Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Rising From the Wreckage

(l. to r.) Dominic Iudiciani, Keitha Brown, Michael Burke


Devin Pfeiffer, Hallie Walker

(l. to r.) Dominic Iudiciani, Jonathan Tisevich, Keitha Brown

Keitha Brown

Hallie Walker
Rising From the Wreckage

By Tom Wachunas

“…Who's crazy? The one who's uncured, or maybe the one who's endured; the one who has treatments or the one who just lives with the pain …”  - lyrics by Brian Yorkey

   Could any of us ever experience hope without first floundering in despair? Or savor light without first tasting darkness? These vexing questions and their complex repercussions resonate throughout Next to Normal, the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical from 2010, with book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, and music by Tom Kitt. In addressing them, this deeply engaging story about the damaging effects of a mother’s mental illness on her whole family goes far beyond any gentle tugging at your heartstrings. It relentlessly yanks and twists them into torturous knots.

   For this Players Guild production, Jonathan Tisevich set a very high bar for himself in his double-duty as director and actor. But he and his marvelously adroit cast members have successfully joined to become a dynamic entity. Together, they’re an astonishing family unit in their own right, telling their anguished tale with practically operatic force driven by a profound and riveting emotional intensity. They elevate Yorkey’s lyrics – which on paper might at times seem like so much cosmetic sentimentality – to a level of startling sincerity. In the process, this courageous ensemble becomes  empathy itself.   
  
   The tiered set designed by Joshua Erichsen, with its pixelated images of a house and faces on panels floating in the air, is a stark metaphor for the fractured and dysfunctional life that has crippled the Goodman family for 16 years. The ever-shifting moods and textures of that life are sharply reflected in the music, which is an edgy pastiche of idioms flavored with rock, countrified melancholy, and dreamy lyricism, and all superbly articulated by the small yet plush-sounding live orchestra conducted by Steve Parsons.

    Diana Goodman is a housewife diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder, and hopelessly imprisoned in a futile cycle of pain management protocols including an arsenal of drugs, psychoanalysis, and even electro-convulsion treatments. The merciless progression of her disease is presented in such a way that we don’t learn about the shattering event that first triggered it until after we’ve witnessed a number of scenes with her husband Dan (Jonathan Tisevich); daughter Natalie (Hallie Walker) and her boyfriend Henry (Devin Pfeiffer); son Gabe (Dominic Iudiciani); and Doctors Madden and Fine (Michael Burke).

   In the daunting central role of Diana, Keitha Brown is an uncanny embodiment of unmitigated dramatic power in the way she makes us vicarious participants in her brokenness. With exceptionally powerful singing, she draws us deep into her character’s ravaged psyche, her wounded heart, her ferocious groping for a reality that makes some sense. Yet, caught as she is in her numbing inward spiral of tears and terror, she’s not so far gone that she can’t see or dream of a reasonable way to reclaim her real self, as she reflects with tender and urgent yearning in the song, “I Miss the Mountains.”

   To her role of daughter Natalie, Hallie Walker brings a poignant credibility that’s equal parts sardonic and sad. There’s an understandably bittersweet yet visceral quality to her singing when she reveals Natalie’s feelings of invisibility, as if her life at home has been erased. Her heart has been hardened by too many years of neglect from her mother who has been in turn pathologically focused on her other child, Gabe. In that role, Dominic Iudiciani is intriguingly stealthy and lithe as he basks in his mother’s constant fawning, particularly when he sings “I’m Alive” with all the panache of a rock’n’roll star.

   Meanwhie, Natalie begins to find some solace in her slow-growing affection for her charismatic stoner classmate, Henry. Devin Pfeiffer conveys all of Henry’s amiable quirkiness with delightful aplomb.

   And then there are Diana’s two therapists. Both are played by Michael Burke, who deftly conveys their frustrating if not humorous cluelessness in identifying the precise nature of the affliction they’re trying to treat. 
 
    Jonathan Tisevich can be both breathtaking and downright excruciating to watch in his role of Diana’s beleaguered husband, Dan. In the face of Diana’s   terrible pain, he’s an eminently loyal man trying to be an anchor, a present haven of comfort and “normalcy” – whatever that means anymore. It’s a sublime depth of passion and searing expressivity that Tisevich brings to this production. As the husband and wife in this story appear to be inexorably fading away from each other, Dan’s desperate grasping at even the faintest glimmer of hope for recovery grows all the more. That’s the point of the show’s thunderous, ebullient closing number, simply called “Light” – the stuff that untangles our knotted heartstrings. 
  
