Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bathroom Blame Games

Bathroom Blame Games

By Tom Wachunas

        …Am I my brother’s keeper?  –Genesis 4:9-

    When a play’s opening line is “F--k. Oh, f--k,” the proverbial red flag has been raised. Red, signaling not just coarse language and ‘mature’ subject matter, but also blood. Lots of it. Welcome to Sweet Confinement, a 2008 play written by Anna Carini and directed here by Johnny Russell. The play is the inaugural production of the newly formed Parallax Ensemble Theatre, and will be showing for one more weekend at The Kathleen Howland Theater in downtown Canton.

    The indelicate utterance at the beginning takes place in a pristine, dazzlingly white bathroom (set by Kevin Anderson) as two friends – Amy and Amelia – stand dazed and dumbfounded, staring down at a massive pool of blood on the floor. Over the course of the next 80 minutes a total of five individuals, friends since childhood, convene ‘round this gruesome sight as they struggle to process the trauma that brought them here – the attempted suicide of another friend named William, who is Amy’s estranged husband.

    In many ways William is the true central figure in the story despite the fact that we never see him in the flesh, though certainly in his blood. Like peeling an onion, the play unfolds in pungent layers that progressively reveal just how much hurtful, alienating power his troubled life (fueled by depression and drinking) has had over that of his friends.

    They in turn bring their own baggage filled with dirty laundry to the occasion. This meeting in the bathroom is surely a grim gathering of hostages. Mutual ridicule and finger-pointing is rampant as they grapple with their guilt and grief. It’s a veritable feasting on woulda-coulda-shouldas, spiced with moments of dark humor as well as a few genuinely sweet reminiscences. And all the while, there’s the constant, painfully potent imagery of Amy and Amelia slowly, v-e-r-y slowly soaking up the blood with paper towels. But it’s never going to be completely clean again. “There’s nothing in this room that can be fixed,” Amy disgustedly mutters at one point, “we’re all f---ing broken.”

    All of the cast members are eminently well- focused and credible in delivering the individual quirks and nuances of their characters. Rachel Callahan is the earthy, volatile and otherwise mouthy (and not so silver-tongued) Amelia. Angeleina Valentine is Ginger, a tender-hearted people pleaser. Christopher Hisey plays the sullen, hardened Caleb, who has always longed for Amy and thinks they’re all better off with William out of the picture. Justin Edenhofer is the distant Josh, Amy’s brother and ex-best friend of William.

    But it’s Moriah Ophardt, in her role of Amy, who most stunningly, most convincingly embodies the struggle to reconcile compassionate understanding with her awful brokenness. While there are some very effective scenes of explosive tension between various characters here, none is more utterly volcanic, more searing and real than hers when, collapsed on the bathroom floor with just her brother present, she breaks down into heart wrenching sobs of rage and pain.  

     All of these honest, compelling (and sometimes glib) portrayals bring to mind the somewhat poetic ordinariness of characters in stories by the great Russian dramatist, Anton Chekhov, in what he called his “theatre of mood.” Though it’s true that righteous moralizing or sermonizing was largely antithetical to his influential aesthetic, I’m not convinced that the world needs yet another play about the human condition as essentially cheerless as this one is, no matter how excellently performed.

     It’s certainly a sobering examination of the spiritual ineptitudes that undermine our capacity to connect with one another in an ultimately affirming or lasting way. At the same time it offers little in the way of a substantial respite from the ills it so relentlessly uncovers. The play seems instead to settle into mere, albeit intelligent infatuation with the emotional and psychological dysfunctionalities of its characters. Call it a theatre of pathology.

    Sweet Confinement, at The Kathleen Howland Theater, 324 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Shows at 8:00 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 28 and Saturday, Sept. 29, Sunday Sept. 30 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $12 at (330) 451 -  0924, or

    Photo: Cast from left to right: Justin Edenhofer, Rachel Callahan, Angeleina Valentine, Moriah Ophardt, Christopher Hisey


Monday, September 24, 2012

Deamscape Denizens

Dreamscape Denizens

By Tom Wachunas 

    “All our interior world is reality, and that, perhaps, more so than our apparent world.” –Marc Chagall-

    EXHIBITION: Crowds with No Names, recent paintings by Beth Nash at Translations Gallery, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton, THROUGH SEPTEMBER 29. Gallery viewing hours are Wed. – Sat., Noon to 5 p.m.

