting, Elevated, is a super-realistic rendering of a haute couture high heel shoe. Look long and hard at the distribution of light and shadow, at those tiny accents of jewel-like primary colors that shimmer along the expanse of golden tan. Her impeccable painting technique seems impossibly subtle. More than just a sleek picture of a common worldly object, this is contemplation itself, stunningly nuanced. Similarly compelling, Diane Belfiglio’s oil pastel, Summer into Fall III, uses electrifying color and superb composition to turn an ordinary floral motif into a palpable sensation of unmitigated joy. Elevated indeed, both of these artists deftly achieved  transcendence from the quaint to the quintessential.    

Friday, April 26, 2019

Deus ex Machina

Deus ex Machina 

By Tom Wachunas

   “It's instinctive in a certain kind of painting...It's like a nervous system. It's not described, it's happening. The feeling is going on with the task. The line is the feeling, from a soft thing, a dreamy thing, to something hard, something arid, something lonely, something ending, something beginning.”  - Cy Twombly 

   “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”  - 1 Corinthians 1:20

   UPCOMING EXHIBIT: The 77th Annual May Show, at The Little Art Gallery THROUGH JUNE 1, 2019, located in the North Canton Public Library, 185 N Main St, North Canton, OH / OPENING RECEPTION SUNDAY APRIL 28, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.; awards presented at 6 p.m.

   A blessing and a bane.  A tool and a torment. A world and a wasteland. The Internet. The cloud. The web. What have we wrought?

   The complexities of dichotomy, irony, and the arrogance of algorithms were very much on my mind when I made my most recent piece, a sculpture  which, I’m pleased to report, was accepted into the upcoming May Show at The Little Art Gallery in North Canton. I named the work Deus ex Machina (Latin for God from a machine). Here’s a definition of the phrase from Merriam-Webster: 1 - a god introduced by means of a crane in ancient Greek and Roman drama to decide the final outcome. 2 - a person or thing (as in fiction or drama) that appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty. 

   After removing the outer skin of a desktop computer tower to reveal its guts, I painted this complicated box flat white (an architectural cloud?) and activated every square inch of surface with gestures in graphite. The imposed scribbles, smudges, symbols, and scripts constitute a calligraphy of sense and nonsense, truth and fiction. A 3D essay on confounding dualities. 

   My intent is not to posit answers so much as to raise questions. So what indeed have we wrought? A treasure chest of incalculable riches, or a Pandora’s box of unspeakable ills? 

   Digital Deity. The god of our age.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Consummate Brahms and Rachmaninoff from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

Consummate Brahms and Rachmaninoff from The Canton Symphony Orchestra 

Violinist Jennifer Frautschi

CSO Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann

By Tom Wachunas

   Under the baton of Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann, the final program of the Canton Symphony Orchestra’s MasterWorks season was yet more compelling proof of this ensemble’s consummate artistry. I have always enjoyed closely observing and listening to audience reactions, and on this occasion, awestruck wonder was the order of the evening throughout the performance of two masterpieces of the Romantic spirit: Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major, and Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E Minor. In the process, we witnessed the most magnificent performance by a guest soloist in recent memory.

   That honor goes to violinist Jennifer Frautschi. From the outset of the Brahms concerto, she was a stunning presence, her playing a breathtaking conflation of grace and grit, and at times downright ferocious. The riveting  breadth of her virtuosity – particularly powerful in her cadenza at the end of the first movement - along with her deep sensitivity to the music’s nuanced lyrical flourishes, worked flawlessly to conjure a wholly gripping emotional experience.

   This was no small feat, considering Brahms’ ceaseless and daunting technical challenges to the soloist. Beyond the sheer agility and wide span required of the violinist’s fingers, there’s the necessity for consistently strong intonation so as not to be drowned out by the lush sonority of the orchestral arrangement, which was never intended to be merely a soft accompaniment to the soloist’s bravura colorings. In that regard, Frautschi and the ensemble achieved a mesmerizing equipoise. Each navigated the work’s ebb and flow of Brahms’ rich melodic developments in a mutually energizing manner.

   Energized indeed, the performance of the Rachmaninoff symphony was every bit as enthralling. When played as originally written, the symphony is about an hour-long adventure, including an unusually lengthy first movement.  It’s not an uncommon practice for conductors to make some judicious cuts, as Maestro Zimmermann did on this occasion. But his editing did nothing to weaken or diminish Rachmaninoff’s masterful command of lyrical suspense and forward thrust.

