Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Split Decisions

Split Decisions

BalustAgain, by Craig Leslein

Dark and Deep, by Joanna Mack

Ceremonial Chip #2, by Stephen Calhoun

Charcoal in Nylon Bags, by Hope Hickman

Coral Dance, by James Leslie

Mask of the Meat Eater, by Kenn Hetzel

Innocence Lost, The Remnants of Human Trafficking - by Judi Krew

By Tom Wachunas

EXHIBIT: FRESH 2020, 16th Annual Juried Art Exhibit at Summit Artspace, 140 East Market, Akron, Ohio, THROUGH FEBRUARY 8, 2020

Free artist panel discussion on Thursday, Feb. 6 at 7:00 p.m. RESERVE A SEAT HERE:

EXHIBIT HOURS: Jan. 10-Feb. 8, open weekly Thursday and Friday, 12-7 p.m, Saturday, 12-5 p.m.; free. Open for 3rd Thursday, Jan. 16, 4-7 p.m., and Artwalk on Feb. 1, 5-9 p.m.

    First this, from Summit Artspace: “Art that will be accepted as part of this annual exhibition must be innovative and challenging... Accepted artists will have pushed the boundaries of what art can be… will challenge the viewer to see the world through a new lens...will feature novel styles, original thinking…”   And, “…FRESH 2020 is following in that tradition with cutting edge works by local artists.”

   Are we to take the promotional buzzwords and phrases such as innovative, challenging, pushed the boundaries, new lens, original thinking, and cutting edge (my favorite) to mean that this entire exhibit is a sizzling hotbed of avant-garde ideations? If so, as a whole, this year’s show of 69 very diverse works (one of them is mine – check the ARTWACH archive for my post from December 14, 2019), selected by juror and artist Katina Pastis Radwanski, falls somewhat short of that lofty mark.

   This is certainly not to say that the show lacks overall aesthetic excellence and skillful execution in the conventional sense. In the elegant simplicity of Craig Leslein’s BalustAgain, the play of light along the uneven surface of all those re-purposed cut wooden porch ballusters, packed together like so many puzzle pieces, creates an array of small shadows which in turn make a separate composition integrated with the larger field of repeated colored wood shapes.  And the alternating angles of the pronounced woodgrains are a rhythmic punctuation that augments the hypnotic character of the piece.

   More mesmerizing still: Joanna Mack’s marvelously intricate fiber work, Dark and Deep, and Stephen Calhoun’s Ceremonial Chip #2. Calhoun’s work is an inkjet print on aluminum - a spectacular, infinitesimally detailed mandala. Looking at it – or more precisely, looking into it – is to be immersed in a radiant symmetry, a complex matrix of practically religious dimensionality. 
   In a mixed bag exhibit of this magnitude, there are some distinctly more edgy, intriguing visions prompted by social consciousness - and conscience. Speaking of mixed bags, Hope Hickman’s arresting acrylic painting, Charcoal in Nylon Bags, is at once serene and disquieting. A disturbed fertility. An alert. Those pristine white sacks piled in a field of wild grass are positioned such that they suggest hooded ghosts, dancing their eerie dance of chemical pollution.

   The naturalistic forms in Coral Dance, a beautifully textured ceramic piece by James Leslie, seem to float in a swaying motion. The piece is decidedly celebratory in nature – a bittersweet savoring of our beleaguered ocean environs.

   There’s something oddly precious about Kenn Hetzel’s Mask of the Meat Eater. You might call it a tribal trophy. This neatly crafted appropriation of a real skull adorned with forks seems to be a glib if not too obvious skewering of juicy steak connoisseurs.

   One aspect of this exhibit that I find a bit problematic is that all the artworks aren’t in the main gallery. There is art to view in the newly-named THREE G Gallery (formerly the Big Box of the BOX Gallery) on the third floor of Summit Artspace building. The continuity of the viewing experience in a single dedicated space gets disrupted, initially creating a sense that these upstairs works, stashed away as if in an attic, and so distant from the main body of the show, were an afterthought, a parenthetical inclusion. Interestingly enough, though, one of the most compelling works in the entire exhibit is in this space: Innocence Lost, The Remnants of Human Trafficking, by Judi Krew. 