    Most  viewers who are ‘serious’ about engaging a work of art in a gallery setting already know that sincere, focused observing can be its own reward. Then again, a little creative incentive on the part of the artist and/or curator can go far in making the process more inviting. So in this exhibition, there’s a playful twist on viewer participation.

     As all of Beth Nash’s recent works here are as yet untitled, we the viewers are asked to leave our signed suggestions on post-it notes next to the pieces (supplies provided). At the end of the exhibit, Nash will select her favorite titles and winners are to be rewarded with a 15% discount on their next art purchase from the gallery.

    Titling these intriguing works would necessitate some creative processing on our part, arguably not unlike Nash’s own. She writes in her statement for the show that her paintings (figurative and representational in nature) begin abstractly enough, with no preconceived design. Her free-flowing marks and gestures grow into underlying structures of defined planes and shapes as she lets the picture ‘tell’ her where it wants to go. Similarly, I think that extrapolating ‘meaning’ or names from her visions would necessarily require from us a certain degree of improvisation or free association with the images – a kind of listening to their content so that their stories can emerge on their own terms.

    Those stories are decidedly enigmatic, often suggesting a kinship with the iconography of Marc Chagall’s populated landscapes, alternately folky and surreal. Nash’s smooth-surfaced paintings in liquid acrylics, as well as her more stark charcoal and gesso drawings on dark tan wood panels, display a consistently energetic spontaneity of drawing. They deftly capture what might be moments on the verge of disappearing, like retrieving fleeting memories of dreams. Portrayed here is a mixed gathering of people in suspended animation, caught up in their own remembering, or magical dances, or ambiguous social interactions.

    And then there’s the matter of color. More than simply opaque pigments resting on the surface, Nash’s luminous colors appear to rise from deep within, built up in glazes that let light through, as in stained glass. The effect is one of intensely spiritual dimensionality, transforming her figures into specters moving through a rainbow reverie.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Forgivably Flawed, Infectiously Funny

Forgivably Flawed, Infectiously Funny

By Tom Wachunas

    One could make a compelling case for seeing the Canton Players Guild production of Legally Blonde: The Musical (2007 Broadway production based on the 2001 film starring Reese Witherspoon, original novel by Amanda Brown) as a good example of the whole being greater than its parts. To wit, the singing, particularly in some important supporting roles, is far from pitch perfect.

    I’m willing to stipulate that the guilty parties – those with perhaps limited vocal training or experience with live orchestras - give it their best shot, and could to some degree claim mitigating circumstances beyond just opening night jitters.

    Among those circumstances could be the uneven volume balance between singers and the otherwise excellent nine-piece orchestra under conductor/keyboardist Steve Parsons. In more than a few instances, the musical arrangements overpower the vocalists and too many lyrics get lost. It is worth noting that this musical isn’t all that memorable for its songs per se (music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Neil Benjamin). While some are certainly engaging for their snappy pop flavoring, clever wordplay and satirical wit, none of the songs distinguishes itself as really iconic or groundbreaking. Think of it as the difference between prime rib and a fluffy omelette. As things are, maybe the singers here can’t hear themselves enough. The result is that melodies can seem lost in a search for the right note.

    You’d think that flaws of this nature might make any musical crash and burn. Call it a counter-intuitive phenomenon, then, but this briskly paced production, directed by Craig Joseph (with a cast of 28 performers, an accompanying six-member vocal ensemble and two achingly adorable dogs), soars above its potentially deadly shortcomings with indefatigable panache.

    Much of the wholly infectious energy of the story is generated by the central character of Elle Woods, a jilted, bubbly blonde sorority president who chases her ex- boyfriend all the way from L.A. to Cambridge, where she hopes to earn her Harvard Law School degree and win him back. As Elle, Taylor Scott brings new meaning to ‘perky’. Appearing in every scene, we watch as she deftly comes to prove she’s a lot smarter (she won’t settle for being a trophy wife), self-assured and more compassionate than her superficially ditzy demeanor would indicate. Throughout, Scott’s voice is infused with a crystalline girlishness that can convey powerfully effervescent confidence. She can also project convincing vulnerability, as evidenced in the show’s sweetly plaintive title song.

