Sunday, October 20, 2019

A Riveting Performance from a Rising Star


A Riveting Performance from a Rising Star



By Tom Wachunas

“…This is a story that commemorates living and passing through places of knowledge and of sharing and of that song called life.”
- Jennifer Higdon, writing about blue cathedral

   With Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann in the pulpit, as it were, the Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) took us to church with the first of the three works on its season-opening  October 12 program. Written by the acclaimed contemporary American composer, Jennifer Higdon, in 1999, blue cathedral is a tone poem inspired by the searing loss of her younger brother, Andrew Blue Higdon, to cancer.

   Higdon has explained that she thought of cathedrals as symbolic portals, leading from our world into spiritual realms beyond. Resonant throughout the work is the suggestion of a contemplative walk down cathedral aisles, a slow rising past pillars and glittering stained glass windows, through an immense ceiling to a vast blue sky, only momentarily clouded with sorrow tinged with anger, and finally  to a peaceful state of transcendent celebration.

    Special attention is given in the music to the flute, which Higdon learned to play when she was 15, and the clarinet, her brother’s instrument. Here, both soloists – flautist Jenny Robinson and clarinetist Ethan Usokin – delivered achingly poignant dialogues amidst soft, shimmering chords from the strings, with the flute eventually fading out as the clarinet progressed alone into ecstatic quietness. Additionally, elegant percussive effects brought a haunting dimensionality. A variety of crystalline chimes and ringing bells augmented the sensation of being in a sacred place, including a passage wherein members of the string section gently rotated the small Chinese meditation balls they held in their hands, making a sound like distant wind.  All told, the orchestra rose to this wholly mesmerizing work with a reverence so palpable, so moving, that I felt physically uplifted.

   While blue cathedral is certainly an empyreal journey, the second selection on the program, Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor -  with its unforgettable opening of a three-octave plunge down the keyboard – is a more earthbound experience, though no less compelling in its fervent soulfulness. Strangely, I’ve encountered some critical assessments of this work over the years which too quickly labeled it a tired warhorse. I’m sure that the CSO guest soloist, Eva Gevorgyan, would heartily disagree.

   There was nothing hackneyed about how this 16 year-old rising star performed the concerto with not only impeccable technical prowess and clarity, but electrifying emotional intelligence as well. An especially arresting element was Gevorgyan’s physical deportment. Her entire performance was infused with a quirky yet somehow endearing theatricality, as if she had adopted the animated mien of an entranced ballet dancer. In those passages when she wasn’t playing, she often gazed dreamily upward, listening intently to the ensemble, arms slowly swaying, hands poised in midair, seeming to gently grasp and sculpt the music itself.

    Gevorgyan’s articulation of the cadenza at the end of the first movement was a breathtaking display of youthful, sinewy vigor, and beautifully complemented by the delicate, nuanced wistfulness of her playing in the elegiac Adagio movement.  Her powerful rendering of the majestic final movement brought the audience immediately to their feet amidst giddy howls of approval. The encore, Alexander Scriabin’s Poem, Opus 32, No.1, was an all-too-brief moment of elegant, introspective lyricism.

   After intermission, the orchestra’s performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major was in every sense a brilliant exposition of the work’s almost dizzying array of moods, textures, colors, and rhythms. Still, even after the sonorous magnificence of the jubilant finale, what remains most bright in my appreciation of this extraordinary evening is Gevorgyan’s  riveting ride on Grieg’s warhorse.


Monday, October 14, 2019

Of Site and Sight


Of Site and Sight


"Tapestry" (2019)

"To lay your head on water" (2018)

"Constellation Group" (2019)

"Effigy" (2014)


By Tom Wachunas

   “…Overall, I equate my process as one akin to meditation rather than image making or craft. Repetition is employed to mark time’s passing, and with it I build elaborate surfaces covered with minute hand embellishment.  In this private, performative act of making I became a witness and a recorder.”  - Danielle Rante

EXHIBIT: Double Visions - solo exhibition featuring works by Danielle Rante / THROUGH OCTOBER 31, 2019 / at The William J. and Pearl F. Lemmon Gallery, located in the Fine Arts Building on the Kent State University at Stark campus / 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, Ohio
Artist’s Gallery Talk: Thursday, October 31, 11am Gallery Hours:  Monday-Thursday 11:00-6:00 pm, Friday 11-5 pm


   Hanging on the walls in one corner of the gallery – an alcove, of sorts, tucked away from the six large works on paper featured this exhibit – is a horizontal stretch of unrolled graph paper marked with words, numbers, and colored sketches of circles. Loosely pinned just above and below is an array of small photos of terrains from around the world, along with various dried botanical specimens.