   And what I most want to know is, where on earth, if on earth at all, did Tisevich go to get that singing voice of his? I’d like to visit there for a while, then come back and sing to you all about it.
   
All photos courtesy of Players Guild Theatre

NEXT TO NORMAL, at Canton’s Players Guild Theatre on the William G. Fry stage, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton, through March 3rd / performances on Fridays & Saturdays @ 8:00 PM, Sundays @ 2:00 PM, as well as Thursday, February 28th at 8:00 PM.  Tickets are $32.00 for adults, $29.00 for seniors and $25.00 for those 17 and younger / purchase online at www.playersguildtheatre.com  or at the Players Guild Box Office, located in the Great Court of the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave N. Tickets may also be purchased by phone: 330-453-7617.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Intriguiled and Mystiflighted

"Jade Cove Study I" (wax, hydrocal on plywood)


"Cyanophyta" (wax, hydrocal on plywood)

"Succulent with Red Color Field" (glass)

"Waste Line 9" (with Nathan Gorgen - acrylic, plywood, hydrocal)

"Waste Line 2" (with Nathan Gorgen - acrylic, wax, hydrocal, plywood)

"Queueing" detail

"Queueing" detail
Intriguiled and Mystiflighted

By Tom Wachunas

queue /kyo͞o/  (noun):  1.  a line or sequence of people or vehicles awaiting their turn to be attended to or to proceed. / 2. in computing, a list of data items, commands, etc., stored so as to be retrievable in a definite order, usually the order of insertion.

   EXHIBIT: Queuing -   a solo exhibition featuring works and site specific installation by Molly Burke / at The Lemmon Gallery, located inside the Kent Stark Fine Arts Building, 6000 Frank Avenue, North Canton, Ohio / THROUGH MARCH 2, 2019 / Gallery viewing hours are Monday – Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. 



    The title of this post is comprised of two neologisms, offered in the playful spirit of Lewis Carroll’s “portmanteau” words (from Through the Looking-Glass), wherein parts of multiple words are blended to form a new one. This  exhibit of works by Columbus-based Molly Burke left me, as Humpty Dumpty might have said to Alice, intriguiled and mystflighted – intrigued and beguiled, mystified and delighted, all at once.

   A casual stroll through the exhibit could possibly lead you to think you were looking at a group show of three or four different artists. It’s true that I often walk into many artists’ solo shows with an expectation of encountering works that have a certain unified rhyme and reason about them, or some sort of consistency in visual vocabulary and syntax - an apparent “style” in one medium. But expectations can undermine our willingness to look deeper and be surprised. After all, where is it written that an artist must by definition be constrained to one method or iconography? 

   To better appreciate the diverse trajectories of materiality in Burke’s art, the statement on her web site is illuminating. There she tells us, “I observe details and the repetition that occurs in our environment.  My artwork focuses on magnifying these observations.  I am not specifically geared toward one media, although I am attracted to materials that have a certain amount of transparency, and change states from fluid to solid.”

   Transparency and solidified liquids. Glass, wax, and hydrocal (a type of plaster) are Burke’s raw materials, transformed into various series of objects. They’re comfortably-scaled enough to imagine cradling them in your hands, or running your fingers along their lusciously tactile surfaces. They suggest, as opposed to depict or illustrate, any number of things or phenomena  including, perhaps, fertilized ova, microorganisms, or clusters of succulent plant growths emerging from viscous pools of wavy fluid.

   Several pieces in the exhibit are collaborative projects between Burke and her husband, Nathan Gorgen. These fascinating, somewhat enigmatic works from their "Waste Line" series have the look of abstract puzzles in the process of being assembled with leftover materials from their respective creative practices – wax and hydrocal from her, wood and painted faux surfaces from him. A union of rescued remnants given new life.

   And then there’s Burke’s compelling installation from which the title of this exhibit is derived - “Queuing.” Within this gallery there is a rectangular island of sorts in the form of a very long, wide, four-walled column. Burke opted to hang no art on the walls of this structural element of the gallery space. But the sheer expanse of all that white emptiness serves quite effectively as a frame, drawing your eyes downward to the floor. There at your feet you can see the entire island surrounded by a group of white hydrocal forms cast from balloons. 

   Some are intact, some slightly cracked, others broken into pieces like shattered chinaware. Yet there they are, a population lined up on the floor at the base of that monolithic column, as if in a procession, or standing at attention. At one point there’s a gap in the line. On the wall above the gap there’s a shelf. On it are three of the balloon forms – one red, one white, one blue. They don’t sit on the shelf so much as delicately hover there, seemingly poised on a sliver of air. Metaphor for a fragile democracy? I imagined that if I blew on these cryptic balloons hard enough, they’d fall over.

