Thursday, July 29, 2010

Adventures in Wandaland

Adventures in Wandaland

By Tom Wachunas

“You have traveled so far,” said Aegolius. Nyctea nodded her agreement as her wide, very round eyes darted toward the horizon. Then Aegolius asked, “What will you build now?”
“Abstractions,” she replied, her voice unwavering after her arduous journey.
“Yes,” she said. “To remind us of other things.”
Aegolius inched closer to her as he followed her gaze toward the sky. Nervous now, he asked, “W-w-what other things?”
“I won’t know until they show themselves,” she said, still looking into the distance. After a long while, she peered back at Aegolius, and whispered, “Then, we shall all know.”

- from “Mournings of the Grebes” by June Godwit –

In the brochure that accompanies the current exhibit of works by Wanda Montgomery at The Little Art Gallery, entitled “Art: a Never Ending Journey,” Montgomery writes of her non-objective mixed media paintings, “…Instead of recreating what I see, I create a painting from a deeper place, letting the painting tell me what it needs.” The statement points simply and essentially to the heart of making – and viewing - abstract painting. The artist sees with ‘other’ eyes, and discovers what only those eyes can see. As viewers we are asked to lay aside our ingrained expectations of ‘real world’ visual pleasantries, and be willing to embrace less familiar, even outright alien territories. Only then can the very process of perception - on both artist’s and viewer’s parts – be conjoined, allowing the art to speak its reality.

In this show, Montgomery presents the full spectrum of her artistic pursuits: watercolors, mixed media abstracts, sculpture, jewelry, art dolls, and altered books. Those books, by the way, are intriguing collage/assemblage affairs with an antique air. All of them are inaccessible as literature, since they’re under glass. So I assume that the text contents are unimportant. These are books that are indeed meant to be judged solely by their elaborate, often funky covers.

One of the more immediately noticeable characteristics of the paintings in this show is the predominantly subdued palette. This is, for the most part, not an electrifying romp through fields of bright, luminous color. Even the watercolors are moody - though truly elegant – renderings of recognizable objects and scenes executed with a distinct bias toward blue and a wondrous attention to light. But the washy paint applications that Montgomery employs are such that she achieves remarkably subtle variations in soft textures that seem to rise from deep within the paper surface. For all of their muted intensity, they’re nonetheless compelling for their meditative quality.

And it is that same sensibility that has crossed over into her abstract works, though with a ramped-up commitment to thrillingly visceral surfaces that fairly seethe with evidence of her ‘listening’ to what the painting ‘needs.’ Certainly that process is a deeply personal and challenging one, and not all the abstracts here are equally resolved ‘conversations.’

“Learning the Game,” for example, may be an ironic testament to that difficulty. The painting is a relatively confusing, soupy blend of marks and textures in an indeterminate pictorial structure. In contrast, the forms in “Ancient Cultures” seem to be breathed out of Montgomery’s gestural musings (often suggestive of handwriting in other paintings here) to produce a work highly evocative of archetypal magic, mysteries, and fossilized history. This sort of painterly, earthy exoticism is delightfully evident in several other works. It results from a facile balancing of non-specific fields of highly-worked color with solidified or (at least) suggested shapes and volumes. Texture, color, and form held in delicate suspension.

“Then, we shall all know” may well be, depending upon our predispositions to the unfamiliar, an overly optimistic leap of faith on Nyctea’s part as she waits for her abstractions to reveal their nature to us. On the other hand, she might mean that ultimately, all we can really ‘know’ of such things, like Wanda Montgomery’s paintings, is that they are not easy imitations of already known entities. They are, rather, soulful invitations to see “other things” with new eyes. To read painted poetry.

Photo: “Ancient Cultures” mixed media by Wanda Montgomery, on view in “Art: a Never Ending Journey,” THROUGH AUGUST 21, at The Little Art Gallery, located in the North Canton Public Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton, Ohio.
Gallery hours: MWF 10am to 6pm / TR noon to 8pm / Sat. 9am to 5pm / Sun. 1pm to 5pm

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Sweet-n-Sour Thang

A Sweet- n- Sour Thang

By Tom Wachunas

After seeing the impressive scale of production (big ensemble, sets, costumes, sound) in the North Canton Playhouse presentation of “The Wedding Singer” at Canton’s Palace Theatre on July 25, I was left wondering: are the exaggerated superficialities of the material intended to be an outright parody of 1980s musical culture, or were the writers (music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin, film written by Tim Herlihy) aiming for something more timeless in the way of truly original, memorable pop anthems? If the latter was the case, then they missed their mark by a hefty margin. And even as parody, the story line is – while sweet - fairly brainless, and most of the songs are melodically and lyrically anemic, despite the jarring employment of “adult language” in some of them (more on that in a bit).