   This seemingly impromptu arrangement suggests a travel log, a navigational chart, or maybe a bulletin-board journal of geographical sites visited and explored. As such, the display is an inviting portal to appreciating the conceptual essence Danielle Rante’s works on paper.

   Double Visions indeed, these thoughtfully wrought pieces show Rante to be an inquisitive voyager who transforms the material nature of a place or surface into a poetic contemplation. Her colored pencil drawings are hypnotic compositions, at once atmospheric and architectural, straddling the material and the ethereal, and replete with delicate detail and exquisite ornamentality.  Even more striking are her cyanotypes. To look at them is to be drawn into gorgeous, undulating cyan fields to encounter sublime empyreal dramas, where tiny earthbound floral and organic forms take on a galactic dimensionality. Like star maps.

    The cyanotype process (from the Greek word cyan, meaning “dark blue substance”) was invented by the British scientist, Sir John Herschel, in 1842. Not requiring a conventional darkroom or camera per se, images were produced by placing objects directly on to photosensitive (chemically treated) paper and exposing it to light to make what were then called “photograms.” The process was soon used to make architectural documents which we know as blueprints. Interestingly, the botanist Anna Atkins, considered to be the first female photographer, used the process to make an album of collected algae specimens in 1843.

    The notion of collecting, examining, and savoring, both scientifically and aesthetically, is a resonant presence in Rante’s cyanotypes. These configurations are made up of multiple, identically-scaled units of paper, arranged in a way that brings to mind the ground grids typically constructed for meticulous archaeological excavations. In Rante’s explorations, the terrestrial merges with the celestial. Our act of seeing becomes itself a spiritual exercise, a meditation. Site becomes mesmerizing sight.

Friday, October 4, 2019

An Epic Passage to Canaan


An Epic Passage to Canaan

Hidden Passage

A Brief Respite

Look for the Grey Barn Out Back

Stopover

Friend or Foe?

Nightlight


By Tom Wachunas

      A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of ‘O Canaan, Sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,’ something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We want to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan.”  – Frederick Douglas

   EXHIBIT: Through Darkness to Light: Photographs Along the Underground Railroad / at The Canton Museum of Art, THROUGH OCTOBER 20, 2019 / 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, Ohio / www.cantonart.org /330-453-7666

  “For over 14 years, Jeanine Michna-Bales logged countless hours of meticulous research and traveled extensively to create this series of images. Her efforts culminated in the release of this body of work in February 2017, as well as the release of the trade publication from Princeton Architectural Press in Spring 2017, and the launch of a traveling exhibition from Mid-America Arts Alliance that is currently touring the United States until 2024…”
- from the artist’s web site, at:


   After just a single step into the main exhibition space at The Canton Museum of Art, you’ll immediately feel engulfed in dimness. It’s an unexpected sensation of tangible dusk. You’re there to see pictures, but instead notice, at first, only dark brown-black rectangles on the walls. Curious, maybe even cautious, you get your bearings as you draw nearer to these things. With each step, your tentative walk in the waning light of day, as it were, becomes a progressively commanding sensation of being pulled  in, closer and closer, to peer through what might seem like windows on to landscapes where full-fledged nightfall reigns. Your eyes finally do adjust to their seemingly indecipherable opacity until, until…

   You’re immersed in a tenebrous immediacy. Looking into these beautifully subtle photographs by Jeanine Michna-Bales is to embark on an epic journey. As viewers we become vicarious travelers in an extraordinary odyssey: The Underground Railroad. Aided by the highly engaging and informative auxiliary exhibits here of other photos and artifacts, we become effectively sympathetic witnesses to a secretive trek, fraught with danger, following some of the same night-shrouded routes traversed by an estimated 100,000 slaves who escaped their Southern oppressors between 1830 and 1865 to find freedom in the North.

   Who could navigate these forbidding paths, enfolded as they are in gloomy night, with any sense of certainty? Who could determine actual nearness or distance with any sense of assurance? In these intensely compressed terrains, even shadows feel indistinguishable from the forms that cast them.

   Still, there’s light. It might be a whisper, a far-away glimmer, a ghostly reflection in a swamp, the risen moon, a pitch-black sky perforated by tiny stars, an illuminated farmhouse window. But light. A beacon, however faint or bright, of possibility. The idea of rescue, of safe haven. A call to compassion.

   And who would deny the timeliness of this exhibit? Michna-Bales’ stunning images resonate powerfully with our current – and volatile – societal concerns about immigration.

