Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Life, Liturgy. and the Pursuit of History
By Tom Wachunas
Not long ago a woman commented to me, after seeing my piece in the current show at Second April Galerie, that my work has “definite Christian leanings.” And I thought, “…leanings. Leanings? That’s all you got…LEANINGS??!” My ego, as is often the case when it comes to comments on my work, had shifted into search-and-destroy overdrive. I wanted to hear something like, “That’s the most amazing formalization of a relationship with Jesus that I’ve ever seen.” Honestly, though, I was sincerely pleased with her observation and said, simply, “Thank you so much.” As it turned out we had a mutually edifying conversation not so much about my work, but about…you guessed it, Jesus. And once again I learned that when I, and my pursuit of praise, get out of the way, God can advance his purposes.
More recently, at the beginning of Holy Week in the Christian liturgical calendar, I had the distinct privilege of addressing a group of Tuslaw Middle School art students. My aim was to give them a very general idea of what had influenced my art work over the past 10 years. Some of the presentation consisted of powerpoint slides of historic “religious” works by masters I admired as a child - astounding works by da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, El Greco. It occurred to me in preparing the presentation that while I as an artist never came even reasonably close to the level of technical excellence of those masters, their work established in me a sense of Christianity deeper and more abiding than anything I learned from catechism studies. Those masters showed me the power of art to convey profoundly beautiful mysteries as well as life-changing truths. They made me want to be an artist. It also occurred to me that prior to ten years ago, little if any of my work had an ostensibly Christian ‘message’, much less ‘look’.
I tell you this not because I think that all art must, by definition, beat us soundly about the head and shoulders and declare in no uncertain terms that Jesus is Lord (though that wouldn’t be such a bad idea, come to think of it). I do tell you this only because my ever-growing relationship with the Lord of the Universe is such that it has greatly affected the content of the art I make, and indeed the very reason I continue to make art. And to a considerable degree, that relationship has also affected how I see and respond to the art I encounter (be it visual, literary, musical, or theatrical) in terms of its capacity to inform, enlighten, or encourage what is good, noble, pure, and beautiful about being alive in a universe I did not create.
After showing the Tuslaw students a few examples of my admittedly obtuse Christian assemblages (you know, the ones with the “definite Christian leanings”), I ended with showing them slides of a few small (9”x12”) oil paintings I’ve done over the last few years. These are images that actually look like something from the real world, a.ka. representational, naturalistic art. I make one every year at and have it digitally copied into a small “edition” as a Christmas card. The image you see accompanying this post is the most recent. It’s a crude hybrid, to be sure, of Michelangelo’s marble miracle, “Pieta,” and Grunewald’s “Resurrection.” Jesus’ birth was more than an historic event, albeit a joyous one. It must be viewed as one part of a plan intrinsically connected to his death and, most important, his resurrection. I think we greatly diminish his significance – in fact deny his truth - when we see him as merely an influential individual in history. He IS history. Our history. Our present. Our future.
And so it is that I was gratified and elated to see Charita Goshay’s excellent article in the March 27 edition of The Repository about “Stations of the Cross,” the upcoming exhibit at Anderson Creative in downtown Canton. It’s a great story about artists embracing the Greatest Story.
Stations of the Cross, at Anderson Creative, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, will be open for viewing and meditation from 12noon to 5p.m. Tuesday, March 30, through Good Friday, April 2 (when the gallery will be open until 10p.m.). Worship services at 5:30p.m. and 7p.m. on Thursday.
Exhibit will remain on view until May 1.
Saturday, March 27, 2010
A Classic Balancing Act
By Tom Wachunas
Everything about the current Players Guild Theatre production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” directed by Jonathan Tisevich, indicates a masterfully crafted conspiracy to entice. The set, with its tiered stage and sweeping, wooden wings, reads like an austere, sculpted collage - an abstraction of Old World atmosphere - successfully conveying a ramshackle yet dignified Jewish village in 1905 Russia. The lighting is a lush tapestry of color washes alternately warm, cool, often haunting. The costumes are authentic right down to the last cap, kerchief, and fringed prayer shawl. And the live eight-piece orchestra, under the direction of pianist Steve Parsons (and always in perfect aural balance with the actors’ vocalizations), is a facile interpretation of the Yiddish musical milieu – airy and plaintive, as well as infectiously celebratory.