So it is worth noting that for all of the mediocrity of the material at hand (Broadway track record notwithstanding), director Lisa Paynter managed to nonetheless elicit infectiously vibrant, often electrifying performances from her cast. She also co-directed the music with Brenton Cochran, who conducted the spirited and technically excellent five-piece band. The choreography by Kayla Hall was certainly energetic and competent enough, though unevenly executed. While some in the ensemble performed it with real pizzaz, others often looked lost in thought about their next move.

Mike Noble played Robbie Hart, a New Jersey wedding singer jilted at the altar by his fiancée, Linda. As both actor and singer, he was superbly facile, crisp, and often genuinely funny. Speaking of funny, some of the evening’s most endearing and hilarious moments came courtesy of Mary McManaway – founder of the North Canton Playhouse- in her role of Rosie (Robbie’s hip, rapper- grandmother). Elsewhere in the cast, Alexx Culbertson was thoroughly charming in her role as the gentle and trusting waitress who ultimately captures Robbie’s heart; Danielle Dorfmann, as Holly (Julia’s friend), commanded the stage with remarkable vocal power and earthy dramatic sensibility; A.J. Schumacher, playing Glen (Julia’s fiancée as the play opens) was devilishly slick in his portrayal of the greedy and conniving Wall Street wizard; and in her number, “Let Me Come Home,” Monica Young (playing Linda) was on fire as she schmoozed up to Robbie with all the slinky appeal of a feral cat in heat, complete with a viciously thick Joisey accent.

The song lyrics here are, for the most part, shallow exercises, occasionally enlivened with clever wordplay. And in terms of engaging translations of authentic emotion, they’re more superfluous than sublime. Additionally, the proceedings (spoken and sung) seemed noticeably peppered with raunchy confessional tidbits and vulgarities, including the f-bomb.

I realize that citing this aspect puts me squarely in old-school thinking about such issues, and the problem here wasn’t a wildly rampant one. But it was just present enough. All it takes is one or two expletives in a love story to leave a sour after-taste. A milder case in point: “A Note from Grandma.” Rosie sings her condolences to Robbie (just after he’s belted out his crazed “Somebody Kill Me”), adding fuel into his smoldering heart with this piece of advice: “You’ll find someone to love you / sure as waves will find the shore/ and when you’re sad, remember / that Linda is a skanky whore.” Hardly a healing lullaby rhyme from grandma, to be sure.

Did the 80s – over any other decade in recent times – have such a corner on the moral turpitude market as to justify the insulting language we encounter in “The Wedding Singer”? Certainly not. Was it vital to the credibility or sweetness of this particular story, then? Again, no. “But people really do talk like that” is an insouciant, toothless, and inapplicable defense of such vulgarities in this case. Even if viewed as a caricature, this cavalier “color” came off as merely gratuitous and embarrassing, and cheapened the proceedings of an otherwise professionally- delivered evening of musical theatre.

Interestingly enough, though, the audience in large part ate it up, along with lots of children in attendance. Clearly, we attended different schools.

Photo: Courtesy North Canton Playhouse: Cast of “The Wedding Singer,” presented at Canton’s Palace Theatre, July 23 -25

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Sins Of Our Fathers

Sins Of Our Fathers

By Tom Wachunas

“Then Waves” is the last of the three world-premiere plays in this year’s New Play Conservatory at Canton Players Guild Theatre. Written by Kevin Anthony Kautzman and directed here by Craig Joseph, it is easily the most audacious and startling – even dangerous – drama I’ve seen anywhere for longer than I can remember. Its staying power is not unlike the rude, abusive dinner guest who refuses to leave. And even after he’s been physically dispatched (leaving in his wake painful memories), there are those clingy remnants of yet- to- be- chewed meat particles still lodged in my teeth.

I am cautiously certain that such difficulty in processing this story lies in its complex psychological layerings that, like peeling an onion, reveal progressively unsettling facts and flaws about the characters. Kautzman’s compelling writing is a vigorous and visceral exercise in exorcising – a riveting portrait rendered with a relentless barrage of narrative lightning bolts. This is a story for our time, to be sure. As such it’s a searing cry, a dirge, a howling prayer for redemption.

The play opens with cast members reciting, “Stabat mater dolorosa…,” the beginning of the classic medieval Roman Catholic hymn about Mary’s suffering as she beholds her crucified son. “The sorrowful mother stood…” Stabat mater. Even the Latin words are an eerily relevant onomatopoeia: ‘stabbing matter.’