    Wes Morales plays the moneyed, pedigreed and ambitious ex-beau, Warner, with just the right touch of self-absorbed judgementalism and cockiness. He dumps Elle because he thinks she’s too much Marilyn and not enough Jackie.  Countering that is Scott Miese as Elle’s tender-hearted law school mentor, Emmett, who eventually wins her affections. While both Morales and Miese bring genuine credibility to their roles, as singers both are mis-matched to Taylor Scott’s more penetrating sonority.  

     At one point in Act I, Elle befriends Paulette, an outspoken, street-wise beauty salon owner with an unreasonable penchant for (and terrible track record with) Irish men. In her role of Paulette, the versatile and electrifying Lisa Belopotosky Knight fuels some of the show’s most delightfully raucous scenes. Among those are her show-stopping solo performance of Ireland and her funny contortions in Bend and Snap. Gut- splitting in every sense of the word. More shenanigans ensue when she swoons at the arrival of a UPS courier named Kyle who, we later find out, turns out to be Irish. He struts into her shop, mugging to the audience all the while, and with all the corny macho of a Chippendale dancer. In that role, Gregory Rininger is over-the-top hilarious.

    So too the chaotic courtroom scene in Act II, wherein we hear the song, Gay Or European? It’s a thoroughly irreverent skewering of social and ethnic stereotypes. Ultimately it prompts a cartoonish, suave witness named Nikos (Jaime Stabile) to launch into a gushy show of affection for his lover, Carlos (Michael Ritzert), who returns the favor with howling gusto.

    Throughout the proceedings, a trio of Elle’s sorority sisters appears to her in the form of a supportive “Greek Chorus,” providing a series of very funny encouragements and editorial asides led by the sharply animated Sarah Karam. And speaking of animated, the big dancing routines choreographed by Michael Lawrence Akers are an impressive mix of comedic spunk and exhilarating athleticism.    

    In the big picture here, consider the aforementioned singing weaknesses as forgivable misdemeanors. For this show is a bold-faced entertainment conspiracy in hot pink that successfully wreaks unrelenting fun and optimism upon the paying public. If that conspiracy were a crime, then director, cast and crew should be summarily convicted. Case closed.

    Legally Blonde: The Musical,  Canton Players Guild Theatre Mainstage, located in the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio. Shows at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m., THROUGH SEPTEMBER 30. To order tickets please visit or call (330) 453 – 7617

    PHOTO by JAMES DREUSSI: Taylor Scott as Elle Woods

Friday, September 14, 2012

Abstract Allure

Abstract Allure

By Tom Wachunas


    “Abstraction is real, probably more real than nature. I prefer to see with closed eyes.” –Josef Albers-

    “Do not copy nature too much. Art is an abstraction.” –Paul Gauguin-

    EXHIBITION: Abstract Allure: Paintings by David Kuntzman and Patricia Zinsmeister Parker, at Gallery 6000, located in the Dining Room of University Center, Kent State University at Stark, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, THROUGH NOVEMBER 2, 2012. OPENING RECEPTION on WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 19, 5:30 to 7:30 P.M. Please RSVP to Becky DeHart at (330) 244-3518 or

    My curatorial intent for this show was to present a ‘conversation’ in two dialects of the same language – nonobjective abstraction. Here, the refined geometric precision of David Kuntzman might seem to be greatly at odds with the less delicate physicality of Patricia Zinsmeister Parker. But in seeing these two painters hang out together, as it were, the ensuing exchange isn’t so much adversarial as it is surprisingly sensible, balanced and eloquent. Consider it a civilized but very energetic exercise in point/counterpoint.

    The left and right ends of the two long walls in the room are anchored by Kuntzman’s large acrylic paintings, like starting and ending a sentence with an exclamation point. His canvases are dense,  intricate worlds comprised of grid patterns that intersect at contrasting angles. Executed with impressive exactitude and vibrant color, they pulse in an uncanny, optically playful or ambiguous way, producing mesmerizing shifts in light and spatial depth. Kuntzman’s clear passion for highly organized architectonic structures is evidenced by his titles, all names of historically important mathematicians: Euclid, Archimedes, Diophantus, and Descartes.