   But the piece was situated too close to a corner of the gallery. This sculpture-in-the-round merits considerably more walk-around space, more breathing room, than it was given here. It’s a female torso on a pedestal, clad in a patchwork lingerie gown.  Hanging from a red ribbon around the neck is a large handwritten tag, quoting Leah Carroll (on Refinery An excerpt: “…(a trafficker) was not just a rapist, he was also a murderer; he’d murdered their childhoods, he’d killed the girls they’d once been. The details of the abuse were terrible to hear…”  Viewers are invited to take hold of the paper cut-out hands dangling from the hem, turn them over and read what’s written on them, to “be made aware of a fact that needs a voice.”

   Those facts are more than just sobering statistics about a virulent evil in our midst. They’re utterly heart-piercing. Cutting edge indeed.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Transumanza Extravaganza

Transumanza Extravaganza

Eons of History

Eons of History (detail)

Welcome to the Games

Touchdown Town

Touchdown Town (detail)

Big Betty - One Swell Lady

Big Betty-One Swell Lady (detail)

By Tom Wachunas

   “… I deeply believe in the symbiotic relationship between history and art. Both subjects are of the ultimate importance to our  understanding of the world today.”  - Carole d’Inverno

   EXHIBIT: Transumanza: Massillon, Ohio / work by Carole d’Inverno, at Studio M Gallery, in the Massillon Museum / THROUGH JANUARY 26, 2020 / 121 Lincoln Way, East, downtown, Massillon, Ohio / 330.833.4061 /

   Carole d’Inverno is a self-taught artist who grew up in Italy and Belgium, moved to the U.S. in 1979, and currently resides in Brooklyn, New York. Immediately after her proposal for this exhibit - titled “Transumanza: Massillon, Ohio” - was accepted, she immersed herself in researching the history of Ohio, and more particularly, Massillon.

   Loosely translated from Italian, ‘transumanza’ means crossing the land. As d’Inverno explains in her statement, “…Transumanza is, for me, both an action and a metaphor that can be applied to the historical changes that have shaped the United States: our shared history of crossing lands, breaking boundaries, accessing and losing territories, and our comings and goings.” 

   In one sense, d’Inverno is a cartographer, a maker of maps. While her very large paintings (up to 14’ in length) are not the precisely measured geographic or topographic delineations of the sort you’d find in an atlas, they’re nonetheless fascinating navigational documents. Made with vinyl paint on unstretched linen, they hang on the wall from metal grommet rings like unfurled scrolls, or sails, if you will, charting Massillon’s zeitgeist - its cultural milieu. These paintings are a visual storytelling, presenting a collective history, condensed and codified in deeply imaginative panoramas embedded with all sorts of symbols, gestures, and markings which are indeed an immersive mapping of a communal identity as it evolved through time.

    With each of the four major works here, d’Inverno has generously provided a key – a written guide for identifying and interpreting her dazzlingly complex configurations. You can consider Massillon from an archaeological perspective, for example, when looking at “Eons of History.” Those sketches on the lower left represent fossils from a prehistoric era when Ohio was under water - a tiny part of a vast inland sea. Then, in the same painting, travel into the future as it were, and find signs of ancient Native American ceremonial mounds, a Quaker church, an Underground Railroad hiding spot, factories, football, and even a look at the tent in Massillon Museum’s famous Immel Circus installation.

   “Welcome to the Games” remembers the oldest known Native American team sport in North America – the game that became refined by European settlers and known as Lacrosse. Linked to images of early native sticks and nettings are images of Massillon Tiger football players. A fittingly raucous homage to local football is “Touchdown Town,” along with an equally elaborate tribute to the Massillon steel industry, “Big Betty – One Swell Lady,”  the title recalling the nickname given to the massive furnace in The Central Steel Company of Massillon.

   Looking at these works should rightly be anything but a sedentary encounter. If you get close enough to read the aforementioned guides (which I highly recommend), then you’re close enough to begin really savoring, to begin traversing the sheer length of their intricacies -  their diverse rhythms and juxtapositions of shapes, lines, and very bold colors – one slow step at a time. Call it a metaphorical, or metaphysical, walk through local history. Treasure hunt, anyone?

