Wednesday, December 23, 2015

All I Want for Christmas...

All I Want for Christmas…

    “…Just suppose that we identify (at least in his ‘natural’ aspect) the cosmic Christ of faith with the Omega Point of science: then everything in our outlook is clarified and broadened, and falls into harmony.” 
   - Pierre Teilhard De Chardin, from his essay, Suggestions for a New Theology,” 1945

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

    In offering for your viewing contemplation what I’ve come to call my “annual image,” I ask two questions. First, will you spend any serious time thinking about what the first syllable of the word ‘Christmas’ means to you? And second, what are you going to do about it? In answering the first question, it might be helpful to consider God’s own perspective as found in Colossians 1:15-17 :

   “…He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together…”

   Have a Blessed Christmas.


Saturday, December 19, 2015

Thrilling Me Softly (and other eye tunes)

Thrilling Me Softly (and other eye tunes)

By Tom Wachunas

     “Interestingly enough, the sheer emptiness of the expansive gallery floor, combined with the generally neutral look and feel of the walls, conjures an eerie impression of an empty ballroom, awaiting the arrival of spectacularly attired guests. Ah well, maybe next year the dance will be more grand.”
    - from ARTWACH post on October 18, 2014

EXHIBIT: Stark County Artists Exhibition, at Massillon Museum, THROUGH JANUARY 10, 2016 / 121 Lincoln Way East, downtown Massillon

    Quoting myself above is simply a way to remind you of how miffed I was about the quality of last year’s annual Stark County Artists exhibit, not that it’s anything of great importance. Still, this year I’ve no axe to grind beyond my persistent concerns about the efficacy of “juried” exhibits and assigning gradated awards (Best in Show, Second Place, Third Place) along with a handful of Honorable Mentions, which one might call “also-rans.”
    In this postmodern era, there’s no universal standard by which to measure and declare an artwork’s indisputable excellence (much to the dismay, I’m sure, of some academic traditionalists). And regardless of a juror’s credentials, the process of determining relative levels of aesthetic quality is in the end a complex and mostly subjective one, fraught with subtle biases, including multiple definitions of art. The practice has become needlessly imperious and even a bit silly. Why can’t we simply have “jurors” as guest curators who choose the entrants to be exhibited and leave it at that? This is after all an art show, not a horse race. The designations of win-place-show certainly mean something unarguable in the sport of kings, but they have little if any truly meaningful function in the context of group art exhibitions.  
    Meanwhile, back at the track Massillon Museum, and to continue with the analogy of selected works with attendees at a ball, this year’s guests are elegantly dressed to thrill even if their aesthetic sensibilities are for the most part conservative and familiar. If artworks were songs - 63 of them here, by 42 artists -  most of them lie somewhere between easy listening and contemporary pop. That said, here are a few of the more appealing tunes that had me humming right along.  
    The sole printmaker in this year’s show is William Bogdan, and his haunting black-and-white woodcut, The Doe Lay Dead in a Field of Asters: No, is as stark as it is poetic. The large-scale verticality of the piece is compelling, giving it the resonance of a devotional icon. There’s something angelic about how the subtly toned and textured animal, with a cluster of floral shapes inscribed in its abdomen, seems to be ascending. Death begets life.
    Of the mixed media entries, In Her Shoes, by Clare Murray Adams, is especially fascinating. She’s particularly adept at distilling elements of ordinary domesticity into extraordinary moments of poetic materiality. There is an air of gentle mystique about this page from a dreamworld scrapbook – a tactile montage of childhood musings and memories.
    If there can be such a thing as Romantic Minimalism, photographer Seth Adam may have hit upon it with his crisp and bright image of a Pueblo structure in his Taos Shadows. While photographers don’t overtly “invent” a pictorial composition in the way a painter might, the most remarkable ones, such as Mr. Adam in this instance, know how to recognize and reveal a magical moment when they see one.
   Tina Meyers’ abstract acrylic painting, Living in the Trees, is a remarkably muscular composition, tight in structure and loose in gestural mark-making. The piece fuses figural with floral elements to create an enchanting biomorph.
    And there’s also plenty of enchantment in Brian Robinson’s Simple Waves. Robinson is a true master of the pastel medium. His stunning landscape is replete with feathery, silken textures; saturated, luminous colors; and sunlight rendered so lusciously you can almost feel the warmth on your face.
   Equally accomplished in the pastel medium (oil pastel, to be precise) is Diane Belfiglio, beautifully evident here in her glowing Fleeting Fall II. But her new sculpture, Repetitions II, is a surprising revelation. It’s a serious departure from the naturalistic realism she’s been so meticulously exploring – exhausting, really – for many years. The intriguing geometric abstraction of this free-standing work is on one level a nod to painter Piet Mondrian, but in airy 3D, with just a hint of Alexander Calder’s mobiles. Belfiglio is singing a new song these days, so to speak. Call it adventuresome alternative programming, and stay tuned for her future hits.

    PHOTOS (from top): The Doe Lay Dead in a Field of Asters: No, woodcut by William Bogdan; Living in the Trees, acrylic, by Tina Meyers; In Her Shoes, mixed media, by Clare Murray Adams; Repetitions II (foreground, on white pedestal), pinewood and chains, by Diane Belfiglio           

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Owning Scrooge

Owning Scrooge

By Tom Wachunas

    “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”  - Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)

    The last time I saw the Players Guild production of A Christmas Carol was in 2011. The ensuing years have not dulled this lustrous theatrical gem. In fact, director and choreographer Michael Lawrence Akers seems to have sweated the small stuff so that some facets of this year’s offering have acquired a sparkling new radiance.
    Joshua Erichsen’s scenic design includes meticulously sculpted 19th century architectural facades that swivel to reveal period interiors. When paired with thrilling fly effects, the entire set takes on a dramatic dimensionality, further animated by the authentic period costumes by George McCarty II, based on original designs by Susie Smith and Patricia Hemphill. Then there’s the wowing light and sound design by Scott Sutton, including very effective reverb effects along with tight spotlighting that makes individual characters seem to magically glow when they sing. A particularly spectacular and startling effect is the projection of Jacob Marley’s ghostly face on to the door-knocker of Scrooge’s house. The vivacious 11-piece orchestra, led by composer and keyboardist Steve Parsons, provides a scintillating atmosphere for John Popa’s clever and often compelling lyrics. And finally, the astonishingly talented 35-member cast rounds out this list of ingredients which add up to nothing less than a benevolent conspiracy to enthrall.
    The big ensemble choral numbers are impressively stirring with their sonorous harmonies. And when not front–and-center, the ensemble members are nonetheless adept at portraying authentic townsfolk sincerely engaged with each other through gestures, shared glances, and animated dialogue.
    Matthew Horning brings real warmth and earnestness to his role of Bob Cratchit. His singing of “A Child Alone,” along with the equally earnest Adam Petrosino as Tiny Tim, is one of the evening’s most tender passages. Amanda Medley plays Belle, Scrooge’s erstwhile love. When she senses her hold on Scrooge slipping away, the heart-piercing sweetness of her voice, tinged with palpable hurt, is riveting as she sings “I Have To Know.”
   In her airborne rendering of The Ghost of Christmas Past, Sarah Marie Young is mesmerizing as she sings “Walk With Me” to an incredulous-looking Scrooge in tow. There’s a soothing resonance to her soprano tonality that imbues her character with childlike innocence, subtly tempered with gentle wisdom and even a bit of irony.
    The tonal muscularity in Bart Herman’s voice is well-suited to his roles of Mr. Fezziwig, Scrooge’s former boss, and the Ghost of Christmas Present. As Fezziwig, he’s the picture of magnanimous joviality. As the Ghost, he’s alternately ebullient and authoritative in a cautionary sort of way.
    Other strong performances include Matthew Heppe in his dual role of Fred, Scrooge’s affable nephew, and Scrooge as a young workaholic, especially engaging when he sings “Ten Minutes More.” The evening is peppered with memorably funny scenes such as the jaunty “Mister Scrooge.” The song features The Collecting Men - a trio of charity solicitors played by Tyler Ferrebee, Doug Lisak, and Greg Rininger (who also turns in a chilling portrait of Jacob Marley’s ghost) - who cavort and cajole with quasi-vaudevillian glee, their harmonies reminiscent of old-timey radio jingles.
   This performance marks the sixth appearance of Don Jones in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. A seasoned veteran of the stage, it’s clear that he’s never stopped fine-tuning the nuances of his character to become more emotionally expansive. Here, he’s wholly in the moment(s) as he progressively sheds a convincingly irascible, selfish persona and steps into compassionate living. When he’s cruel, we shudder at his vitriol; when remorseful, he breaks our hearts; when redeemed, we’re giddy with elation right alongside. I think it fair to say that Jones (and for that matter the entire cast and production staff) owns Scrooge in the same way one would possess and care for a precious family heirloom.
   Precious indeed, this production. The Players Guild’s continuing commitment to this iconic story is a necessary and brave tradition of holding up a much-needed light and generous measure of grace in an ever-darkening world. It’s surely an artful epiphany that blesses us, every one.  
    A Christmas Carol, The New Musical, with music by Steve Parsons, book and Lyrics by John Popa (originated in 1997), at Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Avenue N, Canton, Ohio, THROUGH DECEMBER 20, 2015 / Shows on Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 2:00 and 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 2:00 p.m. / Single tickets:$26/ 17 and younger: $19/ Seniors: $23 / Box Office 330.453.7617 /

   PHOTOS, from top, courtesy Players Guild Theatre: Don Jones as Ebenezer Scrooge / Sarah Marie Young as Ghost of Christmas Past / (left) Bart Herman, Ghost of Christmas Present; Don Jones as Scrooge