The story is set in Anatevka, Russia, and built around the poor Jewish dairyman, Tevye, his wife, Golde, and their five daughters as they negotiate tough times under an oppressive Tsarist regime. “Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof,” Tevye explains in the prologue. He adds that the villagers’ devotion to God’s law is the only way to keep balance in their difficult lives.
Then, the full 31-member cast delivers the opening song, “Tradition.” It’s one of several songs (including “If I Were a Rich Man” and “Sunrise, Sunset” among others) that have assured this production a place in the canon of American musical theatre as an endearing, true classic. But the performance of “Tradition” here is more than just endearing. It’s a glorious, explosive display of choral thunder that sets the tone for the story’s approaching storms. Those storms are in the form of various challenges to Tevye’s confidence and security in the traditions he holds so dear, threatening to tear his family – and his village- apart.
Both Larry Weinberg as Tevye, and Carol Sampsel as Golde, look, speak, and sing their parts with commanding, uncanny finesse. Weinberg is utterly magnetic as he soliloquizes and prays about his plight, always with a sparkling glint of both sad resolve and hope in his eyes. Sampsel is every bit the watchful, earthy housewife, her sometimes stern demeanor sweetly tempered by her motherly doting. Together they deliver one of the evening’s most tender and heartrending moments as they sing to each other “Do You Love Me?”
Heartrending, too, is the soaring purity of Amanda Medley’s voice in her role of Tevye’s daughter, Hodel, as she sings “Far from the Home I Love.” In another of many memorable scenes, Jason Green, playing the tailor Motel (pledged to marry Tevye’s oldest daughter, Tzeitel), cavorts and sings “Miracle of Miracles” with boyish glee, overjoyed at his arrival into full manhood. And For sheer show-stopping spectacle, there’s the scene of Tevye’s dream, wherein he is warned that Tzeitel will die if she marries the butcher Lazar. Lazar’s first wife, Fruma-Sarah, appears as a 10-foot tall ghost to deliver the warning. In that brief but unforgettable role, Courtney Vignos is electrifying as she deftly melds hilarity with hysteria.
Choreographer Michael Lawrence Akers has fashioned an engaging collection of dances imbued with folksy charm as well as solid athleticism. Nowhere is that combination more riveting than in one of the wedding dances featuring several village men performing a dance while balancing wine bottles on their heads as the enthralled women cheer them on.
In his program notes, director Tisevich presents a compelling case for seeing this production as a relevant, even urgent message for our own time and current societal malaise. Against the scrim, as it were, of the recent Forbes Magazine determination that Canton and Cleveland are miserable places to live, he asks the audience to consider identifying and playing its own “part,” like the people of Anatevka, in advancing a tradition of hope, compassion, and joy in the real world. The idea resonates all the more poignantly when seen in the light of the musical’s closing scene. The ever-present Fiddler passes his fiddle on to the next generation as it trudges resolutely into an uncertain future.
So once again Tisevich has, with a remarkable community of truly exceptional local talent, facilitated a powerful and inspirational theatrical experience. For the Players Guild Theatre over the past few years, this has indeed become a …tradition.
“Fiddler On The Roof” at Canton Players Guild Theatre, located in the Cultural Center for the Arts, through April 11. Shows at 8p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30p.m. Sunday. Tickets $22 for adults, $17 for students, may be ordered at (330) 453 – 7617 www.playersguildtheatre.com
For other reviews and commentaries on the performing and visual arts in the greater Canton area, visit ARTWACH at www.artwach.blogspot.com
Monday, March 22, 2010
All Noisy on the Western Front
By Tom Wachunas
On its surface, Sam Shepard’s 1980 play, “True West,” is a jarring tale of sibling rivalry between two estranged brothers who clash in their mother’s suburban Southern California kitchen while she’s away on vacation in Alaska. Austin, an educated family man, is house-sitting, busily working on the movie screenplay he hopes will finally launch his Hollywood career. The unexpected arrival of his disheveled, nere-do-well brother, Lee, a beer-guzzling petty thief, puts an end to Austin’s concentration, bringing an ominous meaning to the notion of writer’s block. In a surreal turn of events, Austin’s producer, Saul Kimmer, decides to back Lee’s as yet unscripted, lame idea for a modern Western. This shatters Austin’s hope for show business glory, and hurls the brothers into a bizarre role reversal, culminating in a murderous confrontation in the presence of their befuddled mother.
