Monday, April 29, 2013

Articulating a Turbulent Era

Articulating a Turbulent Era
By Tom Wachunas

    “…I have come to something that is in the image of America and the American people of my time.” –artist Thomas Hart Benton-

    “I am primarily concerned with the condition of Man.” –Jack Levine, American Social Realist painter and printmaker (1915-2010)

    EXHIBITION: Labor and New Deal Art, at the Massillon Museum THROUGH JUNE 2, 121 Lincoln Way East, downtown Massillon

    Here’s a hearty Thank You to the students at Youngstown State University who created this wholly impressive travelling print exhibit. I include here a paragraph from the Massillon Museum web page about the show:
    “The exhibition is held in commemoration of last year's 75th anniversary of the Little Steel Strike of 1937—the epic labor struggle that stretched across the Great Lakes industrial corridor from Northeast Ohio to South Chicago.  Detailing the history of this turbulent event is a banner exhibit created by students at Youngstown State University.” Click on this link for the entire background statement -
    More than a commemoration of a singularly important event, however, this gathering of 55 largely black-and-white prints (including etchings, wood engravings and lithographs) is a collectively powerful vision of Depression-era ethos from artists who experienced it directly. And on a strictly formal level, most of these multi-styled representational renderings (nothing here in the way of non-objective abstraction) are  masterfully composed as well as technically stunning.

    Particularly compelling here is the range of narratives - the thematic/ideological content. Yes, these mixed images of grand industrial development and blighted rural life are inextricably entwined with often tragic dramas of economic, political and social turmoil that defined a specific chapter in American history. But the overarching emotional impact of this art – its searing vocabulary of societal angst - is a haunting one. It’s a resonance still evident today in the volatile state of affairs not just in America, but globally. 

    “The New Deal arts programs were intended to expand and strengthen cultural democracy,” we read in the exhibit statement. “Cultural democracy” is an ambiguous enough phrase to make me consider that we do indeed live, now more than ever, in a troubled democracy of cultural dichotomies: poverty and plenty, depravity and dignity, greed and grace, confrontation and celebration.

    Art of the New Deal? Call it “old fashioned” art that’s taken on a sobering if not sad new relevance.

    Photos (from top) – Breadline, New York, wood engraving by Claire Lieghton; Laborers with Derrick and Structural Steel, lithograph by Russell T. Limbach; Give Us This Day, lithograph by John De Martelly; The Strike, lithograph by Thomas Hart Benton     

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Soaring Wagner, Savage Stravinsky from the Canton Symphony

Soaring Wagner, Savage Stravinsky from the Canton Symphony
By Tom Wachunas

    The Canton Symphony Orchestra enlisted Thomson Smillie, the acclaimed opera producer, stage director and lecturer, as guest speaker for its April 20 season finale concert at Umstattdt Hall. His observations before and during the first half of the program, consisting of three selections from Wagner operas, were delightfully astute and witty, and it’s difficult to imagine a more excited champion of Wagner’s impactful genius.

    In retrospect, Smillie’s directive to the audience on how to best embrace the first work of the evening, Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, and the third selection, Brünnhilde’s Immolation scene from Götterdämmerung (Twilight Of The Gods), seems somewhat curious if not counterintuitive. Smillie posited that the dramatic thrust of these works cannot be wholly appreciated via the inadequate (and perhaps even silly) words in the libretto, but rather through the cascading orchestral surges he compared to musical orgasms. While we hear the singer with our ears and see her with our eyes, he explained further, we must listen to the orchestra with our hearts to experience what words on their own could never impart. 

    Here, however, any libretto shortcomings in communicating the emotional scope of Wagner’s grief-stricken heroines were utterly erased by the breathtaking performances of guest soprano and Canton native Amy Yekel. Yes, the orchestra was as magnificent as ever in delivering Wagner’s many polyphonic marvels (including the iconic, thunderous second work on the program, Ride of the Valkyries) under the inspiring baton of Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann. But Yekel’s partnership in performing two of Wagner’s most searing visions of love consummated through death was a phenomenon in itself.