   Beyond these inspired references to Massillon per se, the overall stylistic sensibilities evident in d’Inverno’s paintings resonate with other histories and cultures as well. Her iconography is a rich interlacing of organic and geometric markings – often like so many runes and glyphs - that merge into sprawling sequences of decorative patterns and narrative motifs. It’s an abstract  iconography that harkens to considerably more ancient artistic practices such as those found in Incan tapestries, or Aztec manuscripts, or Australian aboriginal art, or Aegean art, or rock carvings from northern Europe, or Tibetan mandala sand paintings, to name only some.

   So there’s an exuded aura, an exuberant spirit of contemplation and meditation in d’Inverno’s scrolls. They actually transcend the specificity of Massillon history and arrive at a potent connection to – and celebration of –  the many cultures across all of human history which have embraced the power of an abstract visual language to tell the story of a place, a people, a time.

    Additionally, I’m happily reminded that abstract art has been with us since the beginning of…art.    

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Gifts from the Gifted

Gifts from the Gifted

Born From Stardust, by Oxana Dallas

Boston Bricks II, by Diane Belfiglio

Gauss, by David Kuntzman

An Imperfect Art, by Patricia Zinsmeister Parker

School Shootings School Bus Cape, by Judi Krew

The Rider, by William M. Bogdan

Grey Matter, by Steve Ehret

Birch Bramble, by Catherine M. Cindia

By Tom Wachunas

   EXHIBIT: Stark County Artists Exhibition / THROUGH JANUARY 26, 2020 / at The Massillon Museum, 121 Lincoln Way East, in downtown Massillon, Ohio /    330.833.4061

   As the end of 2019 draws near, I’m sincerely grateful. Thank you, Massillon Museum, for continuing the tradition of this important annual juried exhibit – a gift to anyone who savors contemporary art. Thank you, participating artists (a total of 47 individuals out of 79 who entered) for your marvelous giftedness. I feel honored, indeed humbled, to be in your company. Really. The fruits of your creative labors have made this year’s Stark County Artists Exhibition truly the strongest I’ve seen in many years, remarkably rich in formal and conceptual diversity.

   And to all of you ARTWACH readers, give yourselves the gift of viewing the work by these artists: Seth Adam, John B. Alexander, Diane Belfiglio, Todd Bergert, William M. Bogdan, Peter Castillo, Catherine M. Cindia, Therese Cook, Oxana Dallas (Best in Show), David L. Dingwell, Laura Donnelly, Steve Ehret (Second Place), Megan Farrabee, Kathleen Gray Farthing, Gerald Fox, Sharon Frank Mazgaj (Honorable Mention), Robert Gallik, Coty J. Giannelli (Honorable Mention), Jared Hartmann, Charity Hockenberry, Judith Girscht Huber, Judi Krew (Honorable Mention), David Kuntzman, Sam Lilenfield, Timothy Londeree, Priscilla Sally Lytle (Honorable Mention), Nicole Malcolm, Robyn Martins, Tom Migge, Michelle Mulligan, Clare Murray Adams, Benjamin R. Myers, Tina Myers, Robert Nicoll, Patricia Zinsmeister Parker, Mark V. Pitocco, Anna Rather, Jacob Redmon, Erika Katherine, Israel Robinson, Priscilla Roggenkamp, Hilda Sikora, Sari Sponhour, Rosemary Stephen, Alex Strader (Third Place), Tom Wachunas (Honorable Mention) and Pat Mather Waltz.

   My gratitude is made all the more sweet by the award of an Honorable Mention for my piece, “Deus ex Machina #3.” Here’s a link to some pictures and a few brief thoughts on the work, if you’re interested:

   Additionally, I’m thankful for not being one of the jurors asked to assess levels of excellence and assign awards.  In an exhibit of such high caliber as this one, it’s an unreasonably challenging ask, if not a futile, perhaps even silly one. As it is, the jurors (Ken Emerick, former Artist Programs and Percent for Art Director at the Ohio Arts Council; Sarah J. Rogers, Director at the Kent State University Museum; and Stephen Tomasko, Akron artist and photographer) who assembled this superb collection saw fit to distinguish “Born From Stardust,” a textile work by Oxana Dallas, with the Best in Show award. There’s much to commend this beautifully sparkling, cosmic night vision of a statuesque woman encircled by people in postures of allegiance or adoration, or maybe supplication. The tactile intricacy of the weaving technique alone is hypnotic.