   It’s a mastery given dramatic clarity by an electrifying ensemble. From the churning storminess of the first movement, into the sparkling syncopations of the lively second movement, on to the lovely and wistful Adagio - featuring an exquisite, haunting solo from principal clarinetist Randy Klein -  and on through the festive and triumphal finale, this inspiring orchestra once again served up an invigorating elixir of transcendent musicality.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Variations on the Theme of Living

Variations on the Theme of Living

"My own discursive thoughts oppress me"

Detail - "My own discursive thoughts oppress me"

"There's Emptiness at the Center of Everything"

"Shrine to Endless Cycles"

"Shrine to Longing"

"Shrine to my out breath"

By Tom Wachunas

   “…My haptic meditation and the viewer’s contemplation of the result are intimately connected. Both are sensory experiences of repetition that can transform anxiety about impermanence, uncertainty and imperfection into curiosity about the mystery of what’s actually here in the present moment…” - Stacia Yeapanis,

EXHIBIT: PRACTICE –  works by Stacia Yeapanis / THROUGH May 4, 2019, at The Lemmon Gallery, located inside the Kent Stark Fine Arts Building, 6000 Frank Avenue, North Canton, Ohio / Gallery viewing hours are Monday – Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

   One of the most striking aspects of this exhibit is its paucity of works. The 12 pieces here by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis are situated throughout the gallery so that there’s an unusual amount of unoccupied wall space, leaving a plentitude of whiteness. Yet this apparent emptiness wants for nothing. It becomes an integral component of the exhibit’s contemplative character, allowing lots of space to ruminate. In this setting, the relatively few wall pieces on display acquire an uncanny largeness that belies their modest physical scale. And the air in the room feels charged with a potent serenity.

  If you string just the titles of Yeapanis’ five wall pieces and four zabutons (her hand-stitched meditation cushions) together, you might sense a beguiling spirituality at once personal and universal. It’s a lyrical, in-the-moment flow of consciousness that reads like a diary entry, or a poem: My own discursive thoughts oppress me. Come Back, Come Back, Come Back, Come Back. Nothing is Missing. Nothing is Wrong. When I stitch, I think about swimming. When I swim, I think about stitching. Perpetually wanting things different. However Long It Takes. There’s Emptiness at the Center of Everything. May I find stillness within change. I’m in Love with My Own Boring Life.

   Yeapanis has written in her statement accompanying this exhibit that her pieces are about “… a longing for stillness and a compulsion towards action…the sacredness of everyday cycles…”  She has constructed a symbolic iconography, airy and delicate, born out of the practice of repeated, cyclic actions. Her meticulous, focused process of making is a fascinating metaphor for mindful attention to the ephemeral moment.

    The dominant material in several of her works here is of a decidedly ordinary, even throwaway nature: toilet paper tubes. She slices them into lens-shaped loops, then connects them into tactile matrices of patterns intertwined with remnant threads from her zabutons. Collect, cut, connect, repeat.  Let’s get real for a moment and consider the types of cycles that we engage daily. Some are lofty, some lowly, some desired, some not. Toilet paper tubes. I’m reminded how much daily living requires repeated rituals that are simply necessary, however mundane: Eat, poop, wipe, repeat. This too shall pass.

   Then there are Yeapanis’ floor pieces, her shrines. One, Shrine to Longing, is a sumptuous sea of tiny, intensely colored upright cardstock scrolls seemingly emanating in undulant waves from a golden bowl. The piece evokes something indeed sacred - timeless and therapeutic, like the ceremonial sand paintings of Navajo shamans, or the spectacular sand mandalas from Tibetan Buddhist monks.

   Another, Shrine to my out breath, is an equally intricate sprawl of miniscule cardstock tubes, rings, gold leaf and beeswax sticks. Think of it as an interactive altar, awaiting fulfillment. Viewers are encouraged to make it so by placing one of the waxed sticks into the shrine, not too unlike lighting a vigil candle. Breathe in, breathe out, slowly. Repeat. Rites of passage.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

At the Crossroads of Leaving and Cleaving

At the Crossroads of Leaving and Cleaving

Ananias J. Dixon (left) and Jeff Haffner

Stephanie Cargill (left) and Anne McEvoy

Scott Esposito (left) and Stuart Hoffman

By Tom Wachunas

   “How do we leave well and how do we cleave well?...It’s about what we owe the ones we love – and what we owe ourselves…about finding the balance between caring for others and allowing ourselves to be cared for…”  - from the Director’s Note by Craig Joseph

   First, here’s a little background on Canton-based Seat of the Pants Productions. It’s an itinerant band of theatrical storytellers established by Artistic Director Craig Joseph in 2012, with a mission to “…focus all our resources on telling tales, truthfully and beautifully; share compelling narratives in unique spaces and vibrant communities; develop an aesthetic rooted in imaginative staging and human connection.”  

