Friday, December 30, 2011
The Tales We Weave (Part 2of 2): “Focus: Fiber 2011” in Canton
By Tom Wachunas
Another smaller, but vibrant work that requires a shift in viewing posture is Bonnie Patterson’s “Bitter Root.” The ‘ground’ for this piece seems at first to be an abstract field, and on one level it is. The multiple fabric swatches are heat transfer images of Montana topographical and geological images – a mapped landscape interspersed with a few larger images of Washington, D.C. When visiting this not- so- plain(s)- state(ment), tilt your head about 45 degrees clockwise to read the embroidered longhand text along the bottom half. Politics and poetry meet in a kind of folk-art embrace of social and environmental concerns. A story being told.
And it is indeed a narrative, often autobiographical sensibility that informs many other works here. In that sense, such works, for all their clearly modern look, speak nonetheless to early textile art traditions of storytelling as well as a passion for pure, decorative pattern.
June Lee’s “Who We Are” is a deceivingly simple presentation of five black, hand-sewn shirts with white collars, made from translucent Korean cloth. These are school uniforms, hovering in midair above five sets of disembodied, brightly colored fabric hands on the floor. Each set of hands is poised in a specific gesture. These would be signals, Lee tells us in her statement, passed (unseen by the teacher) between students. The piece is a stark, quietly provocative ‘story’ of declared individuality in the context of strictly imposed conformity - a new twist, perhaps, to ‘kid gloves.’
“Amazing Grace” by Cynthia Lockhart is an intensely explosive pastiche of hand-dyed and painted fabrics, lace, collage, and applique. Its spectacular opulence of color, shapes, and textures is a fittingly exuberant homage to divine presence along life’s meandering pathways. Another homage is “Gothic Vessel (after Duccio)” by Jennifer A. Reis. This one, spectacular in its own right, is to Duccio di Buoninsegna, a 13th century Italian painter of religious subjects. The intricate, swirling beadwork in this Madonna icon is wondrously evocative of shimmering golden mosaics. And speaking of beadwork, the three works by Simone Schiffmacher transform a burger, fries, and taco (each presented on a gold leafed cafeteria tray) into dazzling, jeweled trophies of a sort - an impressive, labor-intense apotheosis of junk food.
Among the more abstract, patterned works, Rumana Hawa’s “Unison Vault” is another fascinating example of Jacquard weaving, and utterly enchanting in its interlocked shapes. They’re every bit as complex and maze-like as the artist’s accompanying statement. Something maybe about metaphysics, metaphor, and/or the spirituality of math. Arcane language aside, the delightful proof here is in the looking. So be hypnotized, be very hypnotized.
Without having relevant statistics to back up or dispute any assumption that the fiber arts are still primarily ‘womens’ work’ (aside, possibly, from the context of international high-fashion clothing design), it is interesting to note that the work in this show is in fact predominantly by women. Having said that, Adam Kessler’s pieces, “Solar System Fan” and “Human Fan,” are remarkably unique entries. And it’s not so much because they’re by a male, but because of their appealing intimacy and facile embroidery of figures sewn through elegantly shaped wooden blades. At once hard, soft, and airy.
The conceptual play between hard and soft is very much at work in M.E. Ware’s “Power Suit for Modern Mothers.” Hard, as in a critical look at cultural stereotypes and assumptions about gender roles and appearances. Soft, as associated with delicate or feminine, and the raw material of the work – felted laundry lint! This freestanding work, humorous and severe, is made entirely from grayish lint that’s been sculpted into a clothing store mannequin wearing a woman’s business suit – a cautionary stepping out, perhaps, from dingy domesticity into tainted corporate power-grabbing.
Like so much of this exhibit, it’s a potent, inventive melding of intellectual and visual muscle…and grace.
Photos courtesy Canton Museum of Art: “Amazing Grace” by Cynthia Lockhart (top), and “Gothic Vessel (after Duccio)” by Jennifer A. Reis. On view through March 4, 2012, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Ave. N. in Canton, Ohio. (330) 453 – 7666 www.cantonart.org
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
The Tales We Weave (Part 1)
By Tom Wachunas
Over the past several decades, the “feminine needle arts” have convincingly outgrown their historical niche as decorative, functional craft. Quilts and embroidery samplers, for example, were once perceived in the West as the purview of women who were not otherwise encouraged to participate in a man’s world of ‘serious’ art making, and seen as relatively milquetoast mediums when compared to such ‘high art’ pursuits as painting and sculpture. But the creative and certainly ingenious manipulation of textiles (including weaving, quilting, embroidery, knotting, beadwork, and applique, among other methods) now occupies a significant and vital place in the world of contemporary fine art. Abundant and compelling evidence is currently on view in the spectacular exhibit called “Focus: Fiber 2011” at the Canton Museum of Art.
Coordinated with the Textile Art Alliance of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the show is a stunning cross section of fiber works by 39 artists from across eight states. The exhibit was juried by internationally prominent fiber artist Dorothy Caldwell, who selected 50 pieces from 278 submissions. In her statement for the show, she tells us, “I was struck by the audacious use of eccentric fabrics and casual construction – the unpredictable carrier of a message.”
Audacious…unpredictable…message. Yes indeed to all three. The range of scale, methods of construction, and visual/conceptual content here are remarkably deep, often surprising, and consistently intriguing.
In the hard-to-miss large scale department, there’s the razzle-dazzle “Resurrection” by Heather Ujiie. It’s a joyously electrifying union of digital ink jet images and embroidery, with beadwork and other intricate embellishments. This preternatural panorama – a psychedelic Garden of Eden tapestry, really – is made on six hanging cotton panels, each measuring 10’ in height and collectively spanning 19’ across. Absolutely mesmerizing.
Large (10’x4 ½’) and mesmerizing too, but in a much more understated way, is “Cell Tower Stretch” by Catherine Theodore. Her hand-dyed rayon and cotton threads are ‘Jacquard woven’ (a computerized loom mechanism/process that produces a tight, smooth, gently raised texture) into a lush, bluish-gray field beautifully interwoven with other colors that quietly offset the black silhouette of a cell phone tower, thus imbuing a thoroughly modern industrial structure with a classical elegance.
“In a Different Light” by Xia Gao is, again, very large (approx. 15’x7’) and even more subtle. This impressive expanse of buckram (a stiffened cotton/linen) is screen printed with an abstract, all- blue “pattern” that suggests an aerial view of earthbound organic detritus. The configuration looks as if literally lifted from the ground, like an elaborate collograph or stencil. The entire work hangs about three feet away from the wall, suspended from brackets, and is perforated all over with tiny burn holes. It begins to make more sense after reading Gao’s accompanying statement (something I highly recommend for all the works in this show).
Therein we learn that the work addresses Gao’s personal connection to the state of Nebraska and that the tiny holes were produced by burning incense sticks through the fabric. The randomness of the organic plain becomes a kind of organized spiritual plane that passes light through the holes, making for the delightful surprise of dozens of silhouetted images projected on the wall behind. The images are largely of human figures engaging the natural landscape. And so the work takes on a fascinating sculptural dimensionality as it requires us to shift our physical orientation to it, to see it not just from the conventional front and center pictorial position, but from behind and underneath as well. It’s a powerful, pro-active metaphor for shifting our perspective on relationship with the natural landscape.
For that matter, it brings to mind the overall heft and beauty of this show (more comments to be offered soon in part 2) – a refreshing, thoroughly engaging conflation of tradition and innovation.
Photo, courtesy Canton Museum of Art: “Resurrection” by Heather Ujiie, on view through March 4, 2012, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Ave. N. in Canton, Ohio. (330) 453 – 7666 www.cantonart.org
Friday, December 23, 2011
Wholly Holy Holydays
By Tom Wachunas
“The idea of a great moral teacher saying what Christ said is out of the question. In my opinion, the only person who can say that sort of thing is either God or a complete lunatic suffering from that form of delusion which undermines the whole mind of man…We may note in passing that He was never regarded as a mere moral teacher. He did not produce that effect on any of the people who actually met Him. He produced mainly three effects – Hatred – Terror – Adoration. There was no trace of people expressing mild approval.” -C.S.Lewis -
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” - John 20:29 –
Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished! - Luke 1:45 –
Today is Friday, December 23, the day before Christmas Eve. Years ago, my wife, Martha, told me that she calls this day “Christmas Adam.” It’s an endearing assignation, and not hard to figure out. Adam came before Eve. Today puts me in mind of first things first. Primary attentions. Priorities. So here’s a few thoughts on Christmas.
One particularly impactful essay by C.S. Lewis (quoted above), originally published in his 1970 book, “God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics,” begins, “What are we to make of Jesus Christ?” Lewis immediately follows the question by observing that it has “…a frantically comic side.” I’ve come to regard the wording of his observation as meaning ‘tragically ironic.’ He continues, “For the real question is not what are we to make of Christ, but what is He to make of us?”
In occupying my thoughts with great persistence over the past several weeks, this ‘real question’ is to me in many ways a real shame, if only because I pray on it too much just seasonally, or on Sundays, and not enough daily. Otherwise, I allow our terribly addled world to prey on my time and allegiances, thus too often making its priorities my own. Thinking about such things especially at this time of year is easy enough, even as it might smack of cookie-cutter religiosity or a hollow sense of tradition and spiritual ‘duty.’ Is the question one to be trotted out annually like a favorite Christmas bauble, only to be packed up and stored away until next year?
Additionally, throughout this Christmas season of 2011, I have often painted in my mind’s eye the image of a weary Jesus asking the world at large, “What have you made of Christmas?” And the only way for me to honestly respond is to daily come back to what, exactly, I am willing to let Jesus, my Creator and Lord, make of me. It is a matter far more urgent than just “keeping” Him as a great teacher, or feel-good abstraction of goodness in a season that bears His name. The truth, indeed the reality, is that He came to reveal, and keep ALL of us in, what he IS - living, unspeakably glorious Love, Joy, Hope, and Peace. Forever.
First things first. By His grace, believing IS seeing. May your eyes, then, be filled with the light of Jesus. Merry Christmas.
Photo: My 2011 Christmas oil painting/greeting card.
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
By Tom Wachunas
“What modern art means is that you have to keep finding new ways to express yourself, to express the problems, that there are no settled ways, no fixed approach…It is about the hurt of not being able to express yourself properly, to express your intimate relations, your unconscious, to trust the world enough to express yourself directly in it…Some questions are too painful to answer. Some questions we are unwilling to ask. And some are impossible to answer.”
- Artist Louise Bourgeois, from a 1988 interview with philosopher and critic Donald Kuspit –
“Joy and Departure” is the intriguing name of the current exhibit at The Little Art Gallery in North Canton, featuring paintings by Joe Martino and sculptures by Annette Yoho Feltes. If I read the statement that accompanies the list of works correctly, the thematic premise of the show is that both artists’ works here were intended to be seen together as somehow complementary in their departures from familiar reality so as to evoke unexpected joy and fascination on our part. In the process of putting the show together they have to some extent, in a few of their pieces, cross-fertilized each other’s work.
I can certainly see how “joy” might be one outcome of seeing Joe Martino’s pieces - as in the joy of encountering enthralling new visual structures in the context of scientific exploration. This isn’t surprising when considering that Martino is a retired teacher of chemistry and marine biology.
His mixed media abstractions are elaborate, heavily tactile, shimmering gatherings of forms - both geometric and irregular - that float in and on undulating fields of variable color, ranging from dark and earthbound to stunningly electric. Some of the forms look scraped on to, or out of, the surface, making for some delightfully ambiguous figure-ground passages. Other forms appear poured or spilled on to the surface in organic configurations that are often set off with elegant, thin contour lines of raised paint, as if mapping a topography.
These are complex and meticulous works, alternately suggestive of explosive astronomical events, astral clouds, and microbial minutiae. Telescopic and microscopic. With its often metallic iridescence, Martino’s nebulous geometry can be preciously decorative. But I don’t mean ‘decorative’ in any pejorative sense. Rather, his pictures are vibrant, intuitive celebrations of spectacles both familiar and wondrously mysterious.
And it is mystery, more than overt “joy,” that abounds in the sculptures by Annette Yoho Feltes. With various combinations of terra cotta, porcelain, rope, wire, and wood (among other materials), she makes objects that are (even at their most whimsical) invariably visceral and arresting. Feltes’ aesthetic is firmly rooted in solidarity with that of art world luminaries Louise Bourgeois, Magdalena Abakanowitcz, and Eva Hess. Feltes calls them her “saints.”
I can see why. Without being too blatantly derivative, what Feltes shares with those 20th century mentors of mixed media sculptures and installation art is a well-honed ability to let the juxtaposition of her chosen physical materials be intensely expressive of spirit and psyche. Particularly in her three freestanding works (“The Necessary Sacrifice,” “Fruitful,” and “A Mother of Two”), there’s a raw, even primal emotionality at work. These metaphorical constructions have the look of ritual objects, like ancient shamans’ ceremonial charms, that speak of vexing enigmas or pain. But there’s also an abiding sense of anticipation and promise, of impending arrivals, of conversations incomplete, literally hanging in the balance. Suspended thoughts. Her strange, bulbous forms might be carcasses or entombed nightmares. Then again, eggs, cocoons, or ripe fruit. Fertility and birth, harvest, mortality. Sublimated fears and anxieties, or channeled dreams?
In accessing and trusting their own experience of living, conscious and unconscious, contemporary artists will often leave us challenging ‘statements’ that stop in mid-sentence, as it were. Ambiguities and dichotomies in flux. Much of the “art experience” in this postmodernist era is in fact more dependent than ever upon us, the viewers, to resolve or at least sustain the dialogue. Annette Yoho Feltes’ ‘voice’ is a young but burgeoning and uniquely important one in our local arts milieu, and one that merits our continuing attentions.
“Joy and Departure” will be on view through January 14 at The Little Art Gallery, located inside the North Canton Public Library, 185 North Main Street, North Canton. (330) 499 – 4712, Ext. 312
Thursday, December 15, 2011
Liquid Urban Light
By Tom Wachunas
“Watercolour could have been used more by the modernists. It is so direct, and when the white paper convention is accepted, so powerful, even brutal, that it would seem an ideal medium.” – David Milne –
What would David Milne (who died in 1953), among Canada’s most prominent artists of the 20th century, make of the popularity and high visibility of watercolorists in our northeastern Ohio midst? Would he consider their work ‘modernist’ in the sense that I take the above quote to mean? Would he see a powerful, “even brutal” employment of the medium?
I’m sure that he would indeed encounter some truly original and engaging practitioners of the medium in our artistic population. To get there, though, he would have to wade through a preponderance of entrenched traditionalists. Not there’s anything necessarily insipid or invalid about the niceties of a tightly painted still life, floral arrangement, quaint seascape, or sentimental landscape. But quaint and sentimental is one thing. Saccharine and generic, no matter how well rendered, is quite another. Looking at exhibitions in these parts over the past 20 years, it seems to me that we’re remarkably heavy with lightweight and otherwise unremarkable watercolor painters.
Ted Lawson’s work decidedly does NOT fall into that demographic. Ample evidence is currently on view in his exhibit, called “A Moment in Time,” at the Canton Museum of Art. With the exception of two aquatic-themed images, all of the watercolor paintings here are cityscapes – some of Canton, but most of Manhattan.
All of these urban visions share a photographic sensibility in their soft detailing and in how the scenes have a viewfinder- in-the-moment sort of framing. This isn’t surprising, since Lawson does work from photographs. But what’s most uncanny is how his bold, luminous colors and fluid technique manifest light, imbuing his images with the plein air vibrancy and spontaneity so characteristic of the Impressionists. “Washington Square Park” is a stunning panorama of contrasted light. Wispy foreground trees hover over cars parked in the shade and pedestrians in silhouette, while the famous landmark arch and the city structures in the distance seem to shimmer in soft sunlight.
There’s also the matter of Lawson’s impeccable sense of design and composition, both in form and color distribution. While these pictures are certainly representational, they’re built upon seeing abstractly. Many of the scenes have an almost architectural dynamic in how visual textures are constructed, with concentrated areas of small details and shapes balanced against larger, more airy passages. In “Union Square Saturday,” the light is diffuse, befitting the rainy day depicted. A cluster of umbrella shapes moves rhythmically, as if dancing across the middle of the picture plane, floating in sharp counterpoint to the amorphous reflections glimmering on the wet pavement at the bottom.
For all of their liquid charm, the paintings nonetheless project a compelling, visceral immediacy. And occasionally even real drama, as in the aptly titled “Night Fever.” It’s a practically hallucinatory, furiously red vision of head light glare colliding with the sparkling metal of passing traffic.
These are exquisitely exciting impressions of transient episodes in city life. Lawson has managed to turn the clamor, clutter, and largeness of the urban milieu into a sublimely poetic visual experience. Interestingly enough, though his brushwork generally has little in common with that of Claude Monet, I’m still reminded of Monet’s abiding passion for translating light into form. The French master once observed, “Everyone discusses my art and pretends to understand, as if it were necessary to understand, when it is simply necessary to love.”
Simply necessary to love. For my part, with Lawson’s work, that’s a necessity – indeed an invitation - joyously met.
Photo: “Riding the Bike Lane” watercolor by Ted Lawson. On view through March 4, 2012, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue N., Canton (330) – 453- 7666
Thursday, December 8, 2011
Evocations: The Art of Martin Bertman
By Tom Wachunas
My first encounter with a Martin Bertman painting was in 2008 at Second April Galerie in downtown Canton. Call it a summoning. From 20 paces, a small piece called “Before Awakening,” one of the 25 Bertman works (oil, acrylic, watercolor, and mixed media) currently on view at the Canton Museum of Art, is a portrait that, despite being faceless, beckoned with great insistence. As if reconnecting with a long lost friend, I’ve been awakening to his work, caught in its mesmerizing thrall, ever since. And so it has truly been an honor and gift most memorable that I have had the opportunity to curate this show that I call “Evocations.”
Bertman’s configurations – some abstracted, some more clearly representational - reside in a place both primal and modern. Here, a raw primitivism and a pictorial refinement resonate with equal intensity - like dance partners entwined in an ever moving, passionate embrace. While it is apparent that a number of historic influences (Symbolist, Cubist, Surrealist, and Expressionist, to name some) are threaded throughout his ouvre, the artist has deftly personalized those sources and re-organized them into a unique, compelling visual vocabulary of intriguing motifs and emblems. Yet for all of its personal content and sometimes obtuse symbolism, this is an iconography that nonetheless evokes an accessible, deeply human spirituality.
Evokes what, exactly? ‘Human sprituality’ embraces a decidedly broad canvas, as it were, of painterly exploration. Bertman’s surfaces often have a tactile physicality, though not of the heavy impasto sort. His subtler brush strokes – whether sweeping and lambent (as in “O’Keefe’s Desert”), or mincing and stippled (as in “Moses”), are invested with energetic, gestural spontaneity. His imagery can be both familiar and approachable (“Cubist Still Life” and “Large Leaf,” for example), as well as inchoate and elusive (“Night Birth,” or “Light and Dark”). The most consistently abiding conceptual element throughout these pieces (representing approximately 20 years of work) though, is their narrative resonance. There are fascinating tales being “told” here, some with gravitas, some lilting and innocent. In that, Bertman is as much a thinker and storyteller as he is a painter. And these visual voicings revel in a superbly poetic language, generously imbued with potent mystique.
Look long enough, and I think you’ll feel somehow drawn to not just the artist’s private musings about being alive, but also into the rich milieu of collective human thinking about history, myth, and matters of the soul. Not so surprisingly, then, after you read Bertman’s statement posted with the exhibit, you would hopefully sense how these are indeed images a life-long teacher of philosophy could or would make.
Residing in many of Bertman’s works is a distinctly European aesthetic sensibility, often evoking the spirits of Paul Gauguin, Marc Chagall, or Henri Matisse, among others. And the color! Always the color – sumptuous, intense, vibrant like the Fauves, emotionally gripping like Van Gogh, playful like Picasso.
Yet always distinctly Bertman. Bertman the painter/ philosopher, the synthesizer, the weaver of tales. The celebrator of seeing. The sublime evocateur.
Photo: “Before Awakening” by Martin Bertman, on view at the Canton Museum of Art through March 4, 2012. More information at (330) 453 – 7666 and www.cantonart.org
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Pressler at 87: Imprecise, but Passionate
By Tom Wachunas
While there was nothing particularly ‘Christmasy’ about the program offered by the Canton Symphony Orchestra on December 4, the atmosphere in Umstattd Hall felt nonetheless distinctly festive and anticipatory of something very special. That would be, of course, the return of legendary pianist Menahem Pressler, last heard here in October, 2009, when his performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 was met with thunderous adulation.
And so it was that the first work on the program – Mozart’s Overture to Abduction from the Seraglio – was a rollicking call to attention, replete with joyous bursts of cymbals, triangle, and drums. It’s a scintillating, rambunctious piece, and the orchestra rose to the occasion with cheerful panache. In retrospect, the work demonstrated the orchestra’s crisp mastery in the percussion section, and heralded the more expansive, emotionally gripping percussive scope of the evening’s final selection.
In dramatic contrast to such a brisk start, the beginning of the program’s next entry, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, seemed like a whispered message - a simple four-note piano theme quietly delivered by Menahem Pressler. In its day, such an introduction was a daring departure from standard concerto openings, and served to establish a meditative commencement of an unfolding, ornate dialogue between piano and orchestra. As Kenneth C. Viant astutely observed in his program notes, Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto is the least “demonstrative” of his five piano concertos and “…one in which inward drama is favored over outward display.”
This doesn’t mean that the contemplative nature of the work isn’t without its technical challenges for the pianist – usually in the form of repeatedly intricate, cascading arpeggios. Presslers’s physical dexterity was less than optimal here. He is, after all, in his 87th year – all the more astonishing when considering he still conducts prestigious master classes and dazzles international concert audiences. Yet even as his performing mechanics may have been uneven, such imprecisions did little to diminish Beethoven’s compelling lyricism.
This was particularly apparent in the second movement, Andante con moto. The scoring is such that the initially heavy, dark-sounding strings are ultimately subdued, through a call-and-response sequencing, by the piano’s insistent, gently plaintive articulations. Throughout the movement, and then into the vivacious finale, Pressler’s playing exuded remarkable poeticism along with his own passionate enthrallment with the music, eliciting immediate, gleeful shouts of approval and a standing ovation from many in the packed auditorium.
Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann’s delightful penchant for convivial banter with the audience was in fine form as he introduced the next work on the program – Camille Saint-Saens’ symphonic poem, Le Rouet d’Omphale (Omphale’s Spinning Wheel). He informed us that the second theme in the work had at one point become the theme music for a famous vintage radio program, and challenged anyone in the audience to identify the show. He awarded one woman a CD of his Vivaldi Four Seasons recording for correctly naming the 1930s serial drama, The Shadow.
Meanwhile, the shadowy theme in the Saint-Saens work actually represents the presence of Hercules, dressed as a woman, as he encounters Omphale, the Lydian Queen whom the gods had sentenced him to serve. The orchestra captured all the lush, subtle crescendos of this graceful work with sublime finesse, the strings stretching out Omphale’s spinning wheel thread into a single note - a high, achingly soft finale.
That ending was in turn an effective transition into the ethereal strings – conjuring dawn on a quiet sea - that began the evening’s concluding work, Claude Debussy’s evocative, powerful La Mer. Rarely have I heard a work so rich in orchestral textures, tempo variations, and fascinating timbres. This was Debussy’s monumentally ambitious and heroic interpretation of the sea in all its manifestations, visceral and airy. And I’ve never heard this orchestra so rapturously engaged in the moment – from the alternately sonorous and mellow strings and eloquent majesty of the brass, to the intensely sparkling swells of percussion and the bright, buoyant effervescence of the winds. More than just a stirring masterpiece of mimetic orchestration, this was a transcendent journey to remember.
Sunday, December 4, 2011
Humbuggery and Grace
By Tom Wachunas
“Come in! Come in, and know me better, man!” -The Spirit of Christmas Present, from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (1843) –
This year marks the 30th anniversary production of “A Christmas Carol” by the Players Guild Theatre in Canton. Promoted as having enhanced special effects and music (this is the version with music by Steve Parsons and lyrics by John Popa, originated in 1997), I nonetheless considered bypassing the event.
I saw the show last year and raved about it. Lately, though, I’ve felt a dampening of the proverbial ‘Christmas spirit’, further jaded by the encroachment of newer national “traditions” such as Thanksgiving night camp-outs at retail stores in a growing readiness to greet the Spirit of Christmas Consuming. And the straw that broke the reindeer’s back, as it were, was the report of a bragging California woman who pepper-sprayed fellow customers in a mad fit of “competitive shopping.” Black Friday to be sure. Scrooges’ searing opinion of society’s dispossessed – “Are there no prisons?” - has yet a new application. Humbug to you all, I said. I fart in your general direction.
Fortunately I repented of such extreme cynicism – surely a Scrooge moment - and came to my senses long enough to revisit one of literature’s most treasured Christmas narratives, lovingly retold here by a 32-member cast under the joint direction of Joshua Erichsen and composer Steve Parsons (with assistance from Jeremy P. Lewis). The instrumental music alone, provided by an impeccably polished 11-piece orchestra, is robust and scintillating, able to lift even the Scroogiest heart. There’s a distinctly fresh luster, too, in the charming, energetic choreography by Michael Lawrence Akers.
Joshua Erichsen’s scenic design - with its thrilling fly effects, meticulously sculpted sets of 18th century architectural facades that swivel to reveal period interiors, and clever use of a trap door in the stage floor – brings remarkable dimensionality to the proceedings. But the real magic here is to be found in the songs, the singing, and the characters’ lively performances delivered by an inspired cast of truly professional quality.
Walter Shepherd is a warm and earnest Bob Cratchit, and his song, “A Child Alone,” with Zachary Charlick – delightfully authentic as Tiny Tim – is one of the evening’s most tender moments. Heartrending, too, is Amanda Medley in her role of Scrooge’s erstwhile love, Belle, who brings her sweetly riveting vocal finesse to the soaring ballad, “I Have to Know.” Also soaring, literally and otherwise, is Kelley Edington as the Ghost of Christmas Past as she flies and sings the ethereal “Wandering” with an incredulous-looking Scrooge in tow. And Justin Edenhofer is genuinely convivial as Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, while equally strong in his dual role of the young workaholic Ebenezer, particularly as he sings “Ten Minutes More.”
It’s pleasantly surprising to see a woman cast as the Ghost of Christmas Present. To that role, Eva Roberson brings a pure, passionate urgency tempered by child-like innocence. And speaking of children, young McKenzie Mack’s solo work in “Rogue’s Song (Shine a Light on Me)” is startlingly powerful.
The evening has several memorably funny and lighthearted scenes, among them the jaunty “Mister Scrooge” early in Act One, performed with quasi- vaudevillian glee by The Collecting Men trio of Austin Gantz, John Scavelli, and Andrew Knode. In Act Two they join forces with Tom Bryant (who also played Jacob Marley’s Ghost), Trisha Fites, and Linda Teis as a gang of scruffy grave robbers during the raucous and irreverent romp, “We Build Ourselves Up.”
A veteran of many Players Guild productions, the inimitable Don Jones reprises his role of Scrooge this year with a notably renovated authority. In fact, whereas last year some of his energy seemed at times under-developed (though not detrimentally so), this time around he invests his character with a substantially more vigorous animation and savory, credible pathos. When he’s mean, we shudder at his vitriol; when he’s remorseful, he breaks our hearts; when he’s redeemed, we’re giddy with elation right along with him. And did I mention his seasoned confidence? On opening night, the set was agonizingly slow and jerky as it rotated into Scrooge’s bedchamber encounter with Marley’s ghost. In a brilliantly hilarious ad lib, Jones, teetering slightly, handled the unscripted moment with endearing aplomb as he muttered, “Well, here’s an adventure…we must be having an earthquake.”
Adventure indeed, Jones’ performance, along with that of the entire cast, is an invigorating respite from the mundane, ever-growing absurdities and distractions that can suck the meaning – the joy and the hope - out of Christmas. Far from providing merely escapist entertainment, though, the Players Guild’s continuing faithful commitment to this classic story is a necessary and brave tradition of holding up a much-needed light, and an otherwise generous offering of artful grace in troubled times.
“A Christmas Carol – the new musical” at Players Guild Theatre, located in the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave. North, in Canton. Shows through December 18 – Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $23 adults, $21 seniors 60+, $18 under 18, available through box office at (330) 453-7617, or at www.playersguildtheatre.com
Photo: illustration of Marley’s Ghost by John Leech from first edition of “A Christmas Carol” (1843)