     With sustained muscularity and tonal sensuality, her singing was a thrilling embodiment of all the agony and ecstasy that engulfs the characters of both Isolde cradling the lifeless body of Tristan, and Brünnhilde leaping with steely resolve on to Siegfried’s funeral pyre. Even as I could see the text translation projected high above the stage, I was more transfixed by “reading” the story on Yekel’s intensely expressive face. The powerful, warm sonority of her voice (with no microphone amplification) was of world-class quality and an equal match to the towering drama emanating from the noticeably augmented orchestra (which included four Wagner tubas).

    The evening’s final selection was Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre Du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). One-hundred years after its riot-inciting Paris premiere in 1913, the work remains a bedeviling concoction that can still elicit fear and loathing from lovers of more traditional orchestral music. For in this seminal work of 20th century Modernism, harmony and melody all but disappear into an eerie melange of dissonant instrumental textures and quickly changing, throbbing rhythmic themes wherein the percussion section reigns supreme.

    That said, the orchestra navigated the work, appropriately enough, with a kind of preternatural intensity, as if caught up in a shamanistic conjuring of primal spirits. The performance was a robust reminder of the panache and spirit of daring that makes this orchestra so mesmerizing in its own right.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Exorcising Our Demons

Exorcising Our Demons
By Tom Wachunas

    “To insult someone we call him ‘bestial.’ For deliberate cruelty and nature, ‘human’ might be the greater insult.” –Isaac Asimov-

    “Cruelty is a mystery and a waste of pain.” –Annie Dillard-

    “…And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.” -1 Kings 19:12-

    Let me take off the formal critic’s hat for a bit and unashamedly tend to the heart on my sleeve. Voices From Hurt Street isn’t a conventional “play.” Physical scenery is minimal, though the production has seared vivid images into my consciousness. There is no linear story line or “plot,” but rather a plight -  the plight of demoralized victims and perpetrators locked in a savage dance of sorts, caught up in the throbbing rhythms of human cruelty.

    The multi-genre production, directed by Brian Newberg, was written by students from the Theatre Department at Kent State University Stark, and consists of true, personal stories of bullying, domestic violence and other manifestations of abusive relationships. For my part, a further description of what transpires on stage would be tantamount to a blow-by-blow account of relentless assaults, both literal and symbolic, physical and spiritual. Dramaturg Robert Miltner characterizes the production in his program note as, among other things, a fusion of “… cuttings, dialogues, monologues, memoirs, lyrical essays, short fictions, parodies, social statements, prose poems, found poems, formal or free verse poems, performance pieces and choral recitations.” 

    Yikes. This stage event, then, is a daunting journey through anguished utterances. While the 12 members of the cast perform their multiple roles with wholly believable and poignant urgency, some theater goers may be put off by the gritty sexual content and strong “adult” language. Putting aside for the moment the cast’s artful delivery of heartrending drama, those seeking the pleasantries of escapist entertainment would not be well-served.

    Willingly or not, we as audience members are participants in this work if only to the extent that by now we’re all acutely aware of the maladies it addresses. Like countless other works of stage literature that present the tragedy of damaged or destroyed lives, this one does an admirable job of identifying (here, like an emotional battering ram) the havoc sown and reaped by corrupted human hearts. A gruesome inventory indeed. But  awareness alone, or a litany of traumas in this context, no matter how powerfully presented, can be unsatisfying if not meaningless unless it invokes lasting change or, at the very least, the possibility of healing.

     Can art do that? Can art be that cathartic? Should it be? This is where things get really personal. “Drama has the power to do so many positive things,” director Brian Newberg tells us in the conclusion of his program note, “and one of those things is to change lives.”  I think it’s crucial to remember that the maladies illustrated in this play are indicative of not only our physical, mental and emotional dysfunctions, but also compelling evidence of the terrible spiritual malaise that increasingly afflicts our culture. It’s an affliction effectively symbolized in one scene wherein an angry, arrogant man asserts that through all the hurt and turmoil in his life, he sees God as detached and laughing at us. For him in this story, and many like him outside the story, that’s a perceived truth, and a sad world view which for me is far from The Truth. 

   That said, the production merits our thoughtful attention to its unflinching declaration of brutalized life experiences. Even as its vision of hope amid unspeakable suffering is understated, it nonetheless conveys a palpable solidarity among determined survivors, a community bound together in its pain.

    In the end I was reminded that really meaningful healing starts with Christ-like compassion for both the victims and those who torment them. Do unto others…Compassion isn’t a feeling. It’s a verb.          

    Voices From Hurt Street, at Kent State Stark Theatre (located in the Fine Arts building), 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton. Shows are Friday, April 19 and Saturday, April 20 at 8 p.m., Sunday, April 21 at 2:30 p.m. Ticket prices are $10 for adults and $7 for non-Kent State students, children under 17 and senior citizens. All Kent State students are admitted free of charge with current student ID. Reserve tickets online at  or call the Kent State Stark Theatre Box Office at 330-244-3348, Mondays through Fridays from 1 to 5 p.m.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Peeling Onions in the Parlor

Peeling Onions in the Parlor
By Tom Wachunas

    At one point during the current Players Guild production of Robert Harling’s 1987 play, Steel Magnolias, the surly, eccentric character, Ouiser Boudreaux, regales her fellow regulars gathered at Truvy’s Beauty Salon with this cranky pronouncement: “I do not see plays, because I can nap at home for free.”

    Here, then, is a robust gumbo of a story, peppered with many such jibes and aphorisms, set in the small Louisiana parish of Chinquapin. And I can assure you there’s little chance of falling asleep during this brilliant performance.

    Director Craig Joseph has once again brought together a powerhouse ensemble, masterfully (magically?) eliciting from each of the six women a startlingly intense level of artistry and believability, right down to their lilting Southern accents. In the intimacy of the Guild’s arena theater, their deft performances effectively dissolve the proverbial divide between acting the part and being the part. Likewise, we in the audience don’t feel like passive voyeurs, but rather privileged visitors to Truvy’s establishment.

    Truvy’s salon is the local hot spot where a close-knit group of women faithfully gathers for coiffure and banter both sassy and sugary. As Truvy, Sandra Schmeltzer is something of a mother hen, wise-cracking keeper of the camaraderie, and an otherwise delightful social anchor, exuding authentic warmth and concern toward her chicks, so to speak.

    The story doesn’t “unfold” so much as it falls away in successive layers, exposing individual secrets and longings. In the process, the insouciant gossip among the women gives way to genuinely shared histories, some of them tragic. Yet plenty of gut-splitting hilarity ensues along the way.

   A particularly generous portion of humor is provided by Catie Hewitt in her role of Truvy’s newly hired assistant, Annelle. Hewitt turns in a quirky, wistful and wholly captivating portrayal of the jittery victim of a runaway husband. She’s easily rattled by the other ladies’ raucous blathering. After becoming a born-again evangelical, she’s the in-house missionary of sorts, fervently praying for her beloved- but -wayward clientele even as they get their hair done.

    Remarkably adept with razor-sharp timing and delivery in trading sarcastic barbs, both Carol Sampsel Peck and Susan Brothers turn in infectiously high-energy presentations of, respectively, senior citizens Clairee (widow of the Mayor and anxiously looking to re-focus her life) and Ouiser, the rich town grouch everyone loves to target. “I’m not crazy,” Ouiser protests to her critics, “I’ve just been in a very bad mood for the last 40 years!”

   Much of the narrative thrust here is generated by Shelby, played with astonishing, often heartrending depth by Amanda Larkin, and her rocky relationship with her mother, M’Lynn, played by Maria Work. Separately or together, they deliver the play’s most dramatically visceral and poignant scenes. The story that began with Shelby’s wedding day spans the next few years and climaxes with a shattering family crisis which has a jarring but transformative effect on all the characters, not least of which being M’Lynn. While Maria Work at first comes off as deliberately measured in her character’s prim and proper demeanor, it’s fascinating to watch her progression into explosive transparency. 

   In the end, I was left emotionally drained yet in deep appreciation that I had witnessed a marvelous and compelling achievement - an elegant albeit bittersweet union of great theatre and real life.