Most of the scenes take place on a hilltop with a blood-red bench and limp American flag on a pole, overlooking a Veteran’s cemetery in the characters’ hometown. And most are introduced with recited lines from Stabat Mater, giving the proceedings all the dark, ‘sacred’ solemnity of a funereal lament.

The story is built around the life of Brady, a U.S. soldier returned from his Mid- Eastern tour of duty, suffering from PTSD. In the first act we quickly sense that this is a worst-case scenario. Ultimately we’re presented with a man so torn and haunted by the war atrocities he witnessed and committed that his mind, already sickened by past bitter resentments, has snapped beyond retrieval. His is a paranoid-schizophrenic reality immersed in mangled obsession with the Old Testament God of hellfire and vengeance; horrific verbal and physical abuse of his son, Cailin (who, Brady is convinced, is not his own); and the certainty that his wife, Thee, has had an affair with his old school chum, Ryan. Brady confesses to his counselor that a dream has inspired him exactly how and where to kill Cailin. Thus in the second act we as audience become in turn fully immersed in Brady’s nightmarish ‘reality’. Actually carried out, or only imagined? I’ll never tell. Then again, I’m not precisely sure. Still chewing on that one.

The cast here is uniformly excellent. Peter Calac is utterly disarming as the abused son struggling with shattered dreams of a romantic future amid fruitless attempts to heal his broken relationship with Brady. He’s the embodiment of real wounded innocence, tempered by a wisdom and resolve beyond his years. Additionally, it’s fascinating to watch how Maria Work, playing Thee, and Ryan Nehlan, playing Ryan, are transformed from their convincing portrayals of concerned wife and loyal friend, respectively, into equally convincing guilty lovers on-the-attack in the second act.

All of this is certainly a testament to Craig Joseph’s skills as a director. But what’s most astonishing are his skills as an actor. Who or what could have directed him in his portrayal of Brady, other than a profoundly genuine, even selfless submergence in the story? Joseph’s performance is a baptism of sorts, this one complete with not a sprinkling but a frightening torrent of insanely fowl-mouthed chants and ravings that constantly crest and fall throughout the evening like...waves. Despite our “civilized” aversion to such unnerving displays, we watch, captured and mesmerized, like helpless bystanders at a house on fire.

The play ends with the image of much-awaited rainfall washing the cast gathered on the hill. Another wave, then. There is an abiding, haunting sense of inevitability about the moment. In the big picture, such waves – purges- are only temporary, albeit necessary salves on an ageless, painful truth: redemption comes always – and only - with blood.


New Play Conservatory at the Players Guild William G. Fry Arena Theatre, located in the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave. North, Canton, Ohio. All performances at 8p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30p.m. Sundays, Tickets $10. Call (330) 453 – 7617.
“Then Waves,” by Kevin Kautzman, directed by Craig Joseph, July 23 – 25 (violence and adult language).

For more information on playwright Kevin Anthony Kautzman, visit

Photo: “The Scream” by Edvard Munch

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Massillon Maditudes

Massillon Maditudes

By Tom Wachunas

“In order to acquire a growing and lasting respect in society, it is a good thing, if you possess great talent, to give, early in your youth, a very hard kick to the right shin of the society that you love. After that, be a snob.”
- Salvador Dali -

That little gem of dubious luster came from the same painter who gave us this equally cloudy bauble: “I don’t do drugs. I am drugs. Take me, I am the drug; take me, I am hallucinogenic.” Both of these quotes, though, are oddly suggestive of the resonant tonality in the inaugural group show of some 25 artists at Thirteenth Floor, the new gallery opened in downtown Massillon by proprietor Billy Ludwig, himself a digital artist and musician.

I’m certainly not saying that the work on display was generated by drug-crazed artists (though there is a distinctly mad, hallucinogenic air about much of it), nor venturing a guess as to their love of society (though the show leans generously toward unsettling, jarring content). If you’re an art viewer who stands on the sturdier conventions of figurative or natural beauty, or traditionally feel-good formal elegance, be prepared to have both shins soundly kicked.

Part of this emporium of the eerie is given over to horror-genre digital prints, skull masks, and zombie dolls (called Zombuddies – the perfect gift for that special little ghoul in your life) by Shock Studios (John Branham and Mike Skaggs). Ludwig’s own digital prints are ghostly explorations of familiar things cast in heavy grays and sepia tones. Several of them are imbued with a kind of dark romanticism.

Amid the works mounted salon-style on the walls, there are many that revel so solidly in unadulterated ugliness that you’d think real artistic talent was evidently not a requirement for inclusion. Of course there are some notably more “interesting” if not refined exceptions.