I recently read excerpts from an old interview with Shepard, wherein he said that the play was simply intended to be a look at the reality of human “double nature,” without the trappings of epic symbolism or metaphor. Fair enough. The play can arguably stand on its own as an engaging enough two-faced romp at once comedic and tragic, absurd and all too real. Still, the story is so intricately laden with the characters’ present circumstances and past remembrances (both overt and veiled) that it fairly screams for drawing a bead on larger “issues.” If nothing else, and for all of its quirky hilarity, it is nonetheless difficult not to see this play as a sobering examination of the volatile gray area – or white noise - between societal approval of our dreams of cathartic adventure, and the consuming repression of our cynicism, our darker longings, and our failures.
Was it a secret potion that director Phillip Robb slipped to his cast members that caused them to embrace their characters (or caricatures?) with the startling confidence and credibility they so generously display here? In the intimate black surround of the Kathleen Howland Theatre, that credibility is necessarily – and in this case, flawlessly - magnified. So call it the wizardly product of Robb’s 38 years of directorial experience in Canton (including 138 plays at Kent State University Stark campus), in concert with the remarkable acting abilities of the performers. Once again Robb demonstrates an edifying grasp of a story’s heart muscle, while recognizing his actors’ considerable gifts for giving it breath and breadth.
In the role of Lee, the electric Verne Davis is indeed a live wire, dancing and sputtering about as he boasts about his illicit activities in the desert and in suburbia while flinging resentments, insults, and taunts at his brother. As Austin, Rod Lang delivers an equally riveting portrait of a proud but vulnerable man increasingly frustrated and disillusioned by both his unrefined, hurtful brother, and his life as a whole. The entire play evolves within a constant state of growing tension between Davis’s mischievous charisma and Lang’s amplified fragility. A strangely poignant respite from the growing storm between their characters comes during the second act. Here, Lang’s besotted character is sprawled on the floor. He truly owns the stage as, with delicious drunken abandon, he relates to his brother the insane, hilarious story of how their father lost his teeth to a cheap dentist in Mexico.
Barry Wakser as Saul Kimmer turns in a somewhat understated reading of the Hollywood producer. But his amiable if not cloying nonchalance works effectively to fuel the irony of the situation (and Austin’s bitterness), particularly with his glib assessment of Austin’s screenplay for a love story: “Nobody is interested in love these days, Austin…”
When Denise Robb makes her brief but very memorable appearance as the mom returning home earlier than expected, she finds an unholy mess. There is an air of quiet desperation about her as she surveys the chaos, her eyes distant and glazed as she notices her dead houseplants. She regards her sons as squabbling boys who need to take their fight outdoors. They don’t, and this is how their frontier dreams of artful adventure ended – not with a bang but a phone cord strangle-hold on the kitchen floor.
The play concludes with an irresolute freeze-frame, leaving us with lingering questions about the brothers’ struggle. One is: Have we commodified art to the extent that its ideals are no longer relevant to a meaningful or fulfilling life? This performance makes the question a compelling and oddly beautiful one to consider.
Photo: (courtesy Rod Lang) left-to-right: Verne Davis as Lee, Denise Robb as Mom, Barry Wakser as Saul Kimmer, Rod Lang (seated) as Austin
“True West,” by Sam Shepard, at the Kathleen Howland Theatre, located in Second April Galerie, 324 Cleveland Avenue North, downtown Canton. Directed by Phillip L. Robb.