    Her art also reminds me of the original meaning of her medium - Photography, from two Greek words for light-writing. Interestingly, in all of their sumptuous tonal murkiness, these pictures are indeed a clear enough writing, a narrative. In the end, it’s not so much a story about the weight, the impenetrability, of darkness. Instead, it’s a compelling affirmation of light, and the dauntless determination to pursue it.       

Friday, September 27, 2019

Cheeky Cellblock Shenanigans


 Cheeky Cellblock Shenanigans 

Sarah Marie Young as Roxie

Allen Cruz as Amos

Serena Fronimo as Velma

Mason Stewart as Billy Flynn

Korecca Moore as Mama Morton



By Tom Wachunas

   For openers, here’s a few my closing ARTWACH  thoughts about the Players Guild production of Chicago from back in April, 2018 : “… Maybe it’s a piquant metaphor. Real life these days seems more than ever driven by insatiable social appetites for debauchery and scandal, or for the rationalizing of our celebrities’ moral turpitude, or the self-congratulatory pleasure we take in witnessing their demise. Is the audience for such things as complicit as the perpetrators?...” 

    OK, gratuitous moralizing aside, maybe I was overthinking it a little. The fact of the matter is that the big, funny, sizzling spectacle that is Chicago was made, ironically enough, all the bigger, funnier, and sizzling to the point of boiling, when it played in the small, intimate confines of the Guild’s downstairs arena theater. So it's interesting that the musical is being presented again - this time on the Guild’s main stage - so seemingly soon after that eminently successful run. In any case, it's always a real pleasure to see a show directed by Jonathan Tisevich, as this one is, and with a typically superb cast. I decided to revisit it, wondering if the bigger space could give a bigger bang. 

   Bigger space indeed. The stage looks cavernous and empty but for the towering, two-tiered scaffold platforms spanning the entirety of the back wall (scenic design by Joshua Erichsen). Helped along by the generally tenebrous lighting (designed by Reed Simiele) throughout the show, it’s all a somewhat Baroque-ish representation of cellblock gloom in Cook County Jail - home to a bevy of vaudeville showgirls awaiting trial for various crimes of passion. Additionally, the front of the stage has been extended by a wide ramp floated over the orchestra pit and stretching into the second row of house seats. It’s like a fashion-show runway, installed, no doubt, to shoot some explosive energy directly into the audience.

   Yet these contrivances don’t quite fully succeed in launching a consistent spirit of gripping immediacy, despite the excellent playing by the live band conducted by Steve Parsons. And yes, the choreography by Brandon Leffler is itself, like the music, delightfully scintillating, but could use a bit more polish and precision as executed by the dancers. There are many moments on this stage, wide and deep as it is, when the action feels too diluted, too casual, too… routine. It tends to ramble when it should strut more with crackling intensity.

   The true electricity, the real power and saving grace here, is in the compelling performances given by Serena Fronimo as Velma; Sarah Marie Young as Roxie; Mason Stewart as Billy Flynn; Allen Cruz as Amos; Korreca Moore as Matron ‘Mama’ Morton; and J. Ball as Mary Sunshine. Each member of this remarkable core ensemble is certainly a skilled-enough singer. More importantly, each fashions something more than a shameless burlesque, something more than a merely farcical caricature of a flawed or quirky individual.

   These performers give us singularly memorable characters of credible human dimensionality, however lascivious, troubling or dark that may be. Serena Fronimo’s Velma is all prideful sarcasm and swagger until Roxie steals the tabloid spotlight from her. Korreca Moore’s Mama Morton, the cellblock supervisor, is a gritty, fierce protector even as she glibly observes, “In this town, murder is a form of entertainment.” Mason Stewart’s Billy Flynn is a suave, narcissistic crooner and a manipulative, greedy shyster attorney. The hilarious J. Ball plays Mary Sunshine, a giggly gossip columnist in drag, and brings down the house with a howling and hoarse pseudo-soprano aria, “A Little Bit of Good.”

   A more tender, though equally show-stopping scene features Allen Cruz, playing Roxie’s hapless and timid mechanic husband, Amos, singing “Mister Cellophane.” In this self-deprecating, bittersweet moment, Cruz looks hard at his character’s social invisibility.

   And finally, Roxie. Aside from being a comedic powerhouse, Sarah Marie Young serves up a deliciously complex portrait that’s altogether riveting. She’s a lithe and limber embodiment of sultry sensuality, nutty naiveté, and dauntless determination to be a vaudeville icon. What a combination – salacious sass, slinky sashays, lusty laughs… and of course, all that Jazz.