The figures in Megan Mars’ paintings seem to be of the same woman (self-portraits?), or at least share the same facial and body types – long haired and lanky. Some look like beleaguered, subtly erotic super-heroines from a graphic novel, and most are rendered in an ornamental, illustrative style that owes something to Art Nouveau. Call them narcissistic fantasies, perhaps. These aren’t, however, tributes to naturalistic or delicate feminine beauty so much as they’re codified symbols of attitudes, ideas, or lifestyles.

Fantasies of a different order are at work in the paintings by Bili Kribbs and Steve Ehret. They feature lots of well-drawn morphs and monsters, wildly surreal but not threatening, cavorting in strange, goofy scenarios.

The two most compelling paintings here are “Roses” by Kaylee Buzzard and “Delve” by Tina Meyers. The former is a very muscular and engaging collage that is anything but an innocent imitation of floral serenity. The latter (which deserves to be mounted at eye-level, not at its current neck-craning height) is all seething with painterly gestures and scratching. Somehow the primitively drawn figures of two dancing women hold the brushy, earth-toned muddy turbulence around them in tense equilibrium.

For all of its uneven quality, the overall look of this show points, arguably, to a shared psychology of angst-riddled urgency, a collective foray into ‘Sturm und Drang.’ At the moment, the world presented by the artists of the Thirteenth Floor is an unmistakably weird one. But it’s a world nonetheless theirs. I was just visiting.

Photo: “Eye Scream” (close-up) by Bili Kribbs, on view at Thirteenth Floor, 28 Charles Street, downtown Massillon (around the corner from Massillon Museum). Gallery hours 11a.m. to 7p.m., Tuesday- Saturday.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Our Own Worst Enemies?

Our Own Worst Enemies?

By Tom Wachunas

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
- Jeremiah 29:11-

The recent blog post by artist Judi Krew (“Me, Myself, and I,” posted Saturday, July 17 at ) took me pleasantly by surprise with her probing final question, which was set up by her musings on self-portraiture: “Who is the person or self within their own body and mind?” Yikes. As I mentioned to her in my comment (you know, that little box that pops up when you click on “comments” and which maddeningly few of you ever engage, no doubt because you find the process somehow daunting but really just be patient and follow the prompts – it’s not rocket science - so OK now I’ll shut up about that) on her query, far greater minds than mine have grappled with the question for centuries, providing us with some of our finest – by worldly standards - literature.

Aye, there’s the rub. Worldly standards. But what about the grandest literature of all, the book of all books, the first and - unchanged and unchanging - final Word? So now I’ve tipped my hand. But those of you who know me and have been faithful readers shouldn’t be surprised, even as you may disagree with me. To the rest of you who don’t share my world view, I humbly beg your indulgence. This won’t hurt a bit, other than perhaps some bruising to your intellectual pride and independence.

So then, who are you / we? Where does our awareness of ‘self’ even come from if not an innate, preternatural sense of relationship to a separate ‘other’, and further, to the source of our being? I ask this because I think the answer to the question - ‘who is the person or self within... ’ - is unsatisfying and otherwise meaningless without considering the bigger, ageless question that springs from it: what is the point, the why of me? The ‘who’ is inextricably connected to the ‘why’. Self cannot be defined or identified without sensing a relationship to a purpose, an end, an ‘other’. And here’s where we can really muck things up if we’re not careful, but I offer it for your consideration anyway: we can never truthfully identify or realize our selves without identifying and surrendering to God’s purpose, which existed before our selves. Who we are is all about who and where He – the ultimate ‘other’ – is. Yikes again.

I submit that not only WHO we are, but the what, where, how, and why of us is gloriously written in the Bible. Divinely written, by the hands of willing men completely surrendered to and guided by the Author. That’s the simple truth. It is we, not the Author, who have made that elegant simplicity a complex, apparently insurmountable existential challenge. The Bible. Our purpose and identity – individually and collectively – as well as the Author’s purpose and identity, is laid out in its pages. In seeking to define who we are, I offer this observation from C.S. Lewis: “Our highest activity must be response, not initiative. To experience the love of God in a true, and not an illusory form, is therefore to experience it as our surrender to His demand, our conformity to his desire. To experience it in the opposite way is, as it were, a solecism against the grammar of being.” A fruitless self-sabotage.

Now, I am all too well-aware of the heated howls of protest from atheists and agnostics; the cynical cries of ‘yeah, but…’ from free-thinking, educated minds; the muddied murmurs of “New-Age” and Humanist seekers and teachers; the dismissive whispers of dissent from self-defined “good” people. God said - dozens of times - there’d be folks like this.