   Then I imagined a perplexed Alice asking Humpty Dumpty, “What are these?!” The jolly egg - himself no stranger to being toppled - smiles a wry smile and says, “Why, they’re cryptaloons, of course.”

Friday, February 1, 2019

A Haunting Metamorphosen and Radiant Eroica from the Canton Symphony Orchestra



A Haunting Metamorphosen and Radiant Eroica from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

By Tom Wachunas

“Don't only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets; art deserves that, for it and knowledge can raise man to the Divine.”
- Ludwig van Beethoven

   With Beethoven as the primary focal point, the three works on the January 26 Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) MasterWorks program made for a beautiful and bittersweet journey through interconnected musical and dramatic ideas. The final destination was an altogether magnificent event - Beethoven’s ground-breaking third symphony, Eroica.

   This intriguing journey began with Beethoven’s finale to Die Geschöpfe Des Prometheus (The Creatures Of Prometheus), a two-act ballet choreographed by Salvatore Viganò, and first performed on March 28, 1801, at the Vienna Hofburg Theater. Though a few critics of the day complained that Beethoven’s music was so intellectually demanding that it overwhelmed the dancing, the public reception was more forgiving, and the ballet enjoyed reasonable success with 28 performances over the next two seasons.

   Viganò called the work a “heroic allegorical” drama which presented the mythological figure of Prometheus as a noble figure, driven to eradicate the ignorance of human beings. With the help of Apollo and the Muses, he leads two statues into experiencing human passions, gifting them with philosophy, knowledge of the arts, and morals.

   The form for Beethoven’s finale for the ballet was drawn from the Anglaise, a popular social dance at the time. The dominant musical idea resonates with prophetic significance. In it we hear a bass line and melodic theme that was clearly a lasting favorite for Beethoven. He would use it again in his set of 12 Contredances and in his Opus 35 piano variations (Eroica Variations), both written in 1802, and to a far greater extent in the finale of his third symphony, written 1803-1804. Here, the ensemble articulated all of the breezy, bright energy of the ballet finale with scintillating clarity.

   After this brief but cheerful moment of light, we were transported to considerably more challenging, darker realms. In introducing the next piece, Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen, composed in 1945, Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann offered astute and sensitive observations about the resonant themes that linked all three works on the program. In particular, he characterized the mournful solemnity of the Strauss work - strikingly similar to the musical ideas in Beethoven’s iconic funeral march in the second movement of Eroica - as an expression of unmitigated hopelessness. In the final measures of the work, Strauss directly quoted the Beethoven theme, and made a notation on the score, “In Memoriam!” While those words can certainly be regarded as grateful acknowledgement of Beethoven’s influence, it’s also fair to see them as implacable grief over the wartime collapse of an entire culture. When he heard that the Weimar and Munich opera houses had been destroyed, he wrote, “…it was the greatest catastrophe of my life; there is no possible consolation, and, at my age, no hope.” 

   Have you ever stood on an ocean shore long enough to be hypnotized by the waves coming in? Were you awed by the power of their constant slow swelling in the distance, their majestic cresting, and the whooshing sound of their falling close to you, over and over again, for what seemed like an eternity? In some ways, listening to the orchestra navigate this profoundly moving work was like that.

   The work was scored for 23 solo strings. On this occasion, all but the five cello players performed while standing – a haunting evocation of a funeral procession. Strauss’s music is an immersive masterpiece of intricate chromaticism and dense, complex textures, all intertwined and washing over us in seemingly relentless, alternating cycles of dramatic crescendos countered with passages of contemplative quiet. The ensemble’s reading was intensely reverential and cohesive, and yet another riveting demonstration of the virtuosic prowess and enthralling sonority of the CSO strings.

   That same remarkable depth of artistry was all the more multiplied and intensified throughout the entire orchestra in its radiant performance of Eroica. Now it felt to me as if all of this evening’s ideas, colors, and moods had congealed so completely that the orchestra under Zimmermann’s impassioned baton became a compelling embodiment of Beethoven himself, if such a thing were possible.

    I’m speaking of Beethoven the man, finding hope and joy even in the tragedy of his encroaching deafness and political tumult of his day; of Beethoven the Promethean visionary drawn to the idea of bringing enlightenment to humanity; of Beethoven the romantic revolutionary who changed the face of symphonic music. That an orchestra could so beautifully impart such considerations, as this one did, is a heroic act in itself.