   Chicago / Players Guild Theatre mainstage THROUGH OCTOBER 6, 2019 /   Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave. N, Canton, Ohio / Shows at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday ( 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 5) / TICKETS: $34 ($31 for seniors 65 and older), $27 for 17 and younger / may be ordered at  www.PlayersGuildTheatre.com   and 330-453-7619.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Faculty Faculties


Faculty Faculties 

Jack McWhorter, "Beginnings of a Complex"

Andrea Myers, "Switchswatch"

Kim Eggelston-Kraus, "Bound Geometry"

Erica Raby, untitled

Jennifer Jones, "All Things Considered"

Bridgett O'Donnell, "Cloud 0"

Mary Mazzer, "Where All the Cool Kids Live"

Tom Webb, "Nikola Tesla"


By Tom Wachunas

   “…a work of art is the product of strange activities in the human mind.” - Clive Bell

   EXHIBIT: Faculty Exhibition / through September 24, 2019 at the William J. and Pearl F. Lemmon Visiting Artist Gallery, located in the Kent State University at Stark Fine Arts building / 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, Ohio / featuring the work of Kent State University at Stark's art faculty members: Kim Eggleston-Kraus, Jennifer Jones, Mary Mazzer, Jack McWhorter, Andrea Myers, Bridget O’Donnell, Erica Raby, Danny Volk, Tom Wachunas, Tom Webb / Gallery Hours:  Monday-Friday 11:00-5:00 pm

   My unusually busy teaching schedule this semester at Kent State University at Stark has placed unprecedented demands on my time these days. Hence the long interval between blog posts. Regrettably, after today, there are only two full days left (Sept. 23 and 24) for viewing this current exhibit of 26 works by 10 Kent Stark Fine Arts faculty members. But it most definitely merits your close attention if you can manage a visit.

   It’s a highly captivating and impressively diverse show, rich in the way it engages not only the eyes, but the mind as well. I’m pleased to be a part of it. Included are two of my 3D drawings (graphite on salvaged computer towers) from a series called Deus ex Machina – commentaries on the self-perpetuating mysteries and mayhem of the Internet.

  Jack McWhorter’s visceral abstractions are sumptuous, exhilarating episodes of gestural action and reaction, of painterly call and response.   There’s an uncanny sense of being immersed in ever-evolving structural systems, or stratified, biomorphic phenomena. The tangible and ephemeral simultaneously congeal and disperse, depicting the history of their own making.

Switchswatch, a machine-sewn fabric collage by Andrea Myers, is an amorphous tapestry of sorts, with a subtly sculptural, kinetic, maybe even musical dimensionality. All those loosely attached stripes of vibrant color, like so many bright notes, punctuate and pop off the billowy, soft-toned ground, pulsing in an undulating crescendo which is in turn intertwined throughout with meandering, whispered lines of single colored threads. Here’s a harmony of macro and micro. The perpendicular warp and weft of fabric is elegantly balanced with a curvilinear countermelody.  

There’s also an elegant harmony in Bound Geometry, an earth-toned stoneware sculpture by Kim Eggleston-Kraus. Industrial-feeling, architectonic geometry is fused with organic forms that suggest curved, folded wings.

   The intimately-scaled, untitled mixed-media paintings by Erica Raby are infused with a quiet sort of playful tension and complexity. In these tactile explorations, at once dense and fragile, little scraps of collaged, repurposed paper shapes float atop, or peek out from underneath thin layers of paint, often with overlying clusters of seemingly random abstract patterns and wandering marks coexisting in a state of suspended flux. 

   All Things Considered is a particularly curious (if not somewhat jarring) installation by Jennifer Jones. It features a tipped-over baby carriage and coiled, intestine-like fabric forms embedded with rubber nipples - all spread out on a latch hook rug colorfully emblazoned with a not-too-vague likeness of a vagina. Is this a spilling out of maternal, feminist guts? All things considered indeed.

    One of Bridget O’Donnell’s intaglio prints on handmade paper, Cloud 0, presents some especially intriguing questions. In its meticulous rendering of illusory texture, it has the documentary immediacy of an archaeological photo of…what? A levitated fossil? An eerie shard of unknown substance? A relic from the primordial deep? Haunting.

   Questions abound, too, in both Mary Mazzer’s luminous oil and acrylic on paper painting, Where All of the Cool Kids Live, and Tom Webb’s enigmatic acrylic painting, Nikola Tesla (named for the inventor and engineer who designed the modern alternating current electrical supply system). Sometimes art can be a bit inscrutable. But a little mystery can go a long way towards keeping us alert to possibilities. To remain in a state of lingering inquiry is one sure sign of being alive.

   And finally, speaking of inquiry, there’s the fascinating installation from Danny Volk, The News Gallery (TNG) – 32 artist proposals printed on newsprint. The installation is set up like an archival reading room in a library, with 8 newspaper issues hung from slotted dowels on a wooden rack. Here’s the background supplied by Volk: “Volume 1 of The News Gallery was hosted by SPACES in Cleveland, Ohio from January 25 through March 22, 2019. Participation in the project was open to artists who submitted exhibition proposals to SPACES during the 2017 and 2018 open calls but who were not offered space in which to realize their visions. TNG is interested in recognizing the inherent energy with which these proposals were submitted, redirecting their intended trajectory, and providing an alternative exhibition opportunity within the space. With the artists’ consent, TNG published application materials for 32 artist proposals over the course of 8 weeks.”

   In some ways you might regard Volk’s generous acknowledgement of creative proposals as an artwork in itself, and his installation here as a work of shared performance art. You, the reader and assessor of artists’ ideas, are as much an active performer as Volk is.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Signs for the Times


By Tom Wachunas  








   “…Want nothing small about men. Except maybe their words, which should be modest and thoughtful and almost inaudible before their DEEDS. For the rest, bigness; heart, brain; imagination too; let it take the world in two hands and show us what it's like to BE! Tell us about it, we're hungry. Doesn't the Bible call truth BREAD? We're starved, our smile has lost out, we crawl around on a thin margin--a life, maybe, but what for? and who wants it anyway? Where's the man who says yes, and says no, like a thunderclap? Where's the man whose no turns to yes in his mouth--he can't deny life, he asks like a new flower or a new day or a hero even; what more is there to love than I have loved?”    - text by Daniel Berrigan, transcribed by Corita Kent into her 1965 serigraph series, “Power Up”

   EXHIBIT: Graphics by Corita Kent – designs from 1964-1968 / at The Malone Art Gallery, AUGUST 19 THROUGH OCTOBER 18, 2019 / located in the Johnson Center, on Malone University campus at 2600 Cleveland Ave, N.W., in Canton, Ohio / Gallery hours are Monday – Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.  Reception:  September 14,  2:30-4 p.m  
  
   This thoughtfully assembled collection of serigraphs (silk-screen prints) by Corita Kent, who was originally named Frances Elizabeth Kent (1918-1986), comes to us from the permanent collection of Thiel College, a private liberal arts institution located in Greenville, Pennsylvania. At age 18, Corita Kent entered the religious order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary where she took the name Sister Mary Corita. I highly recommend that you click on one or both of the following links to learn more about the life and work of this fascinating artist and activist, who was a passionate advocate for social justice:



   A central element in Corita Kent’s oeuvre is the printed word in the form of framed posters. Her expressions are playfully angled or inverted texts rendered in clashing day-glo colors and varying scales and fonts, drawn from literary sources, Biblical verses, and/or song lyrics of her day (such as Simon and Garfunkel’s “Slow down, you move too fast,” from “Feelin’ Groovy”).They effectively evoke the splashy zeitgeist of the cathartic 1960s in America.

   Throughout Kent’s captivating designs is an unmistakable family resemblance to Pop Art’s hard-edged, word-image aesthetic as practiced by such artists as Robert Indiana, whose iconic 1965 print of the word LOVE - with its stacked block letters and tilted ‘O’ - became an instant classic. The exhibit also wisely cites an article by Alex Hass about the influence of the Dada movement (originated in Zurich in 1916 as a cultural reaction to World War I) on Kent’s design sensibilities. Here’s an excerpt:  “…The movement radically changed typographic ideals and created fresh approaches to text. Unburdened of its rules and conventions, type was allowed to become expressive and subjective. This movement in particular advanced typography as a medium of its own. It promoted the use of typography as an art material that could be manipulated by artists and designers expressively.”

  On one level, Kent’s prints exude a vivacity reminiscent of the bouncing signs and banners commonly seen at protest rallies and street demonstrations of her era. Reading them brings to mind those moments we’ve all experienced to one degree or another – moments when we need to turn our heads just so, crane our necks and lean in to hear a singular voice above the din of many.