Still, my “viable” answer to Judi Krew’s question is not MY answer at all. It’s GOD’s. It’s all there in the Bible. But it can’t be grasped in the convenient, isolated snippets of poetic biblical “wisdom,” or edited, feel-good parcels of “inspirational” quotes from Jesus or Psalms or Moses that have woven their way into the frayed, unraveling fabric of our society. It needs to be fully read, etched on to the fleshy tablets of our hearts, embraced in its totality, beginning to end. A life-time proposition best pursued daily. Food from God. The breakfast of champions. Really. It’s the definitive users’ guide to existence.

When all else fails, follow directions.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Florentine Facades?

Florentine Facades?

By Tom Wachunas

Art historian Kenneth Clark once called Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa “the submarine goddess of the Louvre.” Yes, the portrait of twenty-four-year-old Lisa del Giocondo, stunning wife of a 16th century Florentine merchant, is cracked with age and now clouded, it would seem, by a pervasive greenish hue, all encased in glass that many say resembles an aquarium. Yet the painting continues to not so much speak directly as it beckons us to wonder. In all of this, then - from the legendary eyes that follow and the otherworldly background landscape that is the embodiment of mystery itself, to its dozens of layers of masterfully concocted softening, translucent glazes - the painting remains a strangely opaque gem, silent as to “the secret behind the enigmatic smile,” if in fact there is one to uncover.

And so it is in that regard that “Mona Lisa,” a new work by screenwriter and playwright Ron Burch, is historical fiction - an exercise in speculation. The play, which opened for three performances on July 16, is directed here by Mark Monday, and is the second of three world-premiere plays in the New Play Conservatory, presented in the Canton Players Guild’s William G. Fry Arena Theatre.

Burch presents us with a conflicted da Vinci. First, there’s the moody genius given to fits of arrogance, self-pity, and anxiety over where his next meal may be coming from. Yet he’d rather go hungry than resort to accepting portrait commissions, regarding them as trivial wastes of his time and talents. Then, there is the da Vinci who’s never intimately known a woman, and who falls in love with his client’s wife, Lisa. She reciprocates eagerly, as we learn how her marriage to Francesco was a cruel fiasco from the start.

As da Vinci, Dave Osso is most notably effective when he’s sarcastic and cranky. His crafting of other moments, though (including when his boyish infatuation turns to full-fledged love), seems relatively lackluster. Similarly, Amy Crawford, playing Lisa del Giocondo, is the epitome of Renaissance ‘grazia’ through most of the proceedings. Yet when she describes her deep pain over her marital situation, she does so with perhaps too much graceful detachment, undermining the pathos and depth of her story. Methinks she smiles too much, even if she is in love.

It’s somewhat ironic that the performances with the most definition and weight here are delivered in the “secondary” roles: Grayden B. Provance as da Vinci’s nervously funny servant, Salai; Tom Bryant as the gruff and cocky Francesco del Giocondo; and Leland T. Pettis as the delightfully blustery and authoritarian Pietro Soderini. Whereas the main roles unfold with a lulling sameness of energy (not unlike the patina that has clouded da Vinci’s painting), these are delivered with remarkably crisp color and gusto.

I suspect that the evening’s weaknesses are more in the area of directing and performing than in the literature. There’s just enough emotional information imparted by the script to encourage the expectation of a more visceral theatrical experience, but it doesn’t consistently materialize on stage.

What does materialize, though, is a kind of pithy charm. This is, at its heart, a love story, and a bittersweet one at that. In the end no one gets the girl. But, cracks and all, we’ll always have her smile.

New Play Conservatory at the Players Guild William G. Fry Arena Theatre, located in the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave. North, Canton, Ohio. All performances at 8p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30p.m. Sundays, Tickets $10. Call (330) 453 – 7617.
Next up: “Then Waves,” by Kevin Kautzman, directed by Craig Joseph, July 23 – 25 (violence and adult language).

Photo: Leonardo da Vinci self portrait in chalk, circa 1515

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Life and Death of Possibilities

The Life and Death of Possibilities

By Tom Wachunas

In an ambitious new endeavor, Canton’s Players Guild Theatre is kicking off its 78th season with The New Play Conservatory, coordinated by Jeremy P. Lewis. He and a critic’s circle of 13 individuals read and evaluated dozens of script submissions from around the country, and ultimately three plays were chosen for production as world premieres in the Guild’s William G. Fry Arena Theatre.