MARCH 26 and 27 at 8:00p.m., Tickets $10.00 at the door or call (330) 451 - 0924
Monday, March 15, 2010
Dexter Sandap’s Big Harvest
By Tom Wachunas
Though I didn’t know it at the time, the course of my life as an artist was plotted and set by the early 1970s. At that point during my undergraduate studies in painting and drawing at The Ohio State University, the provocative and controversial Dexter Sandap (who unfortunately has long since fallen out of the public eye) was a visiting artist in the Department of Fine Art and had installed a sprawling one-man show at Hopkins Hall Gallery. I vaguely remember all the surrounding publicity hype. I also remember what appeared to be an entourage of art student assistants responsible for the actual mounting of the work in the gallery. They in turn seemed to be supervised by a faculty member who invariably left an impression on me every time we wordlessly passed each other in the halls. The wire-rimmed, black-tinted glasses he wore (often indoors) added much to the mystery that seemed to hover around him like an aura. I promised myself I would meet and talk with him some day.
And so I did. Within the year (or was it two?) following the Sandap exhibit, I was a member of the “entourage,” mounting yet another sprawling gallery show – this one called “The K-S Dimension.” This astounding and ambitious exhibit was comprised of objects discovered by world-famous astrophysicists Kreunstra and Struckhold. They theorized that most of the artifacts on view were actually ordinary household objects from earth, appropriated by aliens from another dimension, then “sent back through” in various altered states as an elaborate attempt to communicate with us. Most of the show looked suspiciously like 1970s modern art.
The K-S Dimension was, of course, a complete fiction - its pictures and objects meticulously fabricated by undergraduate studio art students enrolled in “Intermedia,” which would ultimately become known as Expanded Arts. So too Dexter Sandap. In fact, Dexter Sandap was an anagram for Expanded Arts. The “supervisor” for these projects was Professor E.F. Hebner – “Hebe” to his many friends and students.
In those days, it seemed to me that explaining just what it was that Hebe was teaching, or the art that his students were making, was always a challenge most vexing – a futile exercise in justifying to our many critics the purely ephemeral processes we engaged. But there were at least as many enthusiastic supporters who knew what we knew: This was something utterly original and exciting, and worth pursuing.
Hebe didn’t “teach.” He simply gathered witnesses to look at a thing long and hard, and thereby encouraged seeing. His methods weren’t instructional. They were invitational. What we “learned” wasn’t something quantifiable or formulaic that we memorized and repeated on command. Under his guidance we embraced and celebrated the magic of metaphor and the poetry in our own identities. Our canvas was the vastness of possibility itself, upon which we rendered fresh, wild configurations of light and sound and movement unfolding in time. I often refer to him as my artistic mentor, realizing full well that such an assessment of the man is far too narrow. He was for me the revealer of vision itself, a milieu, an expanded, life-long moment of discovery. And I know that in his endearing humility (I can just see him blush right about now) he might well resist such measuring. No matter. I’m not quite finished.
Hebe passed away on March 9. He was 84. I was privileged to see and review (herein, July 26, 2009 post, “Abstractitudes”) his last one-man show in Columbus. Looking back at the close of that review, the words seem hauntingly relevant to not just paintings, but a life beautifully lived and shared. “As viewers we become privy to exposed essences floating in a kind of dream state. And as with all good dreams, these images resonate and linger, gentle in their clamoring to be remembered.”
Hebe was a skilled, passionate gardener. Over the years he encouraged my own avid pursuit of gardening. He would be pleased, I think, to know that I regard the garden as both ongoing piece and ongoing peace. And while the man himself no longer clamors gently in paint or soil, I will remain forever inspired and nourished by the sweet fruits of his labors, grateful that he planted his life so lovingly in mine.
Photo: “The Sower 3” oil, by Vincent Van Gogh
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Who’s Your Dada?
By Tom Wachunas
Switzerland in 1915 – Zurich, to be exact - was far from detached or neutral when it came to positioning itself for making war on the world. In the wake of the most devastating war Europe – indeed the world – had ever experienced, Zurich had become home to an increasingly vocal enclave of dissident citizens bent on usurping not governments as such, but entire systems of thought. Artists, Communists, poets, and philosophers, among others, locked arms, as it were, to embrace “anti-art,” their perceived vehicle for destroying, once and for all, the societal traditions and ideals that they blamed for World War I. Ironically, in their disdain for intellectualism and conventional social values, they promoted yet another kind of intellectualism and value system - one that formulated elaborate, albeit nonsensical manifestos promulgating cultural anarchy. This, then, was all-out war on art and art-making as it had been formerly known, shown, and practiced.