     You could conceivably regard Parker’s smaller works mounted between Kuntzman’s as responses articulating other cognitive options, as if to say, “Yes, I agree, but let’s not forget about…” Her distinctly visceral and intuitive mixed media paintings here are selections from her recent Painting in the Dark suite (for a review of that series, click on this link: ). Though certainly not as uniformly bright and utopian in character as Kuntzman’s visions, Parker’s explorations of organic shapes and simple, totemic structures are nonetheless contemplative, exuding an earthy energy at once child-like and primordial. Her shapes, often rendered in or accented by bold, electric hues, seemingly explode from subtly varied fields of more brooding colors.

    Interestingly enough, this show brings to mind Rafael’s portrayal of Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle in his monumental School of Athens fresco (1509-1511). Plato points upward, to ideals, to the notion of pure ideas over earthly reason. Aristotle points to the ground, to the ‘real’. Both stand side-by-side, framed by a solid arch, in the center of all the conversing and teaching transpiring around them.

    Kuntzman as Plato to Parker’s Aristotle? To a degree, perhaps. Still, this show reminds me that nonobjective painting is, at its core, a compelling witness to our desire to see and feel essences, and a challenging dialogue between perfected ideation and physical form.

    Photos: Top -  My Crayolas by Patricia Zinsmeister Parker / Descartes, by David Kuntzman

Monday, September 10, 2012

Structured Intuitions

Structured Intuitions

By Tom Wachunas

    “What you see is what you see.”  - Frank Stella –

    “The best works are often those with the fewest and simplest elements…until you look at them a little more, and things start to happen.”  - Clyfford Still –

    EXHIBITION: Constructed Spaces: Paintings by George Schroeder, on view at MAIN HALL ART GALLERY, KENT STATE UNIVERSITY AT STARK (lower level of Main Hall), THROUGH SEPTEMBER 22. Gallery hours are Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to Noon

    Things happen in George Schroeder’s paintings. Or not. They speak. Or keep their secrets. Are they  generous revelations of knowable, familiar things, or silent witnesses to mysteries? That would largely depend upon viewers’ expectations, focus and intentionality in assessing the elegant geometric abstractions that Schroeder offers.

    First, the matter of expectations. In closely observing public assessments of Modernist/Postmodernist abstraction over the past 30 years or so, it has occurred to me that for many viewers, non-objective painting often poses what might be insurmountable if not divisive challenges. It seems to me that within this demographic there is the idea that painters (indeed all artists?) are somehow duty-bound to impart easily understandable or inspiring pictures about our time and our world. Art as a user-friendly, cultural opiate. In this digital era of instantaneously available knowledge, it’s easy to become all too comfortable with not having to work very hard for our answers (or our entertainment). We seem to be increasingly complacent if not downright lazy when it comes to exercising our innate intellectual capacities. And to the extent that those capacities become atrophied, our ability to recognize even the possibility of experiencing emotional connections to abstract art is likewise limited.

    Now, the matter of focus and intentionality. Sometimes we viewers can be a woefully undisciplined lot as to the actual time we spend examining nonrepresentational art - the time to do the work of really  looking and finally seeing. Failure to fully engage our work of looking, which is itself a voluntary discipline, is to deny ourselves the rewards of the pure “art experience” that so many abstractionists (particularly Minimalists and Color Field painters) have historically desired for us.

    In his web site statement, Schroeder writes, “My recent paintings are improvised, to some degree, over a scaffold of vertical and horizontal lines. I put something down and respond to it, trying one thing and another until I sense where the painting wants to go.”

    His “lines” can just as well be read as juxtaposed planes, in high contrast, that interact in a variety of ways. These interactions – intuitive decisions on the artist’s part, certainly - imbue the paintings with a fascinating formal intelligence that balances rhythmic movement with stillness. And amid all the precision of flat, hard-edged geometric design there is also a richly subtle and playful spatial balancing – a gentle pushing and pulling between positive and negative planes.

    Stretch your imagination a little further, and you could conceivably view these works as uncomplicated melodies with strong, resonant harmonies. Schroeder’s spartan, distilled palette of  tinted grayish neutrals alternated with deeper blues and/or blacks is, interestingly enough, neither morose nor  threatening. Instead, the analogous schemes are very effective in exuding something akin to contemplative musicality.

    It’s a sensibility additionally enhanced by Schroeder’s quietly regulated surfaces. He applies acrylic paint with drywall blades or cardboard squeegees for a controlled/controllable finish. There are no frenetic gestures, no impasto brush marks, and nothing of the notoriously plastic patina that acrylics so often deliver. The apparent rigidity of formal construction in these canvases is softened by their ultra-matte look. Schroeder’s paint application allows for delightfully integrated passages wherein the top skin of color has been uniformly scraped away to reveal the grainy tactility of the canvas, tinted earlier in the painting process with shadows of underlying colors.

    What finally emerges from these works is a lyrical architecture of sorts, heraldic in its simplicity, and intuitively engineered to conjure moments of serene equilibrium.  

    Photos, top to bottom: The City I, Citadel II, Untitled (Cement)     

Monday, September 3, 2012

Tales that Wag the Dog

Tales that Wag the Dog

By Tom Wachunas


    “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principle difference between a dog and a man.”  - Mark Twain –

   “No one appreciates the very special genius of your conversation as a dog does.” - Christopher Morley-

    EXHIBITION:  Allegory in Wood: James Mellick / at the Canton Museum of Art THROUGH OCTOBER 28/ 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio (330) 453 – 7666 /  

    One of the consequences of The Fall as described in Genesis was that humanity’s relationship with nature became terribly adversarial. We would thenceforth need to wrestle a reluctant, thorny earth to extract the luscious fruits it once so freely offered in Eden. Additionally, our originally harmonious stewardship of the animal kingdom eventually morphed into mutual bloodletting.

    Was it desperate loneliness, hubris or guilt that made us reclaim part of that kingdom in the form of our evolved and epic emotional connecting with the dog?  Those who nurture that connection have crowned the creature “man’s best friend” for the qualities and behaviors perhaps more aptly assigned to us as we would ideally prefer to see ourselves. We value our domesticated dogs for their undying loyalty, unquestioning obedience, willingness to comfort and protect us, eager dispensation of real affection – in short, for their unconditional love.

     I often wonder if our sometimes too-obsessive worship of dogs and their manifest character traits (which we essentially engineered) isn’t some kind of moral transference on a societal scale. It reminds me of the old joke about the dyslexic insomniac agnostic who spends his nights thumbing through the Bible, looking for Dog.

    Be that as it may, the history of visual art (as well as music, dance, theatre and literature) is replete with animals as metaphors for, or allegories of human affairs. For Columbus-based artist James Mellick, a deep love of animals has been coupled with lively storytelling in masterfully sculpted wood.  In this exhibit, while there are some remarkably elegant abstract works, Mellick’s world has largely gone to the dogs, which he calls “the totem animals” of humankind.

    His meticulously constructed canines are somewhat like large versions of antique wooden pull-toys with their anatomies cut into segments. This method of fashioning the dogs’ bodies could itself be considered a symbolic representation of multi-faceted, poetic narratives about human memories, behaviors, vexing questions or circumstances. Stories with layers, or interconnected parts as in a puzzle.  Some of the stories (often provided as written accompaniments to the sculptures) are poignant and haunting, as in Ghost Dog, some starkly riveting (Blown Away), some wickedly whimsical or humorous (Darwin’s Dog).

    And even if these wooden allegories were so arcane as to be completely indecipherable parables (which for the most part they are not), they’re worth our time if only to marvel at their exquisite workmanship and wondrous attention to stunning detail. Mellick doesn’t just sculpt his forms “out of wood” in the subtractive sense so much as he seems to lovingly caress them into being. Maybe it’s like coaxing an old best friend, as it were, into showing us new tricks.


PHOTOS, from / Top to bottom: Blown Away, Darwin’s Dog, Ghost Dog