First in the trio of plays that run for three performances each is “Pills,” (which opened on July 9) written by Michael DeVito of Hartsdale, NY, and directed here by Lewis. It’s a wondrously facile piece of stage literature – part comedy, part morality-play, all riveting and bittersweet in its drama – and a solid vehicle for demonstrating Lewis’ well-honed sensitivity to complicated human relationships.

What fuels this play’s poignant originality, though, is not just its intricate human interactions, but the entities in the form of three characters who are not yet human in a fully physical sense. Whether you call them urgent yearnings, or curious wantings, they represent the essences of unborn children. In those roles, Justin C. Woody, Sonny Gzybowski, and Stacey Essex are marvelously energetic and haunting. They badger and cajole their patient “Guide” - played warmly, with convincing if not enigmatic authority by Kathy Boyd – to help them understand where and what they are, and where they want to go. They are simultaneously the sources and victims of their potential parents’ mental and emotional anguish over whether or not to bring children into the world.

The potential parents are two New York City couples – one married (Max and Sally), one not (Seth and Karen) - struggling fiercely with their relationships as well as deeply conflicting decisions about having children. Marvin A. Vance Jr. plays the free-wheeling Seth with a disarming combination earthy honesty and detached emotions, tinged with cavalier wisdom. Karen is his new girlfriend, still smarting from a recent breakup. To that role Bethany Taylor brings an endearing desire for answers and stability, sometimes tainted with vitriolic sarcasm.

As Max, Nate Ross is both hilarious and scary in his credible portrayal of an obsessive-compulsive, right-fighting moralizer who distrusts any medication designed to balance a depressed mind, and thinks bringing children into this miserable world would be an intolerable selfishness. He – not birth control pills or mind-fixing drugs - is the real pill in this scenario. Megan Rosenberg plays Sally with equal authenticity – a combination of genuine pain, uncertainty, and desperate hope amid emotional turmoil. For them, resolution comes in the final scene. We see them on their backs, gazing up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, in an intriguing recap of the scene when we first met them. They recall Max’s dream of seeing the painted image of God, in the act of creating Adam, crashing to the floor, leaving Adam in the presence of a gaping hole. It’s a thoroughly tender scene that promises the couple just might be filling in the void that plagued them.

Yet for all of the electrifying performances that these artists consistently imparted through their crisp, rapid-fire dialogue, one scene has seared itself into my memory as the high (or “low”, depending upon your predisposition) point of the evening. And ironically enough, the moment, delivered by Stacey Essex (one of the unborn children whose time on stage is relatively brief), wasn’t powered by spoken words at all. It came at the point in the story when Karen aborted her child, fathered by Seth. One can only wonder how director Lewis was able to elicit from Essex such heartrending emotion, or what depths of memory and experience such a young actress needed to plumb. Fallen to a crumpled heap, she unleashed a long, liquid cry that chillingly escalated to a bone-shattering scream.

For those of you who think it’s not a theatre critic’s place to moralize, get over it. The fact of the matter is, the scene I just described utterly impoverishes any defense of abortion, and makes even the most eloquent verbal objections to it pale by comparison.

New Play Conservatory at the Players Guild William G. Fry Arena Theatre, located in the Cultural Center for the Arts, Canton, Ohio. All performances at 8p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30p.m. Sundays, Tickets $10. Call (330) 453 – 7617.
Next up: “Mona Lisa” by Ron Burch, July 16 – 18

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Graceful Goodbyes

Graceful Goodbyes

By Tom Wachunas

Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. (James 4: 14)

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (John 16: 33)

Sometimes I think that both the happiest and the saddest words in Scripture are in Genesis. The happiest, in 1:3: And God said, “Let there be light,”… The saddest, only two chapters later in 3:9 : But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

For various reasons and on various levels I will remember this summer as one of departures, separations, fragilities; and amid such vicissitudes, the need to keep my priorities in order. I was reminded of these things – powerfully, poignantly – during the July 6 memorial celebration of the life of Anthony P. DiGiacomo at St. Stephen Martyr Church.

I did not know Anthony, having met him only briefly on one or two occasions. But I know his wife, Lois – one of our community’s most present and ebullient arts champions. In the course of the service there were several tender acknowledgements of her orchestration of the proceedings, prompting one of the speakers to jokingly refer to it as a theatre event that might be reviewed by The Repository. While the occasion was artfully presented, to dwell too much on the merely esthetic accoutrements would be a terribly misplaced attention on my part. Still, Lois, along with her pastor, Rev. Dr. Bruce Roth, and other friends and family, brought all their sensibilities and gifts – artistic and otherwise - to the fore in directing our attentions to a life lived in faith and love. A life that clearly impacted many, many people. A life not ended, but joyously relocated.