   That mission has been very well accomplished in Seat of the Pants’ first venture into Cleveland city limits with Craig Joseph directing The End of the Tour, a fascinating tragicomedy by playwright Joel Drake Johnson. There is something oddly appropriate as well as ironic about experiencing this play in a church (Pilgrim Congregational Church, in Tremont). Church – a haven of rest and rescue, a house of solace for troubled souls. And is it not also a place for…confession? As it is, the play happens not in the ornate sanctuary, but in the big, bland expanse of an adjacent, windowless chamber. Life is large and often not pretty.

    This is an arresting tale of restive family members and partners desperately navigating their woundedness while floundering in the wreckage of their dysfunctional relationships. Set in Dixon, Illinois (the birthplace of Ronald Reagan), we meet former chanteuse Mae (Anne McEvoy) as she recuperates in a nursing home after breaking her ankle; her recently divorced  daughter, Jan (Stephanie Cargill), who urges her estranged, Chicago-based brother, Andrew (Stuart Hoffman), to visit their severely depressed mother. Andrew bickers with his lover, David (Scott Esposito), over the usefulness of such a reunion. Elsewhere, Jan’s ex-husband, Chuck (Ananias J. Dixon) wallows in his kitchen. Fretting obsessively over what to do exactly about his beloved, dying cat, he seeks comfort and counsel from his best friend, Tommy (Jeff Haffner).  

   Johnson’s writing about the vexing foibles and failures of his characters is remarkable in its sensitivity and insight – an intricate and sometimes indelicate symmetry of illuminating wisdom and dark wit. He doesn’t set out to cure them of their ills, but simply tells their truths. And it’s a marvelously facile ensemble here that brings those characters to life with unflinching, often startling authenticity.

    As Mae, Anne McEvoy is riveting as the impatient patient; the brooding and unapologetic matriarch given to explosive fits of anger and insult, or complaining about the theft of her candy and cigarettes by a wandering Alzheimer’s patient named Norma (Chris White). She seems unable or unwilling to resolve the long-festering conflicts with her children, and would much rather sing old standards to over-medicated senior citizens. Meanwhile, Stephanie Cargill is achingly credible as the dutiful but exhausted daughter, Jan, wearied and frustrated by the sheer emotional weight and complexity of her circumstances. In the midst of still processing her divorce, she’s sorely conflicted by caring for the mother she resents.

    Stuart Hoffman is equally commanding in his intriguing portrait of gay brother Andrew. Returning to Dixon to finally visit his mother, he carries a heavy load of painful memories from when he was kicked out of his home after coming out in high school. He’s a bit uncomfortable in his own skin - nervous and insecure about publically showing physical affection for his lover. In that role, Scott Esposito is particularly gentle, and might be arguably the most stable character of the bunch, even as he sadly strives to understand why Andrew keeps him literally at arm’s length.

   Back where a listless cat lies in a box on a kitchen table, Ananias J. Dixon, as Chuck, is terribly insecure, too. His exchanges with the delightfully wry and earthy Jeff Haffner, as Tommy, are among the play’s most tender and funny, though not without a moment of tearful rage. Watching Dixon agonize over his cat becomes all the more heartbreaking when sensing that it’s maybe his veiled way of finally owning the end his marriage.

   At the conclusion of this tour through intersected lives in flux, there was no formula offered, no prescription given for the characters to ultimately find cathartic healing or peace. Call it instead a momentary arrival, a tacit  acceptance of life on life’s terms. 

    Now, back to church, and confession time. Thanks to the expressive intensity of the ensemble’s performance, I began to view the characters not as merely fictive elements in a metaphor, but actual people. And who couldn’t love them? Despite the mess they’d made of their lives, I found myself empathizing with them, rooting for them, hoping the best for them. Good practice for real life. That’s the power of truly compelling theatre.   

- Photos by  Aimee Lambes -   
The End of the Tour /    Remaining performances are Friday, April 5th at 8 PM, and Saturday, April 6th at 2 PM and 8 PM. All shows are performed at Pilgrim Congregational Church in Tremont, 2592 West 14th Street, Cleveland. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at

Additional information about Seat of the Pants Productions at: