Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sublime Brevities

Sublime Brevities
By Tom Wachunas

“Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.” - Novalis –

“Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” - T.S.Eliot –

“Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” - G.K.Chesterton –

Methinks Chesterton may have been a cheese connoisseur, but don’t quote me on that. I’m willing to bet, though, that since he posited the observation quoted above, at least a few ‘modern’ poets have regaled us in one way or another with the glories of coagulated milk curd. Then again, many would-be poetry readers might share satirist Russell Baker’s ennui over modern poetry when he at one point whined that “…most of it began to read like coded messages passing between lonely aliens on a hostile world.” Well, boo hoo. Let them eat cheese.

But seriously. It seems to me that poets and poetry have got a fragile hold on the short end of the big media attention stick these days. We crave our blockbuster novels, our bold, scandalous celebrity autobiographies and chilling confessionals, and all manner of new-age self-help drivel because, quite simply, we’re told to. A conditioned response. The megamarketing machines of the publishing world are a collective Pied Piper, too easily leading us down blissfully banal paths to the latest, most sensationalistic literary doings of the day. Trending never ending.

Maybe it’s the flawed perception that poetry is too private and brief, too arcane and strange, seemingly inaccessible and irrelevant to minds numbed by the grandiosities of “popular entertainment”. To be fair, poetry can be thoroughly challenging - by its very nature alternately intimate, mystifying, and even nonsensical in its manipulations of language. Yet it is poetry’s often beautiful (and yes, sometimes maddening) indeterminacy that imbues it with its truly artful, unique wonder - a wonder too often swallowed up and forgotten as we feast on other culturally dominant menus. And I admit that it’s been far too long since I’ve slowed down long enough to really taste and savor good poetry.

I’m happily reminded of all this by a superb new 157-page anthology of poetry and short prose called “Turning Leaves”, edited by Dr. Audrey Lavin and Dr. Ray Gehani (both of whom having entries in the book). The book is comprised of works by 30 Northeast Ohio writers, and grew out of the Wednesday Writers Workshop. Aside from the skillfully wrought pieces from 21 poets, the short prose entries – both fiction and non-fiction – are equally sharp, engrossing, and often ‘poetic’ in their own right. Most impressive is the collective depth of vision, styles, and poignant thematic content. Its emotional and spiritual scope is remarkably wide, providing a warm embrace of life’s joy, sorrow, mystery, whimsicality, and humor that is as edifying as it is genuinely entertaining.

Reading this compelling, inspiring montage is like pouring over a journal of world views that range from searingly personal to profoundly familiar. Rest assured that these literary musings aren’t indulgent, cryptic notes passed between disillusioned aliens bemoaning a cruel or absurd cosmos. They are, each in their own way, intimate and evocative reports from the hearts and minds of very observant human artists, fully engaged with living here and now.

The book (paperbound) “Turning Leaves” (WWW Creative Publishers, ISBN: 0615455860 / ISBN 13: 97806115455860 ) is available at Amazon ($12.95), or can be purchased directly ($10.00 plus postage) by emailing Also check out Audrey Lavin at and her blog, Whodunit?, at

Photo: “The Reader”, oil by Claude Monet

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Their Rightful Place

Their Rightful Place
By Tom Wachunas

“Some women like to sew to calm their nerves, but I paint books.” - Claude Raguet Hirst -

After the Italian painter Artemesia Gentileschi died in 1652, it wasn’t long before her amazing paintings were all but completely forgotten, lost, or attributed to either her father (who taught her in the ways of Caravaggio) or other Baroque male masters. Sometimes when I look at reproductions of her jarring “Judith Slaying Holofernes” in the history books, I can’t help but sense that her imagery of heroic (usually Biblical) women exacting retribution on miscreant men was both somehow ironic and prophetic.

The art world of her time and long after was a man’s world. The idea of women art students apprenticing to male masters of the day (unless they were family) was simply not encouraged. These days most historians and curators rank Gentileschi not only a truly significant painter among all painters of her era, but also among the greatest women to ever wield a brush. But Gentileschi’s arduous journey into its rightful historic place points to the long-standing sexual/social exclusionary biases that kept women artists unseen in the shadows of male-dominated rule- making.

Fast forward to 1986 New York City. At that time, the Guerilla Girls were a very active, in-your-face coalition of artists whose ‘performances’ shed harsh light on art establishment biases. One of their posters asked, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” Printed next to the image of Ingres’ reclining nude “Grande Odalisque” (her head replaced by that of a snarling gorilla) was the text, “Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” We’ve presumably made some progress in the last 25 years.

This evolving perception and role of women in the art world is well-addressed in the curator’s statement accompanying an exhibit at the Canton Museum of Art (CMA) of approximately 50 works from the permanent collection by women from the 19th to 21st centuries. Therein we read, for example, that Claude Raguet Hirst (born Claudine in 1855) “…assumed a male name to avoid sexual bias and assure that her work was taken seriously.” Seriously indeed. Her intimately scaled painting here (pictured above), called “An Interesting Book”, is a masterpiece in the trompe l’oeil still life tradition , all the more breathtaking when you consider that it’s a watercolor.

Breathtaking, too, are the watercolors by Patricia Tobacco Forrester and Carolyn Brady. Both are heroic departures from the standard smaller- size format so commonly practiced in watercolor painting. The similarly scaled acrylic and colored pencil “Still Life with Silver Bowl and White Cup” by Jeanette Pasin Sloan is astonishing in its precision, lavish patterns, and the stunningly rendered reflections of a room that appear on the inside rim of the bowl.

Jennifer Bartlett’s woodcut/silkscreen “At Sea, Japan” is an elegant, abstracted bird’s eye- view of reflections on water and the darting movements of fish clustered beneath the surface. For all of its dramatic, rapturous progression of colors, and almost palpably kinetic energy, it exudes a fluid peace. And it’s a Zen-like serenity that characterizes the four stoneware vessels by Toshiko Takaezu – quiet, simple sentinels of rich earthiness.

These are but some of the more remarkable works, barely scratching the surface of the depth, mastery, and variety of genres so abundantly evident in this show. It’s a show that once again amply demonstrates the formidable level of curatorial discernment that makes the CMA permanent collection so thrilling.

In today’s world, the flawed practices and assumptions that ignored or marginalized women artists aren’t a hot-button issue, thankfully. In fact it would be ludicrous and even criminal to think that women are in any way a “less-than” class of artists who still have miles to go and something to prove. They’ve been there, done that. So call this show a lovingly compiled and important reminder of (with apologies to The Grateful Dead) what a long, strange – and beautiful – trip it’s been. And continues to be.

Photo, courtesy, “An Interesting Book” watercolor by Claude Raguet Hirst, on view through July 24 at the Canton Museum of Art, (330) 453 - 7666

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

For Brennis, Second April's Effluent Spiral of Friends

For Brennis, Second April’s Effluent Spiral of Friends
By Tom Wachunas

Hanging in my home are still a few assemblages from 2001- 2002 that I exhibited at Second April Galerie’s inaugural location on Cleveland Avenue. Not a day goes by when they don’t pleasantly remind me of my first meetings with gallery founders/ proprietors Brennis Booth and his partner, Todd Walburn. It was their sincerely encouraging, enthusiastic response to those then- new pieces that further fueled a personal “renaissance” after a long (10 years) and difficult hiatus from making art. I’ve been showing work at their gallery ever since, and can’t be grateful enough.

Long before there was any of the hype and hooplah about downtown Canton’s “arts explosion” there was Second April Galerie. When it relocated to Sixth Street Northwest in 2003, it was a wondrously strange and beguiling oasis, a lone salon of artistic possibility. But this once cultural anomaly in a practically (but for the historic Palace Theater) forgotten urban landscape represented a truly seminal, daring vision that would go on to inspire a phenomenal in-kind community response. Since moving to its current Cleveland Avenue address in 2007, in the heart of what’s now routinely called the arts district, Second April Galerie is still very much a magnetic, vital presence in the transformed (and still transforming) downtown arts milieu. Again, I can’t be grateful enough.

And so, in the wake of Brennis Booth’s recent ordeal with major heart surgery, it thrills me to the marrow to see the appearance of The Brennis Bunch, some 217 individuals (at last count) gathered on Facebook. Many thanks to artist Sarah Winther Shumaker for initiating it, and to all who have signed on. This ebullient, indeed phenomenal outpouring of care and support for Brennis and Todd is a marvelous testament to the impact they continue to so lovingly make on the arts community and beyond. Meanwhile…

Dear Brennis,
During and long after your time of healing and recuperation, may you remain, as the name of your gallery suggests, a constancy of bright renewal and inspiration to us all. God Bless you and yours.

Photo: “Rose to the Occasion” (2002), assemblage by Tom Wachunas

Monday, June 20, 2011

Oztensibly,Toto-ly Invigorating

Oztensibly, Toto-ly Invigorating
By Tom Wachunas

There I was, on opening night of the Players Guild production of The Wizard of Oz, happily anticipating the haunted forest scene. By this point I had successfully disabused myself of the fruitless temptation to make too many comparisons to the 1939 movie classic. But before any staged version of that iconic, chilling decent of the winged monkeys could transpire, the frightened foursome (Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion) are attacked by the pesky “Jitterbug” sent by the Wicked Witch to, as she had just explained to her minions, “take the fight out of them.” Once bitten, the victims helplessly succumbed to paroxysms of dancing the - you guessed it – Jitterbug.

This scene never made it into the movie. Some have since posited that it would have dated the film too specifically, or that the dance - regarded as somewhat scandalous in its day - was a bit too adult for young audiences (an objection that seems laughable by today’s standards). In any event, aided by Michael Lawrence Akers’ effectively expressive choreography, the dance was here performed by all – including Mary Vaccani as the Jitterbug - with delicious abandon. And in that, the frenetic number embodied the remarkably supple energy of this production as a whole, inventively directed by Craig Joseph.

He wisely chose to bring to light a refreshingly different dimensionality to many of the scenes, songs, and characters that the film had so firmly cemented into our memories and expectations. “NO ONE, “ he writes in his program notes, “can be Judy Garland or Bert Lahr like Judy Garland or Bert Lahr.” True enough. Nonetheless, this fine cast, while certainly honoring the original script with notable skill and faithfulness, injects it with some surprisingly new, exciting flavors. In singing “If I Only Had a Brain”, The Scarecrow is joined by three hilariously heckling crows . Tin Man’s “If I Only Had a Heart” is rendered a la vintage crooner style from radio shows of old, backed up by harmonies by three cantankerous apple trees.

Brittany Hines’ portrayal of Dorothy is authentically youthful and fetching, yet strongly tempered with a visceral confidence beyond her years. She sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” not so much with sweet, wounded longing as with soaring, urgent determination. The performances by her traveling companions are equally credible. Joe Shipbaugh’s Scarecrow has an eminently loveable, lithe swagger; Jason A. Green brings real warmth and vulnerability to his Tin Man; and Stephen Ostertag is riveting as the Cowardly Lion, hilariously negotiating his character’s oscillating nerves.

With the intriguing performances by Lisa Belopotosky Knight as Glinda the Good Witch, along with that of Cheryl Henderson as The Wicked Witch of the West, you’ll surely get the feeling you’re not in the movie anymore. This Glinda is both refined and sassy, given to delicious moments of earthy savoir-faire, like spraying air freshener after the Wicked Witch’s departure from Munchkin Land (speaking of which, the 11 children playing Munchkins are adorable, most notably the two tikes representing The Lollipop Guild, with their hitch-up-your-pants boyish toughness). Additionally, the Wicked Witch in this production is something of a sensual Goth fashion queen with a superiority complex. Her unconvincing cackling is more bravado than outright evil. And of course it’s exposed bravado that reveals the supposedly fierce Wizard to be just a contrite, well- meaning man, genuinely played here by Don Jones.

Once again, conductor/keyboardist Steve Parsons and his 11-piece orchestra provide a lively, sharply arranged backdrop to the proceedings, and Joshua Erichsen has designed several very effective set tableau pieces. Kudos, too, to costume designers Susie Smith and Leslie DeStefano. But of all the stage machinations and “special effects” at work here (and that would include the clever depiction of a Kansas tornado via several wildly twirling dancers), none is more suitable to the task than the real dog ( not named in the program – oh the shame of it!) who plays Toto. Each time the docile little long- hair appeared on stage, on cue to a fault, whispery waves of appreciative oohs and aahs rose from the audience. He (or she) added an endearing bit of polish to this already shiny, magical evening.

Photo, by James Dreussi: Left to Right, Jason A. Green as the Tin Man, Stephen Ostertag as the Cowardly Lion, Brittany Hines as Dorothy, Joe Shipbaugh as the Scarecrow. Canton Players Guild Theatre production of THE WIZARD of OZ, shows through July 10, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Players Guild Mainstage, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton. To order tickets, call (330) 453 – 7617 or visit

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tangible Light, Solid Air

Tangible Light, Solid Air
By Tom Wachunas

“I take pleasure in the beauty and wonder of earth. My sculptures are an expression of gratitude, a search for parallel, tangible, formal experiences that can be shared with others…I sculpt light and emptiness. Whenever possible, I penetrate a rock or a tree trunk. Not to subdue it, but to open it up. Open for eyes to walk through, traverse, wonder, imagine, remember, touch…and understand.”
-Barbara Stanczack -

Rounding out the exhibition by five women artists in “A Celebration of Women in the Arts: Director’s Choice II” at the Canton Museum of Art are 19 works by sculptor Barbara Stanczack (wife of the prominent abstractionist Julian Stanczack). And ‘rounding’ is a good way to begin sensing what her pieces are about. Round, as in curvaceous, organic forms. Fecund volumes. Brimming pregnancies of light and space, literal and implied.

Her contemplative sculptures are sensual, evocative celebrations of her enthrallment with wood and stone. Their simplicity isn’t of the kind so common to the cold, emotionally detached rawness of Minimalism. Rather, these are elegant, intuited harmonies between the artist’s graceful manipulation of the physical forms, and her respect for the intrinsic nature of the material at hand. It’s an honest, warm, and seductive symbiosis.

“Bulbous” looks to be a salvaged oak stump, split so as to expose an interior sealed with paper-thin, iridescent copper flashing. It’s an intriguing duet of materials, arresting and a resting, not unlike mother-of-pearl inside a shell. Indeed, there are other works here rendered to suggest the convex-concave configurations of sea shells, as in the stunning “Marking Time”. This is a spectacular, large piece of onyx which is, but for a few chiseled spots on its angled underside, polished to a sleek finish. With its richly translucent striations of green and reddish brown bands pressed amid layers of microcrystalline quartz, this single stone conjures an entirely ancient, mesmerizing and exotic landscape.

Exotic, too, is the nearby “Tip Toe Through My Garden”, with its five undulating flowers made of cypress wood. These upright blooms taper to rounded points, seeming to defy gravity. Similarly, the white forms made from Italian translucent alabaster in “Butterfly Wings” seem impossibly delicate and airy atop their sparkling stone perch.

If there is such a thing as earthly sacraments, then these works, born of timeless natural substances, are subtly sacramental. They are signs of things at once ostensible and obscured. Quietly mysterious, in manifesting the outward signs of the artist’s hand – her physical actions – they guide us toward a spiritual action of sorts, which is our inward communion with her sense of delight and discovery.

Michelangelo once wrote, “The best artist has that thought alone which is contained within the marble shell; the sculptor’s hand can only break the spell to free the figure slumbering in the stone.” It is, I think, a gentle breaking that Stanczack has engaged. As she has stated, it is not a breaking to conquer or subdue, but to reveal, and to present the possibility of our sharing in her gratitude for “the beauty and wonder of earth.”

In breaking the ‘spell’ mentioned by the Renaissance master, Stanczack lavishes us with marvelously sumptuous revelations, and in the process, holds us spellbound.

Photo, from : “Marking Time”, onyx, on view through July 24 at the Canton Museum of Art, located in the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave. North. (330) 453-7666.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A History Runs Through It

A History Runs Through It
By Tom Wachunas

Historically, the potent efficacy of photography lies in its re-presenting a reality, whether literally or figuratively, forever preserving the essence of a moment, a person, a place, or a thing. The motivations for making photographs are many, but I think none is more compelling or universal than the desire to somehow defeat mortality and offer lasting proof of life beyond its time. To remember. And in our remembering – our savoring of what is no longer tangibly “real” or physically in front of us - photographs are often invitations to place something of ourselves in the frame, as it were, and enrich our present by re-entering the past. This is particularly true of vintage portraiture.

The current exhibit at The Massillon Museum, called “Faces of Rural America”, is the very stunning – indeed beautiful - culmination of two years of work by museum research teams, presenting 100 photographic portraits by Belle Johnson (1864-1945) of Monroe City, Missouri, and Henry Clay Fleming (1845-1942) of Ravenswood, West Virginia. The photographers each worked for decades (from late 19th century and onward) as their respective small town’s sole professional portrait artists. The show occupies two floors of the museum – the main floor gallery dedicated to Fleming’s work, and the second floor to Johnson’s. I highly recommend that you view the fascinating video that accompanies each exhibit, with interviews and observations about the artist and town.

Many of Johnson’s portraits have a more refined visual grace and crispness about them when compared to those of Fleming, who seemed to have been somewhat looser in the sharp-focus department. Additionally, Fleming used glass-plate negatives for the duration of his career, while Johnson apparently stayed in step with more contemporary technological developments as they unfolded. Many of Fleming’s images have in turn acquired an intriguing aesthetic element impossible to have been foreseen by him. Due to the glass negatives being stored in less than optimal conditions for some 60 years, the irreparable damage gives those prints a magnificently eerie kind of blooming frame effect.

What I find most appealing about this exhibit, though, goes beyond just the studio practices of the artists, or any comparative analyses of formal elements. Viewing the portraits collectively is to be utterly immersed in another world, really. There is an astonishingly diverse range of faces, walks of life, and moods present. Men, women, babies and children. Couples, families. Rich, poor. Expressions that are playful, scowling, angelic, demure, contemplative, proud, tired, enigmatic. Wondrous, lyrical humanity.

Another notable and thoughtful aspect of the show is the inclusion of four local artists (including myself – more on that shortly) who were commissioned by Massillon Museum Executive Director Alexandra Nicholis to fabricate textural interpretations of a photo of their choice. Call them 3-D translations intended to be “read” by museum visitors who are blind. But the invitation to touch those works – surely a unique and refreshing one in a museum context – is open to all viewers. And so it is that Clare Murray Adams, Brittany Steigert, and Joseph Close responded with remarkable skill and sensitivity in producing renditions startlingly true to the photos and visually enthralling in their own right.

It’s an honor to be in their company, and I admit to being somewhat envious of how they stayed so faithful to “actual” photo textures and accuracy of scale. My own submission took relatively greater liberties in copying formal proportions of the Fleming photo I chose (shown here). But it’s the photo’s amazingly complicated and dominating “damage” that wields such a poetic grip. At first blush the boys seem to be swallowed up in chaos. I chose to enlarge on their rising from, not their disappearing into, the ravages of time.

And in the end, it’s a similarly romantic spirit that’s at the heart of this exhibit – a spirit of persistence, of emergence. The people portrayed here, charmingly shrouded in sepia and misty greys, are long gone from our midst. But through the tender art of their portrayers, these echoes of an era enter and adorn our awareness - if only for the time it takes to view this show – like gentle ghosts.

Photo: Portrait of Two Boys, one partially obscured, by Henry Clay Fleming. On view at Massillon Museum THROUGH OCTOBER 9, 121 Lincoln Way E. in downtown Massillon. Viewing hours are 9:30 a.m to 5 p.m. Tuesday – Saturday, and 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday (330) 833 - 4061
Info at or

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

In Living Black and White

In Living Black and White
By Tom Wachunas

“…everything looks worse in black and white.” - Paul Simon, from “Kodachrome”

“A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”
- Diane Arbus –

“Life is like a good black and white photograph; there’s black, there’s white, and lots of shades in between.” - Karl Heiner –

Our word “color” comes originally from the Old Latin noun ‘colos’, meaning a covering, related to the verb ‘celare’ - to conceal or to hide. It seems an ironic word meaning, really, when we consider how much power we assign to color in revealing what we think of as particular qualities of the visual world. Certain colors connote warmth, joyous optimism, or fiery passion, while others conjure cold, distant things, loneliness, or isolation. We’ve become accustomed to how the visible spectrum of light resonates with us emotionally. In art, we praise an artist’s mastery of color’s luminosity and intensity, and its capacity to manipulate our perception. In this polychromatic world that can be photographically imitated, translated, and supposedly improved upon via ever more sophisticated digital tinkering, how has the hallowed tradition of black and white photography been faring?

Move over Roy G. Biv and Paul Simon. The world is not necessarily best – and certainly not always – viewed through rainbow lenses. Case in point: the current showing of approximately 40 photographs by Jan Bell in his exhibit called “An Intimate View” at The Joseph Saxton Gallery of Photography.

Yes, there are marvelous color photographs here that, as the show’s title indicates, present intimate, very close-up visions from nature, all of them masterfully crisp and arresting. “Ripples on Water”, for example, with its intricate clusters of tiny white ridges afloat in luscious cerulean wavelets, is startlingly faithful to reality while being a stunning abstraction.

But for truly compelling visions of texture, tonality, and formal drama, Bell’s black and white photographs soar where color would seem to be a distraction. A monochromatic world, as so superbly demonstrated here, is neither boring nor complacent. His images, both from natural and urban settings, are eminently poetic and riveting. Many of them bring to mind the sleek sensuality of Edward Weston’s work, or the powerful visual majesty in the work of Ansel Adams.

Savor the undulating curves and sumptuous wrinkles of sand in “Dune Waves”, or the eerie tactility of “Resting Boulder”. Who knew a rock could speak such depth and mystery, or that grey areas could be so intense? There are myriad secrets in that surface tattooed by eons of geologic change.

Call me unashamedly old school, but sometimes I think our love affair with color can sabotage real, thoughtful seeing. The idea that black and white photography could reveal the deepest essence or spirit of a thing might seem too counter-intuitive, high-flown, and/or obsolete to some viewers and practitioners. Thankfully, this is one show that offers clear, engaging, and beautiful evidence to the contrary.

Photo, courtesy , “Dune Waves” by Jan Bell, on view THROUGH JULY 30, 520 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Phone (330) 438 – 0030. Gallery hours are Wednesday – Saturday, 12 – 5.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Their Just Deserts

Their Just Deserts
By Tom Wachunas

The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s most inmost parts.
- Proverbs 18:8 –

While many of you may take the title of this commentary to be a misspelling of an archaic phrase meaning ‘getting what they deserve’, I assure you it’s not. The apparent plural of an arid, sandy wasteland is in fact the original correct spelling, here pronounced ‘desserts’, as in after-dinner sweets.

I can also assure you that “Let Them Eat Cake”, the new play by Sherry Yanow and Deborah Fezelle (their fourth collaboration produced in Canton) that plays for one night only (Saturday, June 4) at Fieldcrest of North Canton, is anything but dry or archaic. Fezelle directed this engaging and facile comedy, and has assembled an equally facile cast to deliver the story that unfolds, in two Florida households, about two mothers on Mother’s Day, their sons, their sons’ girlfriends, and one nosy gossip.

And it’s there – the gossip – where the story begins. After repeatedly overhearing what she (mistakenly) takes to be late-night sexual shenanigans in her neighbor Kelly Fox’s apartment, Carmen Montoya phones her best friend, Hope Chancellor , and informs her that Alvin Chandler has been messing around with Kelly. That would be THE Alvin Chandler, the wildly rich, successful software mogul, and son to Brenda Chandler, who happens to be Carmen’s cousin. The two-fold problem is that Kelly is supposedly the sweet, devoted girlfriend of Hope’s veterinarian son, Brad. And Carmen knows that Alvin is ostensibly head-over-heels for Crystal Butterfield, a local weather girl. More phone calls from Carmen to both Hope and Brenda ensue, and the concerned mothers, thoroughly ensnared by rumor and innuendo, begin to pry more seriously into their sons’ respective romances.

On one level, the story brings to mind the famous moment in “Cool Hand Luke” when Strother Martin announces, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” The narrative web of this play becomes further tangled when we learn that Brenda is vehemently opposed to her son’s plan to marry Crystal, whom she knows to be a manipulative gold digger and ostentatious fraud. But Alvin is hopelessly blinded (not to mention an inexperienced nerd when it comes to relationships with women), and intent on surprising Crystal with an engagement ring hidden in a Mother’s Day cake. Meanwhile, Hope does all she can to encourage her reluctant son, Brad, terribly hurt by a past failed romance, to finally pop the question to Kelly, else lose her forever. To make matters worse (but in the end actually better), the bakery botches the two households’ cake orders, and in the confusion of similar last names, it’s Kelly who gets Crystal’s ring.

This marvelously crafted study in irony and romance has a practically Shakespearean flavor to its comedic narrative twists. All seven cast members are superbly suited to their roles, delivering them with palpable verve. As the busy-body Carmen, Janet Fashbaugh Mohler is deliciously funny and even naughty as she drops her “news” bombshells, seeming to relish the fallout as it lingers in the other characters’ reactions. Denise Robb, playing Brenda, is startlingly credible and urgent in her portrayal of the exasperated, pleading mother, and in her tense stand-offs - masterful moments of understated venom - with Crystal. An effective and equally urgent counterpoint is the character of Hope, played with authentic, fervent warmth by Marilyn Wells as she passionately encourages Brad to marry Kelly. In that role, Ariel Roberts is intriguing to watch as she emerges from dutiful and fawning girlfriend into honestly revealing her desires for married life with Brad, played by Drew Schaar. His is an intriguing transformation, too – from self-satisfied career man keeping marriage at arm’s length, to lowering his unreasonable defenses.

Joseph M. Haladey III is electrifyingly spot-on as the zany, immature, love-struck Alvin. For all of his character’s business acumen and hefty bank assets, he’s woefully poor (and just plain stupid) at recognizing how his desperation for a woman to love him for himself has lured him into Crystal’s conniving. In that role, Meagan Sonner is brilliant and sensual in an utterly decadent way – fully capturing all her character’s wanton greed, ill-founded self-assurance, and shallow deceit. It’s gratifying to report that the story provides for her well-earned comeuppance.

If there’s any bad news here it’s that this dinner-theater show runs for only one evening before moving on to performance in Springfield, Illinois. The good news is that as both director and playwright, Deborah Fezelle, and her extremely talented Top of the Town Productions company, continues to forge a viable and exciting presence here in the Canton area. Look for her next show - a political thriller to be mounted at the Kathleen Howland Theatre in August.

For tonight, there just might be tickets left at Fieldcrest of North Canton, 1346 Easthill St. SE, North Canton. Dinner at 6:30, followed by the show. Tickets are $30 and can be ordered by calling (330) 966 – 2222.

Photo, courtesy Deborah Fezelle: Cast of “Let Them Eat Cake” clockwise from bottom left: Joseph M. Haladey III, Meagan Sonner, Denise Robb, Janet Fashbaugh Mohler, Marilyn Wells, Drew Schaar, and Ariel Roberts.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


By Tom Wachunas

If it isn’t apparent to you by now from my last two posts, a visit to the Canton Museum of Art these days will place you firmly in thrall to women artists. “A Celebration of Women in the Arts: Director’s Choice II” is a thoroughly captivating group of exhibits not only in the main gallery, but also in the upper gallery that features the work of 55 women artists from the museum’s permanent collection. And let’s not forget the two “side” galleries either. The smaller of those two spaces has been given over to the work of Lisa Hertzi, while the larger spotlights that of Juliellen Byrne.

“Journey in Stitches: Art Doll Adventures” is the title of the showing by Lisa Hertzi. A doll-maker extraordinaire, Hertzi makes highly textured figures from wildly colored and patterned fabrics, skillfully interwoven with such things as yarn, feathers, stones, beads and wire. But these dolls are a few steps beyond just the ruddy-cheeked, plump facsimiles of human babies meant for little girls’ playtime. They do, though, have a childlike, giddy abandon about them, often to the point of outright funkiness. A few, like “Mazel-Tough” and “Dead Mari”, are puppet-like characters that look like they’d be right at home in one of Tim Burton’s quirky, humorously dark animations.

Most interesting about this eye-popping collection as a whole is its family resemblance to “primitive” figurines from various civilizations and eras that have clearly fascinated Hertzi. Many of her forms hint at ancestor totems or ritual artifacts from Africa, for example, or perhaps North American Hopi kachinas. In any case, these lovingly rendered, bright objects, in their suggestion of the “spirit catchers” from other cultures, can also be rightfully viewed as contemporary human spirit lifters.

While not as electrifyingly decorative as Hertzi’s dolls, there is nonetheless a totemic, doll-like quality about many of the clay sculptures by Juliellen Byrne in her exhibit called “Cradle Casket Boat”. But these figures, with their ambiguous expressions and ghostly, pale visages, seem like strange cousins of antique porcelain dolls, and are less overtly optimistic in mood, even if there are moments of innocent joy - as in “You’re Pretty Too”, wherein a baby exuberantly licks at the opened beak of a bird. “Toe Tag” is much more sobering. From the baby’s head, praying hands protrude, the torso swaddled in cards identifying dead soldiers. It’s a jarring remembrance of children who will grow up with no father.

To varying degrees, many of Byrne’s stunning figurations here exude a gently measured melancholy – sometimes latent, sometimes very present. These odd, even cryptic visions constitute a personal, symbolic iconography characterized by haunting juxtapositions of boats, bunnies, rats, babies, and grownups. They occupy a common emotional ground, described by Byrne as “…a consuming frustration about war, concerns about parenting, patriotism, and the politics of engagement in conflicts.” Byrne concludes her statement with, “Add to this, the darker fear that things like human trafficking, and corporate greed is part of the fabric of this civilized society and my little boat feels very small and not so safe.”

In as much as these works are codifications of human failings, fragility, and mortality, I think they’re also soulful calls to resolve universal dilemmas, to right our moral compass, to consider alternatives. To embrace the possibility of hope. And in that, they are eminently powerful embodiments of desire.

Photo, courtesy Canton Museum of Art: “Pope on Wheels” by Juliellen Byrne, on view THROUGH JULY 24 in the exhibit, “A Celebration of Women in the Arts: Director’s Choice II” at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue North in the Cultural Center for the Arts. Phone (330) 453 – 7666