    Steel Magnolias runs through April 28 at Canton Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Avenue N. in Canton. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Single tickets are $11. Box office (330) 453-7617, or visit

    PHOTOS by Michael Lawrence Akers – Top, cast from left to right: Sandra Schmeltzer, Carol Sampsel Peck, Amanda Larkin, Catie Hewitt, Susan Brothers, Maria Work     

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Hotbed of Curious Horticulture

A Hotbed of Curious Horticulture
By Tom Wachunas

    “Gardening is not a rational act.”  -Margaret Atwood-

    “A good garden may have some weeds.”  -Thomas Fuller –

    “…The soul cannot thrive in the absence of a garden.”  -Thomas More -

    EXHIBITION: Impossible Gardens, curated by Scott Alan Evans, at Translations Art Gallery, THROUGH APRIL 27. Participating artists: Kevin Anderson, John Boyett, Steve Ehret, Scott Alan Evans, Annette Yoho Feltes, Jonah Jacobs, Bili Kribbs, Joe Martino, David McDowell, Erin T. Mulligan, Linda Alexander-Radak, Betsy Cavalier, Amy Mothersbaugh (with John E. Crimes) and Emily Speelman. 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Gallery hours are Wednesdays Noon to 9p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays Noon to 5p.m.

    Walking through botanical biomorphs, ghoulish greenery, phantasmagorical flora… Call it what you will, viewing the collaborative installations that comprise Impossible Gardens is anything but an idyllic walk among quotidian flower beds. These elaborate, otherworldly (if not apocalyptic) works are eerie hybrids of strange sculptures and expansive, boldly colored murals – a collective paroxysm of pure fantasy.

   We begin our tour by stepping on to a wooden footbridge that spans The Dead Marshes, by Betsy Cavalier, Steve Ehret, John Boyett, Joe Martino, and Annette Yoho Feltes. It’s an intricate and vivid environment, teeming with odd creatures and amorphous growths. Looking down, our gaze is met by faces of floating dead folks in Martino’s stunning pond painting, and Feltes has provided a haunting, toothy Gollum (a.k.a. Smeagol, from The Lord of the Rings) sculpture, waiting perhaps to lead us further into uncertain territory ahead.

   Next is the spectacular Alien Desert, with sculpture by Jonah Jacobs and a vibrant landscape mural by Bili Kribbs. Jacobs’ upright forms are akin to stalagmites, rising from green and sandy ground, with their bases encircled by truncated cylindrical “growths.” Their intense orange color is a dramatic counterpoint to Kribbs’ lush green leafy shapes that recede into distant mountains.

   Further into the gallery are two compelling and ambitious works that push the idea of ‘garden’ into more cerebral and/or abstract realms. David McDowell’s Neuron Garden expands the shapes of brain neurons into enormous tendrilled blossoms, their centers made of illuminated, brilliantly colored glass. And Betsy Cavalier’s delightfully sprawling concoction of clustered bulbous forms - made from stuffed panty hose, weather balloon latex, insulating foam and found objects – is an appreciation of the garden as a multiplicity of interconnected organic systems.  
    At the very end of our scintillating stroll through other bizarre passages, there’s the appropriately titled Rear Garden, featuring the contributions of Steve Ehret, Bili Kribbs, and David McDowell. Ehret’s wonderfully cartoonish mural of a monstrous bacterium (or mutated vegetable?) might be a caveat, as if to say fecundity is a fragile, corruptible state.

    The work also reminds me that this exhibit isn’t a literal look at fertile gardens so much as it is an allegory of very fertile imaginations. In that spirit, I imagine that these jarring apparitions could be faithful representations of verdant plots located somewhere in the infinite reaches of our uncharted universe. Springtime visions that Smeagol would find particularly… precious.

    PHOTOS (from top): Rear Garden, by Steve Ehret, Bili Kribbs, and David McDowell; The Dead Marshes (detail), by Betsy Cavalier, Steve Ehret, John Boyett, Joe Martino, and Annette Yoho Feltes; Neuron Garden, by David McDowell; Alien Desert, by Jonah Jacobs and Bili Kribbs.