   Diane Belfiglio’s brighter, more earthbound oil pastel on paper, “Boston Bricks II,” is equally hypnotic, and no less beautiful, no less fascinating in its technical acuity. The gently bristling surface of overlaid chromatic textures is infused with sunlight, with the elegant simplicity of the brick pattern seemingly imprinted by subtly translucent crossings of dark shadows. 

   Speaking of elegant structure, David Kuntzman’s acrylic “Gauss” is a meticulously composed symphony of geometric abstraction. The overlapped grids in bright, pulsing colors create a spatial dynamic that breathes.

   A grid motif is also apparent in the mixed media painting by Patricia Zinsmeister Parker, “An Imperfect Art.” Here, though, the pictorial structure is not a neatly delineated scheme, but rather a raw, visceral arrival – a gestural rumination that emerged through time. Parker makes art that wags a wry finger in your face and rattles your expectation of “finished” aesthetic protocol. Her work is seriously engaged in the mindful play of pure markmaking and often brings to mind the sassy kid who refuses to color inside the lines.

   On a more somber and cautionary note, two works: “School Shootings School Bus Cape,” by Judi Krew, and “The Rider,” by William M. Bogdan. Krew’s piece is a compelling, thoughtfully constructed remembrance of a tragic reality in American society, as she explains with heartbreaking statistics in the chalkboard panels mounted on a music stand next to the yellow-caped mannequin: “…Since 1840, there have been 471 recorded incidents of a gun being used at an institution of education to wound or kill another person or one’s self…” Even more arresting, she writes, “…Unfortunately, this is a work in progress…”

   Bogdan’s stark woodcut print is an apocalyptic montage of sorts. His expressionism isn’t rendered with refined precision so much as scratched, clawed, pounded into being. No picture of noble intent or victory here. The horses’ hooves are like anvils. Those helicopters in the sky are like hovering, fattened vultures. That ghostly figure at the lower right is appropriated from Nick Ut’s shocking 1972 photo of a naked young Vietnamese girl, terribly burned and fleeing her village after it was bombed with napalm. But this is more than a jarring remembrance of that,…of then. Like Krew’s sobering notes on a work in progress, Bogdan’s print is a potent connection to a horrific still now, and with it, a haunting reminder that nothing changes if nothing changes. 

   Let’s shift gears for a moment into some surreal shenanigans, some unfettered fun. With a punctilious polychromatic palette, Steve Ehret masterfully manipulated “Grey Matter” – a spectacular, slick oil painting on panel (Second Place award) – into a fantastically fastidious panoply of protoplasmic phantasm. A mind-morphing loony landscape.

   If you consider this exhibit as an essay on the state of Stark County visual arts, Catherine M. Cindia’s encaustic (beeswax) painting, “Birch Bramble” is yet another of many exclamation points. It’s a sylvan scene that’s so dimensional, so sumptuously tactile, that it could be fairly called a relief sculpture. 

  But wait, there’s more, much more. The most meaningful award you can bestow on any of the artists here is your presence. Your time, your intentional looking, your willingness to come and actually see. They’ve earned it.

   Merry Christmas.  

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Unwrapping the Christmas Presence

Unwrapping the Christmas Presence

"Amended Big Bang Theory" - acrylic, fabric, paper, found object

By Tom Wachunas

   …The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…  John 1:14

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see…   Hebrews 11:1  

   Did the practice of giving and getting gifts (i.e., “presents”) at Christmastime begin with the simple notion that it was the wise thing to do, as in a grand identification with those three “wise men” traveling from afar to worship a new king? They were probably astrologers – readers of tiny, distant cosmic lights.  So when did remembering the “magic of Christmas” morph into the ritualized retail mania, the elaborate ceremonies of rabid consumerism which so much of our society engages today? 

   What light are we following? Have we become so enamored of Christmas presents that we’ve become insensitive to the Christmas presence? Immanuel, God incarnate, with us, here and now.

   It wasn’t until around 2001 that my artwork developed into a materiality of a Christocentric nature - a codified language of the heart. Back in 2008 I made a piece I called “A Brief History of Everything.”  Stark and simple, the work was comprised of nine crumpled index cards, painted in blotches of black and white, and mounted horizontally on a narrow board in a sequential row to suggest stages of opening up into an all-white field. It was inspired by the Big Bang Theory, science’s best explanation of how the universe came to be.