Of course, then, this isn’t a review. It’s a thank you note to Lois. Thank you for being married to Anthony for 49 years. For walking beside him and not behind him. For your children and their children. For savoring the light that brings faith, the faith that builds perseverance, the perseverance that builds character. For sharing the reason for your hope, and in that, your courage and unselfishness.

For the remainder of the evening after the service, and even as I write this, another verse - the shortest in the Bible - has been resonant in my heart, John 11:35: “Jesus wept.” The Lord of the Universe, in a moment totally surrendered to his humanity, cried. But his was and is a complete, realized humanity. He knew exactly where he and Lazarus were in eternity. I often think he was mourning more than the earthly passing of his friend and the pain it brought to those who loved him. He was grieving for the fragility of our vision and faith, and how easily we forget the plan behind our immortality. It is in fact a joyous plan.

So again, thank you, Lois, for your loving reminder of that plan and all of our places in it. Here’s to the day when ALL of us hear not “Where are you?” but, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Close Encounters

Close Encounters

By Tom Wachunas

“Any great work of art…revives and readapts time and space, and the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world – the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air.”
- Leonard Bernstein -

With apologies to Olivia Newton John, let’s get metaphysical. All art – the making, presenting, and witnessing of it – is a lover’s pursuit of the beloved, and consummated in mutually fulfilled desire.

So, desire for what? Think of the beloved as a living essence, an ineffable presence, the spirit of an idea that desires to be embraced, savored, given form. A story longing to be told. In turn, think of the lover as a storyteller. All artists are, to one degree or another, storytellers. Their tales may be clearly autobiographical yet at the same time clothed with mystery and metaphor.

Further, in as much as artists invite us to witness their stories – their consummated desires - the invitation presupposes that we, too, are lovers of a sort, desiring to embrace and be embraced by the stories we encounter. Our desire, then, is to give those stories form and meaning - to in essence retell them - in our own minds. A symbiotic relationship of the most elegant kind.

And so it is that Joseph Carl Close has gone to great and admirable lengths to bring us a story in his show, “Prologue: Origins of a Tale,” currently on view at Anderson Creative in downtown Canton. Prior to this exhibit, Close’s work has been highly visible in our community, over the past several years, as individual works placed in a variety of contexts and venues. As such, they have often posed a challenge – albeit a thrilling one – in discerning exactly what they’re about. Here is, for the first time in Canton to my knowledge, a concerted effort to present them as a cohesive, interpretable ouvre. Not that the individual works aren’t somehow compelling in their own right. They certainly are. But now, Close’s esthetic takes on a whole new, collectively resonant and gripping logic.

What’s the story? Generally, as he offers in his posted statement, it’s “Welcome to my mind in three dimensions.” Specifically, his mind has been, for the past few years, processing the known histories of three distinctly separate “entities,” and recasting them into an epic-scale, personalized fiction. The reformulated entities are: Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, artist and founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art; Punchinello (of Punch and Judy), the clown character originally from 17th century Italian theatre; and Snow Flake, an albino gorilla. The gallery is organized into three “rooms” – areas, really – each with art works inspired by one of the characters. Additionally, a fourth area is literally the transplanted room where Close lives and makes art - the birth place of this intriguing saga. So the show is actually a reinvented history wherein the characters live, love, and otherwise embark upon adventures both strange and harrowing.

But the art we see goes much deeper than illustrative renderings (which are executed with masterful and breathtaking elegance) of fantasy situations, or painterly snapshots of a fairy tale. Close doesn’t make these characters “live on” in his art so much as he lets his art be a vehicle for melding his persona with theirs - a platform for exploring and expanding upon the aspects of the characters that he finds both relevant and emotionally compelling, as well as mystifying. Even Snow Flake gets to show his art. And after talking with Close, I agree that the dynamic at work here is a complete immersion in the story’s characters – a visual and very tactile “method acting.”

And here’s where, on at least one level, Bernstein’s “strange, special air” comes in to play. The gallery has the slightly musty aroma of oil paint and rust, mingled with old attic wood (though, granted, some of that may be lingering and natural to the space). Close makes art largely from found objects including antique furniture (pieces of which often used as frames for his paintings), metal scraps and hardware, and glass. All of it contributes to a sense of arrested decay and rustic industrialism. Even his paintings seem to be exhaled from the stressed wood, rather than just decoratively sit atop the surface. Close’s palette is dominated by earth tones blended with dusky blues and smoky grays. So there is, to be sure, an unmistakable aura of melancholy that pervades the show, though one that’s far more genuinely tender than morbid.