   Kent’s messages aren’t overtly angry or venomous so much as they’re her heartfelt prompts to consider something much larger than politics. There’s good news here, as in the Good News of the Gospel and its call for compassion and promise of hope and peace. These electrifying signs from her time still speak urgently to ours.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

An Eloquent Revelation of Light


An Eloquent Revelation of Light

Concentric Landscape II

Horizon I

Red Window II

Concerto in Blue V

Amber Concerto

Solar Concerto


By Tom Wachunas

   “When you are painting a landscape, assume the painting is real and the landscape is an illusion.  -Walter Darby Bannard

   “…He has given his inborn gift to nature. He has celebrated her minutiae and her grandeur, her openness and her mystery. Is not every serious celebration an acknowledgement of transcendence?” – Dr. Irma B. Jaffe, Professor Emeritus, Fordham University, from her catalogue essay, “Picturing Light: The Paintings of Richard Vaux”
  
EXHIBIT:  Picturing Light: The Paintings of Richard Vaux /  through Oct.6, 2019 /  At Massillon Museum STUDIO M Gallery, 121 Lincoln Way East (Ohio 172) in downtown Massillon / Viewing hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. A visit to the Massillon Museum is always free.  Call the Massillon Museum at 330-833-4061 for more information.



   The paintings by Hudson, Ohio-based Richard Vaux are deeply poetic visions embracing the stylistic legacy of Romanticism, Impressionism, and Abstract Expressionism all at once. Vaux is a conjurer of the highest order. He doesn’t just make beautiful pictures. He creates experiences. He turns natural light into a practically living thing.

   Let me clarify. The paintings – most of them acrylic on vinyl - aren’t ‘pictures’ in the conventional sense. They’re not static configurations of representational lines, shapes, and colors on a single 2D plane, though from  several feet away, they do appear to have a certain photographic flatness about them.

   But that apparent flatness progressively dissipates and takes on real  dimensionality as you move in for a closer look, just as you would to peer through a window at a spectacular atmospheric event.  These ephemeral skies open up ever so slowly. Their intensely subtle variations in chromatic tonalities and soft textures seem to undulate, shift, shimmer or fade as if stirred by a zephyr. So no, these aren’t really ‘pictures’ after all. They’re tangible actualities in their own right. They expand and contract. They breathe.

   This mesmerizing effect can certainly be attributed to Vaux’s unusual practice of painting on vinyl. While I’m not exactly sure of his precise method, the vinyl doesn’t appear to be a fully transparent, glass-like plastic. It has instead a slightly frosted look, giving the imagery a misty translucency, sometimes with passages of very tiny, amorphous surface irregularities – gentle ripples, or bubbles. While there’s paint on the topmost surfaces, there seems to be paint on the reverse sides of the vinyl as well, and maybe another painted vinyl plane underneath that one. Whatever his process might be, Vaux’s facile, harmonic manipulations of organic shapes and mellifluous hues imbue his iconography with a compelling spirituality. Articulating light as the palpable, moving substance of spirit.

   Additionally, there’s a mystical element here in the way Vaux often incorporates delineated, geometric (rectangles, grids, circles) planes or frames with his naturalism, perhaps suggesting an underlying (or overarching?) system or structure. Light as the architecture of the cosmic ether? I’m reminded of an observation by English landscape painter, John Constable (1776-1837): “Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not landscape painting be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments?” 

   But once again, these aren’t pictures. They’re enthralling, celebratory meditations. Better still, revelations. Transcending the familiar, they make what was old new again.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Let's Mock-n-Roll


Let’s Mock-n-Roll


(l. to r.) Sean Fleming, Todd Cooper, Allen Cruz

Carly Ameling, Sean Fleming

Sean Fleming


By Tom Wachunas

   I don’t know where I’m going / But I sure know where I’ve been / Hanging on the promises / in songs of yesterday …”  lyrics from “Here I Go Again,” By David Coverdale and Bernie Marsden, of Whitesnake  

   Here they go again. They’ve been waiting for a show like this – to hit us with their best shot and fire away. They just couldn’t fight the feeling to feel the noize. Workin’ hard to get their fill, they all want a thrill and they don’t stop believin’. The final countdown to nothin’ but a good time and high energy is on. They wanna rock. They’re the ones who want to be with you with too much time on their hands, to kiss you deadly, and to melt your face in the heat of the moment with more than words. Yikes.

   The ‘they’ is Players Guild Theatre’s Jonathan Tisevich, directing Rock of Ages, with a scalding-hot cast of 14 performers, and an equally sizzling onstage six-piece band conducted by keyboardist Steve Parsons. The show is a jukebox musical, written by Chris D'Arienzo with music arrangements and orchestrations by Ethan Popp, constructed around famous “glam metal” hits of the 1980s, with snippets of more than 30 power ballads and gushy love songs woven into the action. The original Broadway production opened in 2009 and ran for 2,328 performances before closing in 2015.