   I recently made a variation on the same theme, this one called “Amended Big Bang Theory,” measuring 48” tall, 10” wide, 4” deep, pictured above. The theory states that the cosmos began as an unimaginably small singularity, a less-than-microscopic mass of immeasurable density, which exploded some 14 million years ago into all manner of cosmic pieces still speeding away from us. Of course there’s no definitive scientific accounting for the origins of that singularity. No explanation of how, why, or for that matter…who. We simply assume that “it” was always…there.

    Faith is truly the gift that keeps on giving. Just like the physical universe described by Big Bang theorists, real faith is an actuality in a perpetual state of expanding, or unwrapping, as it were. By extension, growing from the tiniest intuition - a singularity in its own right – or the smallest seed of willingness to seek and believe what science alone can never apprehend, I have found that in matters of spirit, faith is a great and constant outward reaching of the soul which can indeed give rise to empirical certainty.

   “Amended Big Bang Theory” is a vertical sentence, or if you will, a prayer and a Christmas greeting. The white expanse at the bottom is not so much a period or an end to the sentence, but a beginning. It’s not a tiny, distant cosmic speck, but a large, tangible presence of light. It’s an echo of John the Baptist’s welcoming Jesus into the world we know, on to the ground where we stand, forever into our midst. Behold, the Lamb of God…

   My prayer for all you readers – both now at Christmas, and every day - is that you nurture the seeds of your willingness to let faith grow and bear fruit.

 Happy Holydays.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Cryptic Kisses and Other Tangible Tensions

Cryptic Kisses and Other Tangible Tensions

Lock Born

Kissing Stones

Void in Echo

Site of a Scene: in RED

Site of a Scene: in a Blue Tint

EXHIBIT: Distance Loop, a solo exhibition featuring works by Melissa Vogley Woods / ending on December 5, 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

 / Gallery Hours for the remaining duration of the exhibit: Tuesday- Wednesday, December 3d and 4th, 11:00 a.m.- 6:00 p.m., AND Artist’s RECEPTION / Gallery Talk: Thursday, December 5, 12:30pm

    Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Canton anymore.

    What makes the Lemmon Gallery a vital and truly inspiring venue for viewing contemporary art is its singular purity of design and potent agency of purpose. Here’s a place apart - a gorgeous retreat from the commercially familiar, a challenging alternative to the locally safe and insular, a venturing away from the comfortable and provincial. The art shown here springs from a serious curatorial commitment (thanks for this installation to Andrea Meyers) to presenting fresh, provocative aesthetic visions and practices from beyond our immediate region.

   The announcement for this installation described the work of Melissa Vogley Woods - a multidisciplinary artist from Columbus, Ohio -  as focusing “…on the nature of internal and external conflict and resolution with additional interests in erasure under patriarchy and homespun methodologies against it.”  Heady stuff, to be sure.

   A recurring motif in Woods’ sculptural assemblages is the human mouth, in the form of thick, curvaceous lips made from scagliola. Scagliola is a mixture of pigments and plaster that can be fashioned to look like marble. In “Lock Born,” an oblong rod of thin steel loops out from the wall, holding up a row of 12 marbleized orifices that hang in midair like so many pendants on jewelry chains. Depending upon your viewing position, the lips appear to come at you from a distance, starting with smaller, closed mouths at the far end that progressively get larger as they open wider. There’s an eerie, indeed primal sensuality about this work (a quality apparent in other pieces here as well) which suggests something slowly emerging from tight-lipped silence into an utterance – a single word, a phrase, maybe a shout. Or is it simply an exhaled breath? 

   The four very large canvas paintings included in the installation, collectively under the theme of “Site of a Scene,” are lavish, glimmering abstractions in acrylic, marble dust, various grounds, and water-based mediums. These are magnificently complex and ambiguous panoramas wherein measured, regular patterns and structures collide with, or melt into organic pools and atmospheric pockets of rich color. Rigidity and fluidity in dramatic moments of equipoise. A visual theatre of integration and disintegration all at once.

   Other sculptural pieces here confound easy definition or categorization. They can seem alternately like garden totems, strange gravestones, or perhaps distant cousins to cairns – forms, dating to ancient times, made from stones piled up as memorials or landmarks. Memorials of what? Mended or broken relationships? Loves lost and found? All of the above?

   So I’m left in a state of inquiry, of continued looking, wondering, even guessing. But with art, it’s always the lingering questions, not the instantaneous or obvious answers, which I’ve found to be the most compelling affirmation of being alive. And besides, in the end, who doesn’t savor a really good mystery? 