Above a closed door in Close’s room is the text, “Beyond the door is the next adventure, more dark trials and a chance for redemption.” The appeal of - indeed the desire for - a well-told story is timeless and universal. It’s our stories that reveal our dreams and loves, and our struggles to exorcise our demons. Our victories and vulnerabilities. If what lies behind the Closed door is anything like the Prologue, I imagine it to be a bestseller.

Photo: Joseph Carl Close’s transplanted room. Part of his exhibit, “Prologue: Origins of a Tale,” currently at Anderson Creative, 331 Cleveland Ave. NW, downtown Canton, through July 31. Gallery hours: Tuesday – Saturday, noon to 5p.m.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Cold Case Catharsis

Cold Case Catharsis

By Tom Wachunas

A Shakespeare quote for the title of a modern play can certainly be effective in defining its tone. It can also be an attention-getting icebreaker when spoken in the opening scene. Such is the case in the premiere of “The Evil That Men Do,” a thrilling new play written by Deborah Fezelle (of Canton, Ohio) and Sherry Yanow (of Springfield, Illinois), performed by the Richard Moore Theatre Company at Theatre 8:15 in Green.

“The evil that men do lives after them…,” says the character, Andrew Brady, a ghost addressing the audience with genuine urgency in the opening scene. He was murdered two years ago and vows to not only bring his killer to justice, but also protect his still-mourning wife, Jessie, and son, Anthony. Protect them from what? And here another quote from classical literature (Sir Walter Scott) comes to mind, “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”

Tangled indeed. Set in the show business world of New York, Andrew appears to his older brother, Nick McDeare (who was given up for adoption at birth), and enlists his help. Nick is an investigative reporter turned globe-trotting celebrity suspense novelist. He’s also very flawed (an inveterate womanizer), and doubly haunted by his shortcomings as a father and the death of his son. With Andrew’s blessing he takes up residence in Jessie’s New York City home while conducting his investigation, in the process endearing himself as Uncle Nick to Anthony. But there are many tensions and suspicions afoot as he begins to unravel family history, secrets, and connections, not least of which is Jessie’s long-standing relationship with family friend Gianni Fosselli, a rich Italian owner of a cruise-ship line.

The writing in this play is notably dense with intricate, vital dialogue, and as such it demands careful attention. It’s also a fairly long play, but the time factor is greatly ameliorated by the engaging intrigue of unexpected yet thoroughly credible narrative turns. A Nick McDeare page-turner if ever there was one. There are real surprises here that are, thankfully, not prematurely telegraphed in the story line that takes on an increasingly cinematic aura as it progresses. So in that spirit, I won’t give them away here.

Suffice it to say another factor that makes this play so powerful in its storytelling is the consistently superb cast, from “lesser” roles to the main ones. Paula Hillenbrand plays Mary, the housekeeper, with an enjoyable mix of buoyant charm and fierce loyalty to her charges; Rufus Malone Jr. plays suspect Ian Wexley with convincing fear and loathing; Young Alexander Borne is believable in his portrayal of the trusting, vulnerable son Anthony; Kathy Lewis is remarkable as Andrew’s best friend, Abbie – alternately tender, coy, and cunning; and Phil Robb is warmly genuine as police Lt. Lyle Barton who aids Nick in uncovering the truth.

Warm and genuine, too, is Timothy Mark Adkins as the ghost of Andrew. Even his most subtle facial expressions, as he watches the complicated revelations unfold in his family, communicate real compassion. Joe Martuccio, with authentic Italian accent, is suave and self-assured in his pivotal role of Gianni. The best, most compelling chemistry here, though, converges on Ross Rhodes as Nick, and Denise Robb as Jessie. This riveting, dynamic duo embodies all the play’s darkness and light, its pathos and humor, with startling, palpable sincerity.

Theatre 8:15 is an intimate venue, unique in its décor that might be described as Rural Victorian, or Country Baroque. It’s a refreshing departure from the old “black-box,” and the good folks there fondly refer to it as their “jewel-box theatre.” All the more apt on this occasion, as this play is truly a gem.

Richard Moore Theatre Company at Theatre 8:15 presents “The Evil That Men Do,” play dates July 1, 2, 3 and July 8 – 11, all at 7:30p.m. Tickets $10, available by calling (330) 896 – 0339. RESERVATIONS ENCOURAGED. Theatre is located at 4740 Massillon Road, Green, Ohio

Photo (courtesy Rod Lang): left to right, Timothy Mark Adkins as Andrew Brady; Ross Rhodes as Nick McDeare; Joe Martuccio as Gianni Fosselli