The movement acquired the name ‘Dada’, a term that artist and movement ‘historian’ Hans Arp once said, “…means nothing, aims to mean nothing, and was adapted precisely because it means nothing.” So there you have it: a movement destined if not designed to collapse under the weight of its own vapidity. Or…?
Before summarily dismissing Dada as an historic fluke, blip, glitch, or an ill-fated, arrogant attempt to destroy conventional art values, consider the art developments of, say, the entire 20th century. More specifically, Modernism and its cantankerous child, Post-Modernism (where we are, arguably, now). So what’s next – Post-Postism? Contemporeactionism? And considering what we now so readily accept as art, who really cares? The point is that Dada and the ‘styles’ it spawned forever changed the face of art. The ‘freedoms’ it unleashed, like it or not, have long since re-drawn how we define, practice, look at, and value art.
So now along comes the unveiling of “The 28 Variations Project” at Anderson Creative in downtown Canton. The statement released by curators Craig Joseph and Kevin Anderson tells us that the show was inspired by Dadaists. Some of those endearing revolutionaries of yore engaged in communal art-making processes that were intentionally random, chaotic, free-for-all soirees to make “non-art’’ works which they claimed to be every bit as legitimate as anything in the Louvre. Art by attitude. Or, depending upon your predisposition to such a “philosophy”, art by mad-itude.
And so it is with some trepidation that I went to the March 5 unveiling. Knowing in advance that each of the 28 masonite panels (each measuring 3’x3’) was an individual work generated by the artist’s reaction to seeing only an exposed six-inch swath of the previous work by another artist in the sequence, I was fully expecting to see an indulgent foray into sheer, ugly nonsense. In fact I was sure that I would be writing a review of so much garbage. I’m elated to report otherwise.
Whether viewed as a single work comprised of 28 related parts, or 28 individual pieces sharing formal and/or thematic content, this is an astonishing, spectacular exhibit. For as much as there is to look at here, this is a show that requires seeing in the sense of “reading” its connective elements. The time spent, I assure you, will yield some delightful surprises.
Start, then, with the first work in the sequence at the far top left – Craig Joseph’s assemblage - a delightful parody of a family keeping up appearances, rendered in a style reminiscent of Monty Python animations. Then “read” to your right, into Kevin Anderson’s hilarious ad for an electric cheese-scent air freshener. Notice how the right edge of the first piece cues into the left edge of the next, and so forth through all 28 panels (reversing the edge-to-edge cueing for the bottom row). Through color, or shape, or texture – or combinations thereof - it’s the peripheral visual elements of each work that give rise to its larger internal content, which in turn inspires the adjacent work. So in a very real way, this show brings a refreshing application of that pesky, overworked term “edgy.” Additionally, the whole process generated some uncanny, unplanned “accidents” of recurring visual elements, as if some of the artists were psychically connected. For example, deep in the picture sequence, the word “façade” is an important element in Vicki Boatright’s explosive and densely textured assemblage, which is the same word we see as intrinsic to Craig Joseph’s work at the very beginning of the sequence.
Also refreshing is the evidence here that each artist clearly took this project to heart and set out to make a “serious” work of art (some, of course, more interesting than others) that can stand on its own, independent of its place in this grouping. In so doing, some participants just as clearly ventured outside their established styles to render works that are nonetheless engaging. It’s exciting to see Erin Mulligan experiment with color and physical texture, or to see Lynn Digby get loose with abstract figuration. And who knew that Brennis Booth (co-owner of Second April Gallerie) was so capable of such remarkable painterly lyricism?
This show convinces me that as a bold, visionary establishment for showcasing truly noteworthy local artists, Anderson Creative has set the bar high, and has arrived. Further, piece-for-piece, and for sheer contemporary brawn and brains, this is by far the most compelling group show of Canton-area artists I’ve seen in all the 18 years I’ve been reviewing them.
Dada is dead. Long live Anderson Creative.