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Sublime Storytelling from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

Sublime Storytelling from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

By Tom Wachunas

   The November 9 concert by the Canton Symphony Orchestra CSO) was a particularly eclectic program of five works exploring the theme of storytelling, beginning with Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro. In the genre of opera buffa, there’s hardly a more scintillating curtain raiser than this madcap orchestral frolic. The fast-paced music is replete with crisply punctuated rhythms and many shifting colors, and the ensemble played it impeccably.

   Following this invigorating romp into unfettered jollity, the musical temperament shifted dramatically with Concerto Dei Fiori (Concert of Flowers), a one-movement piece for violin and chamber orchestra composed in 1996 by Sylvie Bodorová. In the course of her career spanning from the late 1970s, she has become one of the most sought-after and performed champions of contemporary Czech musical culture.

   Concerto Dei Fiori is a piquant melding of moods, at once somber and sweet, tumultuous and meditative. All of the work’s thematic tensions were articulated here with mesmerizing panache in a sensitive dialogue between the small ensemble and the featured soloist, CSO concertmaster Cristian Zimmerman. His remarkably fluid playing was imbued with an emotive intensity that very effectively evoked the music’s sensations of wandering and discovery, of slowly ascending from brooding darkness to blossom in the promise of light. His electrifying cadenza nearly midway through, pierced by savage dissonances, was a grand unleashing that gave way to stratospheric high notes, finally ushering in a stately hush as the ensemble quoted J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 180, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele : “Adorn yourself, of beloved soul, leave the dark den of sins, come into the clear light, begin to shine with glory…”

   Following that gorgeous moment of found serenity was a story of a different sort - Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, for soprano and small orchestra. Barber set this fascinating work - perhaps best called a free-form operatic poem, or “word painting” - to text written by American poet and novelist James Agee (1909-1955). The words form a distinctly dreamlike remembrance of a sultry summer evening, presented from the perspective of a child, and made all the more enchanting here thanks to the rhapsodic intonations from soprano Hilerie Klein Rensi. Beyond the sheer radiance of her actual singing, which was often inflected with a lilting, conversational timbre, Rensi’s performance was suffused with a captivating theatrical expressivity. She seemed to float effortlessly between wistful   moments of wide-eyed childlike wonder and the more bittersweet musings, implicit in the text, of an adult all too aware of mortality and impending sorrow. Throughout, the ensemble invested Barber’s seductive and haunting melodies with a crystalline, even magical dimensionality. 

   The concert ended, as it began, on a dazzlingly felicitous note, this time with Zoltán Kodály’s Dances of Galánta. This lavishly orchestrated work is a rambunctious Hungarian rondo with special attention given to the clarinet. The orchestra rose to the moment with all the lush sonority and clarity we’ve come to expect from this accomplished body of gifted artists. Yet interestingly enough, it was the performance of the work preceding this enthralling climax that remains in my mind as the most extraordinary musical encounter of the evening – Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite. 

   Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann introduced this eminently familiar American classic - which I’ve always heard played by large orchestras - with a humorous and touching reminiscence about meeting, knowing, and savoring Aaron Copland. Then he faced his ensemble, now pared down to a scant 13 pieces (as originally performed in 1944) and proceeded to essentially transcend mere familiarity. You’d think that with such a small group of players, the scope and depth of Copland’s idyllic vision would be somehow diminished. Instead, they simply proved that less can in fact be more. ‘Tis the gift to be simple indeed. I’ve never heard this iconic work performed with more genuine emotional sensitivity, more sweeping lyrical elegance, than on this occasion. What was old had become new again. Better than beautiful, it was sublime.     

Monday, November 11, 2019

Prank and Circumstance

Prank and Circumstance

Dede Klein and Benjamin Gregg

April Deming (l), Dede Klein

(l. to r.) Dede Klein, April Deming, Benjamin Gregg, Micah Harvey

Lames Alexander Rankin (l.), Dede Klein

(l. to r.) Micah Harvey, Shani Ferry, Dede Klein

Dede Klein, Micah Harvey

By Tom Wachunas

Photos by Jeremy Aronhalt

   The series of four plays comprising the 2019/20 season from itinerant Seat of the Pants Productions are offered under the theme of ‘The Kindness of Strangers,’ described as “…posing questions and inspiring dialogue about how we engage with the foreigner, alien, or person who is different in our midst.” There’s something curiously appropriate, even poetic, about landing the first play of the series in a venue as theatrically nontraditional as Canton’s Habitat for Humanity of East Central Ohio.

   Directed by Craig Joseph, Ripcord is a wickedly delicious comedy by David Lindsay-Abaire that centers on two elderly widows who turn their time in an otherwise pleasant senior living facility into a mutually adversarial habitat. Talk about odd couples. From the start, chronically cranky Abby (Dede Klein) complains about everything. She can’t stand her bubbly, newly-arrived roommate, Marilyn (April Deming). Abby pleads with a senior center staffer, Scotty (Benjamin Gregg), to assign Marilyn to another room, but to no avail. So when Marilyn - who says she never gets angry about anything – makes a bet, Abby - who says that nothing scares her - jumps at the chance.

   The wager? If Abby can first succeed in making Marilyn angry, Marilyn moves out. But if Marilyn can first frighten Abby, Marilyn can have the bed she wants - the one closest to the window with a beautiful view of the park outside.

   Pull the ripcord.  A madcap game of oneupsmanship ensues, escalating into ever more mischievous practical jokes, and thrusting both women into a scenario of painful revelations about their respective pasts.

   The theatrical acumen of Craig Joseph’s entire cast is marvelous. As Abby, Dede Klein presents a visceral rendering of feral grumpiness, colored by a tired cynicism that at times feels, frightfully enough, misanthropic. Similarly startling in her authenticity, April Deming paints a spot-on portrait of Marilyn’s seemingly unflappable kindness and garrulous optimism. It’s fascinating to watch these hopelessly conflicting temperaments subtly morph from a slapstick clash of wills into a pathos which perhaps neither character could have anticipated at the beginning of their prank war.

   The supporting cast performs with equally impressive aplomb.  Benjamin Gregg is downright endearing as the dutiful resident aide Scotty – patient, infectiously funny, but increasingly exasperated by the womens’ ceaseless shananigans. He’s sure they need to get out more. So at one point, he invites them to visit the haunted house attraction where he’s been hired as an actor. There, he plays a prisoner bellowing his melodramatic pleas for mercy and tearful goodbyes as he’s repeatedly executed in the electric chair. Amidst all of this scene’s belly laughs, there’s a fleetingly heartrending, indeed symbolic moment, wherein Abby stands away from the crowd, not so much scared as haunted by sadness, gazing down at a baby doll that’s been shoved into her arms by a desperate  woman (Shani Ferry) pleading for someone to rescue her child.

   Meanwhile there are first-rate performances by Shani Ferry as Colleen, and Micah Harvey as Derek, Marilyn’s daughter and son-in-law. Marilyn has enlisted them as co-conspirators in her elaborate plots to scare Abby. In one particularly ingenious scene, we see all of them tethered together for a skydiving adventure led by a stoned-out instructor played by James Alexander Rankin, who later plays Abby’s estranged son, Benjamin, with riveting poignance. In another scene of bizarre, gut-splitting hilarity, Micah Harvey, disguised as a ridiculous rabbit with fiery eyes and gold fangs, attempts to rob Abby at gunpoint as she sits reading on the park bench. She’s perturbed, sure, but definitely not scared. Yet.

   Some darker truths about these embattled women are further revealed. But some truths can be freeing. In the end there’s a brief, gentle smile of truce as they sit near that prized window overlooking the park. This wildly entertaining freefall has placed them, and us, in a path of peace.

   Ripcord, at Habitat for Humanity East Central Ohio, 1400 Raff Road Southwest, #Ste A, in Canton, Ohio / Performances on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 15 & 16 at 8 p.m., Sunday Nov. 17 at 2 p.m.

Starring: Dede Klein, April Deming, Benjamin Gregg, Shani Ferry, Micah Harvey, and James Rankin. Directed by Craig Joseph; assistant directed by Kyle Huff, and stage managed by Allison Harvey. Set design and construction by Kevin Anderson; Scenic artist - Tim Eakin; costumes by McCarty & Morgan Custom Costumes; lighting by Ayron Lord; props by Lisa Wiley; sound engineer - Megan Slabach; sound design and original music by John Gromada.

   Tickets $25,  at Evenbrite