  An insanely twisted tale set in 1987, Rock of Ages is about life and love in and around The Bourbon Room, a Sunset Strip rock club on the verge of being torn down to make room for retail stores. We hear from screeching, big-haired, crotch-grinding men and watch slinky parades of pole-dancing, derriere-wagging waitresses clad in neon-colored lingerie (costumes by Suwatana Rockland). If you look closely enough behind this elaborately constructed bar room façade (scenic design by Joshua Erichsen), however, you’re sure to find that much of the show is a deeply probing metaphor for… screeching, big-haired, crotch-grinding men and pole-dancing, derriere-wagging waitresses clad in neon-colored lingerie.

   The story is narrated by the infectiously goofy and mischievous Allen Cruz. He plays Lonny, the Bourdon Room house manager and sound man who has a noisy habit of disrupting the small number of genuinely tender moments the show has to offer. Most of those moments center on Carly Ameling - instantly charismatic and shining in her portrayal of Sherrie, the proverbial small-town girl who comes to L.A. to be an actress but reluctantly settles for doing lap dances – and Sean Fleming in his role of Drew, an aspiring rock singer whose high-range vocals could peel paint. Their could-be romance is sidetracked when Sherrie succumbs to the sexual prowess of the hopelessly self-absorbed, swaggering bad- boy megastar Stacee Jaxx, played with lascivious ferocity by Brandon Michael. Talk about breaching the fourth wall - as very much of the action does in this sprawling production - at one point he slingshots a pair of panties into the audience.

   There’s something of the mellowed hippie peeking through Todd Cooper’s portrayal of Dennis, the Bourbon Room owner who decides to mentor Drew in his efforts to be a successful rocker. Paralleling Cooper’s magnetism is that of Leiah Lewis in her role of Justice, owner of the strip joint that hires Sherrie.  And then there’s Morgan Brown as Regina (pronounced RegEYEna, she’s oh so careful to point out), an impish gadfly protesting the impending destruction of the Bourbon Room by greedy German mother and son developers, Hertz und Franz, played with chillingly cartoonish intensity by Hannah Kyriakides and Dylan Berkshire.

  Through it all is the titillating choreography by Brandon Leffler – a raucous mash-up of apparent spontaneity and studied stereotypes that leave few visual clichés unexplored, including some absolutely hilarious scenes that imitate classic cinematic slow-motion effects to exaggerate if not dismiss the kitschy sentimentality of the moment.

   So the show is a lurid yet not overly- loud caricature. On one level it’s a silly burlesque, an unapologetic parody, and an otherwise self-mocking Declaration of Dependence on Dopamine. Interestingly enough, the cast members seem to have made a serious business out of not taking this business of sex and drugs and rock-n-roll too seriously. Maybe you could think of them as Journey’s streetlights people, aboard a midnight train, this one headed to where the laughs go on and on and on…

PHOTOS by Dominic Iudiciani

Rock of Ages / Through Sept. 1, 2019,  at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday / no show on Aug. 10, and shows at 7 and 11 p.m. on Aug. 31 / at Players Guild Theatre Downstage, Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave. N, Canton, Ohio / TICKETS: $34 ($31 for seniors 65 and older), may be ordered at www.PlayersGuildTheatre.com  and 330-453-7619.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Remembering the Glory of Living


Remembering the Glory of Living

Kelly Strand, Andrew Gorell

Andrew Gorell, Bob McCoy

Aaron Brown (l), Andrew Gorell

(l.. to r.) Kelly Strand, Andrew Gorell, Heidi Swinford, Bob McCoy, Aaron Brown


BY Tom Wachunas

Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past.
 - T.S Eliot, from “BURNT NORTON” (No. 1 of ‘Four Quartets’)

Isn’t it rich? / Are we a pair? / Me here at last on the ground /You in mid-air/Send in the clowns  -  Stephen Sondheim

   There is certainly a conceptual kinship between Noah Haidle’s Smokefall and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Both plays are piquant narratives that explore, in varying degrees, the bittersweet dynamics of the ties that bind us to each other, and to simply being alive. But Haidle’s narrative -  chronicling four generations of a quirky family in Grand Rapids, Michigan – is a much more layered and complex journey through time. The play is mounted here by Seat of the Pants Productions and directed by Craig Joseph, who’s always on the look-out for powerful, challenging stage literature. He’s found it again. And again, he has assembled a superbly accomplished ensemble to articulate it. The play is an unflinching conflation of the mundane and the metaphysical, and profoundly rich in the way it melds together preposterous whimsicality, dark hilarity, and soulful tenderness.

   Throughout Act 1, the character named Footnote (Andrew Gorell) walks about the stage like a veteran tour guide. He addresses the audience in a finessed attitude of serious authority peppered with curiosity and surprise as he voices enumerated annotations on the actions and thoughts of all the other characters.