Photo: Installation (partial view), The 28 Variations Project, on view through March 27 at Anderson Creative, 331Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton. Viewing hours: 12 noon to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. www.andersoncreativestudio.com
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
By Tom Wachunas
One need not have read the program notes for the March 7 Canton Symphony Orchestra concert to sense from the opening moments of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” that romance was solidly in the house. The theme for the afternoon concert was billed as “Love Speaks.” And that it did, in all its sumptuous color, intricate textures, and alluring faces, triumphant as well as tragic.
The orchestra’s lush voicing of Rachmaninoff’s gentle, slow lyricism, subtly tinged with a nostalgic aching, was as if giving form to a blooming rose. The finessed unity of depth and sonority of this orchestra’s string section is a consistently thrilling thing to behold, and certainly in full force throughout this concert. As he has done on so many past occasions, CSO Concertmaster Nathan Olson performed the solo violin passages in this work with riveting purity both authoritative and sweet. He again
brought his formidable emotive sensibilities to the next work on the program, Peter Lieberson’s “Neruda Songs.”
When he encountered the love sonnets of Pablo Neruda, American composer Peter Lieberson immediately connected to their sensual emotionality and knew he had to set some of them (five in all) to music for his wife, the great mezzo soprano, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. It is a remarkable irony of fate that the poems’ allusions to love as a passionate, unfolding journey would take on bittersweet relevance in light of Lorraine’s long battle with cancer, which she ultimately lost in 2006. The work is imbued, then, with a resonant heroism, grounded in the deep, unfaltering love between a man and a woman.
And so it is that when acclaimed mezzo soprano Kelley O’Connor came to the stage, the house lights brightened. She is a striking presence, to be sure. Here, she gazed out into the hall throughout her performance in such a way as to make you feel as if she were singing directly to and for you. A lover singing to her beloved. And the singing! O’Connor embodied all of the work’s heroic depth - its tender, urgent proclamations of timeless hope and dreaming – with an astonishingly rich, throaty voice that can soften even the hardest of hearts.
The music for this work is an intriguing synthesis of interwoven moods and melody lines that seem like metaphors for a vast, even cosmic tapestry depicting day and night, expansive landscapes, longing and discovery. The orchestra embraced the ebbs and flows of the work’s sensuality - and spirituality – with marvelous clarity and balance.
That same orchestral clarity and balance was delightfully present in the performance of Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” – a sublime, enthralling love song that the composer presented to his wife on the morning of her 33d birthday. Here the orchestra effectively captured all of the work’s color and sense of approaching day and the promise it holds.
The final work on the program – Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet, Overture-Fantasy”- is certainly not so optimistic in outlook. It is, however, as Kenneth C. Viant observed in his program notes, “…a work whose rhapsodic lyricism and dramatic emotionalism have made it one of the most enduring pieces in the symphonic repertory.”
What this orchestra did with the work should not be called a great performance. That would be too easy an assessment. This was an orchestral phenomenon of the highest order. In the past I have often marveled at the ephemeral chemistry between Maestro Zimmerman and his accomplished musicians. He doesn’t merely conduct the music, and they don’t merely play it. They breathe it as an organic unit. It is a chemistry that generally evades adequate definition or description. You simply know it when you see and feel it. And here all the ingredients were brought to optimal temperature until they boiled over with the last volcanic timpani roll and cymbal crashes, pouring like a wail for the ages into the final, soul-searing chord.
I cannot recall seeing an audience so immediately, in unison, on its feet. Some looked quite astonished at how they got there. A paroxysm of praise, no doubt. When it was over, while some may have walked out of Umstattd Hall, I seem to recall most of us floating back to our cars.
Photo: “The Lovers” by Rene Magritte, oil, 1928
Sunday, March 7, 2010
Sweet and Sour Brevities
By Tom Wachunas
While a few of the offerings in this year’s “From Script to You New Works Festival” at North Canton Playhouse McManaway Studio Theater might be suitable grist for full-length plays, all of the seven short works here are vignettes complete unto themselves. You might call this evening a shot-gun style (there’s no intermission) compendium of meditations on life, love, sexuality, and death – 85 minutes of in-your-face theatre delivered by marvelously talented local directors and actors, with scripts from across the U.S.
“Lip Service,” written by Judith Christy and directed by Betsy Marinucci, is a solidly crafted, genuinely tender and funny scene between a hard-of-hearing elderly father, played by Ken Hechmeyer, and his daughter, played by Mary Mahoney. Hechmeyer is delightful as the opinionated sports nut watching television while Mahoney, valiant and loving in her patience, attempts to keep the mangled conversation sensible.
“Dinner Guest,” written by Stanley Toledo and directed by Bethany Taylor, starts out as a simple dinner conversation between a husband, Ben, and wife, Joan, discussing plans for their upcoming anniversary. But the meal turns into a very physical haunting as Ben wrestles with guilt over his recent affair with Karen, who is a vexing presence at the table and visible only to him. Matt Morgan deftly captures Ben’s growing panic and agitation as he fends off the accusatory Karen, played with slinky, sultry relish by Stacey Essex. Meanwhile, Krystian Bender is credible as the wife, increasingly suspicious of her husband’s cryptic outbursts.
There’s a ghost also in the play written by Susan Pearsall Apker and directed by Alyssa Pearson, an intriguing scenario called “Pookie/y.” The title is named for the child (either boy or girl) that parents Janie, played by Bethany Taylor, and Mel, played by Justin Edenhofer, never had. We meet the parents as they contemplate jumping from a cliff into a sea - real perhaps, but certainly metaphorical –of despair. As Pookie/y, Christie Messner is appropriately haunting as well as bubbly. Taylor and Edenhofer in turn deliver an engrossing picture of struggling with could’ves and would’ves.
The producer and creator (in collaboration with Mary McManaway) of the New Works Festival is Jeremy P. Lewis. This year (the fourth), he has directed four of the entries. Of those, “The Angel,” written by Nick Battilana, seems to be the most problematic (at least in the beginning) in terms of performance, perhaps due to the youth of the performers. Emily Remark’s portrayal of the child- angel who prepares another little girl for entry into the afterlife is somewhat stiff (opening night jitters?). Kylie Gambone as the little girl is similarly awkward, though not as noticeably pronounced. But in the closing moments, as they face the bright light of eternal paradise, they each, remarkably, embody a preternatural, giggly joy that’s worth the price of admission to behold.
“Chit-Chat,” written by Shannon Jamison, is a deceptively titled piece about a woman talking to her unseen husband as she dashes off overdue thank-you notes to friends and family. Mary Mahoney is nothing short of riveting as her casual chatter turns into an explosive moment of utterly real anger, then heartrending grief.
In “On Wings of Song,” written by Rollin DeVere, Michael Miller and David Burkhardt are hilarious in their roles as clownish cicadas emerging from years of subterranean existence, only to find that mating means quick death. Their masterful timing and rapid-fire wordplay evoke the stylings of Abbot and Costello, imbuing this comedic gem with memorable shine.
Eminently masterful and memorable, too, are Matt Morgan and Justin Edenhofer in the intense “Cody and Ishmael,” written by Edenhofer and S. Thomas. The work is memorable, though, more for its visceral performances than the morbid (and vaguely comedic) cynicism of the story. Edenhofer plays Cody, a cocky sociopath who ruthlessly prods his “disciple” in bloodlust, Ishmael (Morgan), into overcoming his necrophobia.
After the gut-splitting humor of “On Wings of Song,” edgy philosophizing about murder seems too jarring a close to this or any other evening. Maybe I’m too old-school, but it seems to me that if given a choice, always leave ‘em smilin’ when they go.
Fortunately it’s the evening’s grace and comedy notes that continue to resonate in my memory. That, along with the realization that greater Canton is blessed with directors and actors of the caliber seen here, and who give a strong voice to new works, is cause for celebration.
FROM SCRIPT to YOU, at the McManaway Theatre, inside Hoover High School. March 7 – 13, Sunday at 2:30p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8p.m., General Admission $10, for tickets call (330) 491-1693
Photo: Matt Morgan (with Stacey Essex as the corpse) in a scene from “Cody and Ishmael,” one of seven new short works for the stage in From Script to you: 2010 New Works Festival at the North Canton Playhouse McManaway Theatre.