    We meet the sweet and sensitive Violet (Heidi Swinford), pregnant with twin boys (“mistakes,” Footnote observes). As she contentedly goes about her daily tasks, she sings gentle songs to them, inviting her family to speak to her unborn “citizens of the heart.”   But the pregnancy has only added to the fragile psychological state of her husband, Daniel (Aaron Brown). He’s depressed, disillusioned, apparently feeling burdened by the ho-hum of everyday routines. At one point we see Violet setting the breakfast table, putting down the cups one by one in a loud rhythm, as if marching, while upstairs at the bathroom sink the dour-looking Daniel - who has no intention of ever returning home once he leaves for work on this day- slaps his razor on the sharpening strap in an equally march-like rhythm. Is this the relentless striding of cruel time? There are other similarly nuanced details in the play, wherein an otherwise ordinary sight or action acquires a deeper symbolism. Footnote tells us what Daniel whispers to the twins: “Help me remember the glory of living.”  We find out later that the twins hear every word spoken in this troubled household.

   Meanwhile, Bob McCoy delivers a genuinely affectionate portrait of The Colonel, a widowed career army man still very much in love with his departed wife even as he wanders in the mists of dementia. He tells the twins, “God exists. Remember I said that…and that the greatest possible act of courage is to love.” And then there’s Beauty, 16-year-old daughter of Violet and Daniel, played by Kelly Strand. She’s heard the marital arguments, along with her father’s constant lamenting the incessant cost and noise of life in their house. In a very odd act of love and self-sacrifice, she hasn’t uttered a word for the last three years, and subsists on a diet of dirt, twigs, and paint. It’s a thoroughly endearing eccentricity that Strand conveys. In her speechlessness, she lets her precise body language do the talking, her face a veritable enchanted landscape of emotional expressivity.

   The play’s most fantastical scene transpires at the end of Act 1, with Aaron Brown as Fetus One, and our narrator, Andrew Gorell, as Fetus Two. Dressed in garish red plaid suits like a Vaudeville comic duo, they kick, curl, push, and shove their way (oh, the labor pains!) through ridiculous (or is it miraculous?) in-utero philosophizing about their impending entry to humanity. In this manic mash-up of Shakespeare, Sondheim, Sartre, and Samuel Beckett, one twin (Brown) is fatalistic and fearful, while the other is all giddy optimism and courage as the two finally agree to take the plunge, as it were. The scene ends on an unexpectedly shocking note.

   When Act 2 begins, a whole generation has passed. In another of those aforementioned symbolic moments, we notice that through one of the floated window panes in the elegantly simple set designed by Kevin Anderson and Micah Harvey, the branches of an apple tree have grown into the family house. It’s a new tree, planted to replace the diseased one that once stood in the same spot in Act 1. The past grown into the present.  Bob McCoy has returned in the role of Johnny, that optimistic twin, now living alone in the family house and seemingly haunted - or obsessed – by ideas about genetic determinism he acquired in the womb. His kitchen floor is strewn with fallen, partially eaten apples; he prunes the invasive branches. He has an estranged son, Samuel (Gorell / Fetus Two), who has visited to reconcile with his father, saying at one point, “You’re alone because you drove everyone who cared for you away!” Johnny retorts “You can’t outrun a lineage.”

   Beauty also returns, effusively talking about her 40 years of searching for her father. She’s 95 by now, but still looks 16. Another symbol, or another miracle – to remain young by refusing to abandon familial love?

   Smokefall is an aptly intriguing title for this extraordinary drama. T.S. Eliot used the term in writing about the movement of time in his great poetic swansong, “Four Quartets.” It’s that fog that can rise in the fading light at close of day, before the dark sets in. Alluring, mysterious, and obscuring all at once, it can be nevertheless a cathartic, even sacred time, when past, present, and future join to become a singular, revelatory force.

    Just like being alive, experiencing Smokefall, the story, requires of us a vigilant attention to the idea of pursuing the redemptive power of love and its potential to reconcile broken, disconnected hearts. The effort can be exhausting, but also exhilarating. “The attempt is how we live,” as the title of the second act reminds us. Putting aside all its strange magic and brooding humor for a moment, here’s theatre that is ultimately, lovingly...real.

PHOTOS by Aimee Lambes

SMOKEFALL / shows on August 9, 10, 11, 2019 /
Friday and Saturday at 8 PM / Sunday at 2 PM /
At The Playground at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Boulevard, Cleveland Heights 44118 / Tickets $20 at: