Digesting a Faustian Farce
surface, the narrative premise of Little
Shop of Horrors, currently playing at Players Guild Theatre in Canton, is
patently ridiculous, despite the fact that it’s intended to be unabashedly
farcical. Here’s a sci-fi horror spoof about a nebbishy Skid Row flower shop
worker who is promised fame and fortune if he feeds human flesh and blood to a
voracious alien houseplant intent on dominating the world. Is this stage art of
any real consequence?
Then again, let’s
not forget the maxim offered by a master of comic absurdity, Johnny Carson: “If
you buy the premise you buy the bit.” I find it interesting that the original
working script, written by Charles Griffith for the 1960 film that inspired
this stage musical, was titled “The Passionate People Eater.” Operative term
choreographed by Michael Lawrence Akers, this tongue-in-cheek Guild production
does indeed have passion, though certainly not of the high-brow heroic sort.
Call it passion for parody. And when delivered with panache, as is the case
here with Akers’ sizzling cast, parody can be an efficacious art in itself.
Tom Bryant turns
in a credible and sturdy portrayal of Mr. Mushnik. World-weary, cranky and domineering,
he’s the owner of a flower shop on the verge of closing for lack of business.
But he finds a giddy new life unfolding when his assistant, Seymour, acquires
an exotic houseplant that attracts lucrative media and public attention.
Matthew Heppe is spot-on as a lovably nervous nerd (right down to his taped eyeglasses) who pines
so much for the girl of his dreams, co-worker Audrey, that he names his prized
plant Audrey II. While Heppe’s singing voice doesn’t employ any showy vibrato,
his tonality is nonetheless confident, pure and warm.
Sarah Marie Young
is delightfully cheeky in her role of the scatterbrained Audrey. Her singing of
Somewhere That’s Green is rich with a
sweet woundedness, and easily the show’s most genuinely touching song.
Other than the
carnivorous Audrey II, the human antagonist here is Audrey’s sadistic biker-
dentist boyfriend, Orin, played by Ryan Nehlen, who is as abusive to Audrey as
he is to his patients. The audacious Nehlen is both chilling and utterly
hilarious, like some sociopathic Fonzie from a parallel universe. He gets his
comeuppance in one of the show’s most raucous scenes (with Seymour), singing Now (It’s Just the Gas).
Another electrifying component of the
production is the saucy trio of women characters played by Russelle’ Sanchez
(Ronnette), Ruby Myles (Crystal), and Tahja Grier (Chiffon). Like a street-wise
Greek chorus, they bring a palpable sparkle to the musical score – a spicy
blend of early 1960s rock and roll, doo-wop and Motown. Several times during
the matinee performance I saw on October 20, the trio’s singing got so lost in
its own swagger that the lyrics were obscured and harmonies slightly off-pitch.
But in the larger scheme of things, and given the sheer glow of the trio’s
infectious energy (made all the more tangible in the intimate surrounds of the
Guild’s arena theater), it was a minor flaw.
And even what the
audience doesn’t see on stage makes a
vital contribution. Bart Herman is the off-stage voice of Audrey II, and his
facile vocalizing gives the cantankerous carnivore’s menacing demands a
seductive, even soulful edge. Inside the
huge Audrey II is puppeteer Stephen Middaugh, who actually animates the
creature with a variety of apropos moves and moods. Also from off-stage, the
sound from the super-hot live band directed by Steve Parsons is in perfect
aural balance with the singing.
nothing intrinsically wrong about escapist entertainment, I nonetheless left
the theater thinking that this particular show is as much a cautionary tale for
our time as it is simply a whacky, macabre “comedy.” There’s no happy ending to
Seymour’s deal with the devil, as it were. The story is perhaps a sobering
parody of how our modern culture is consumed by its monstrous pursuit of
material gain and celebrity. Food for thought, to be sure.
Little Shop of
Horrors, presented by the Canton Players Guild Theatre, shows at 8 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, THROUGH NOVEMBER 3, 1001 Market Ave. N in
Canton. Tickets $17 at www.playersguildtheatre.com or at
Michael Lawrence Akers: (Top) Sarah Marie Young as Audrey, Matthew Heppe as
Seymour; (Bottom) Bart Herman (left), Stephen Middaugh
“You have to love
dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store
away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be
printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel
alive.” -Merce Cunningham
Mea culpa, mea
culpa, mea maxima culpa. In the 21 years I’ve been back in Canton (after 14
years in New York City), writing about the visual and performing (local theatre
and the Canton Symphony) arts around here, I’ve written nothing on dance. This is a glaring irony, considering that nearly
half of my published journalistic output in New York was in the realm of dance
– Modern dance, to be specific. This is not to say I had any disdain for
classical ballet, especially considering that virtually all the best modern dancers I encountered in New York were well
trained in at least the rudiments of that form.
Compared to the
flourishing dance landscape of New York, I wrongly assumed that Canton of the 1990s
was a veritable desert in that regard. And honesty compels me to confess that
whether from laziness or effitist snobbery (as in, ‘can any really good dance
come from Canton?’) on my part, I never seriously considered much less saw the
Canton Ballet in performance. Call it a classic case of contempt prior to
After seeing the
October 11 Director’s Choice concert at the Canton Palace Theatre, I can say
only that, with hat in hand, I’ve been missing a deeply significant element of
the Canton cultural profile.
leadership and training provided by Cassandra Crowley, the Canton Ballet
Artistic and Executive Director since 1980, dancers from the company have
garnered considerable recognition in prestigious competitions as well as moving
on to dance professionally with highly reputable companies. The level of
technical excellence required for such achievements was for the most part
abundantly evident during the October 11 event, which was a thoroughly engaging
mix of traditional (i.e., more classically-oriented) and modern choreography.
Among the more
enthralling works on the program was Jubilation,
choreographed by Angelo Lemmo, Canton Ballet’s Choreographer in Residence since
1991. Set to a medley of traditional gospel songs, the work is a tour de force
of soulful expressivity – at once graceful, sensual and visceral. Those
qualities were particularly well personified in a duet by Bradley Beckwith with
Kirstyn Wolonsky during a stunning version of “Amazing Grace.”
After intermission, Wolonsky, a 9-year Canton
Ballet student and junior at Lake High School, was utterly hypnotic in her
poignant solo during the meditative Glimmer
of Hope, choreographed by Christina Digiuseppe. Wolonsky’s fluidity was
magical, making me wonder at how she could so effortlessly transition from her
repeatedly lithe, recumbent floor rolls and extensions back into upright
Guest artist Ethan
Lee, who trained for ten years under Crowley at Canton Ballet and is now a member
of NEOS Dance Company of Mansfield, was certainly mesmerizing enough in two
works during the first half of the program. But nowhere was he more physically
and emotionally commanding than in the second half’s Hellas, an intense, sinewy solo work set to music by J.S. Bach and
choreographed by Jin Byung Cheol.
The piece – indeed
the entire evening – refreshed my long-neglected appreciation of seeing dance
live on stage. I was delightfully reminded that of all humanity’s forms of
codified expression, dance is arguably the most primordial. And Terpsichore may
well be the most ancient Muse, still inspiring compelling responses to being
PHOTO: The Dance Class, by Edgar Degas
the language with which God wrote the Universe.” - Galileo
“Geometry is the
knowledge of the eternally existent.” –Pythagoras
geometry; joined with art, resistless.” –Euripides
Exhibit: math.LOGOS.music – language of The Divine,
work by Amy Schlabach, THROUGH
NOVEMBER 3, at Little Art Gallery, located in the North Canton Library, 185 N.
Main Street, North Canton, 330-499-4712 Ext. 312, http://www.ncantonlibrary.com/?q=little_art_gallery
spiritual – and personal. I try not to use the word “powerful” too lightly when
describing the impact that some works of art have on me. But in this case, Amy
Schlabach’s vibrant paintings merit that
term and then some. Here I mean ‘powerful’ to signify what I consider to be the
single most edifying function and capacity of art: To transport both mind and
heart to a specific spiritual place; to reflect, honor and otherwise successfully
direct our attentions to the source of all
human creativity - God.
Before reading any
of the pieces’ titles, or Schlabach’s other written materials provided by the
gallery, even the quickest glance at these radiant, iridescent paintings
imparts an experience that is as much “religious” as it is purely aesthetic. It
helps to know that the capitalized word LOGOS in the title of the show means
WORD in Greek. And here, not just any
word, but the word, in reference to
Christ, as boldly revealed in the first verse of the gospel of John, “In the
beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
appreciation of (and college degree in) mathematics generated fervent awe of
her Creator. Mathematics is a lens – or better yet, prism – through which she sees
evidence of a Divine plan. Her acrylic paintings are meditative, harmonious
fusions of geometric and organic shapes saturated with sumptuous color. These
are abstract configurations that are, like much of mathematics itself, executed
with impressive, formulaic exactitude. Yet for all of their hard edges and
crisply defined shapes, they nonetheless pulse with a soft, painterly energy, evoking
the undulating luminescence of stained glass windows in a church. It’s a visual
quality greatly heightened by the generous addition - to her already regal
palette - of powdered 24K gold, along
with silver and copper.
There’s also a
musicality about these compositions in the way Schlabach establishes varying
rhythmic patterns of shapes and linearities within the picture plane,
suggesting what one might call the Divine heartbeat of the universe, at once
cosmic and profoundly intimate. In her statement, she cites her musical
inspiration this way: “Behind the ethereal harmonies of music is the calculable
beauty of mathematics. Numbers weave a dance through the overtones, timbre,
pitch, and rhythms of music.”
What I find most
enlivening about this body of work shouldn’t be a surprise to those of you who
have been reading my posts with any regularity. In the context of the often
ugly pluralism of ideas and forms we can encounter in postmodernist art, the
real power and beauty of this exhibit is its single-minded, courageous
declaration of faith in Biblical truth. Here is an eloquent reminder that
mathematics isn’t so much a human invention per se as much as it is one of the
many ways (gifts, actually) God uses to reveal himself to us.
important, the Word. Schlabach’s triptych, Godhead, is a gorgeous homage to the Trinity, with the Hebrew word
for Eternal Father in the left panel and, signifying the Holy Spirit, a dove in
the right panel. Hovering in the center, the Cross of Christ. “He is before all
things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:17)
PHOTOS, courtesy Elizabeth Blakemore
(Little Art Gallery Curator), from top: The
Godhead; Revelation 22:1,2 ; Archimedes’
“There is no art
without intoxication. But I mean a mad intoxication! Let reason teeter!
Delirium! The highest degree of delirium! Plunged in burning dementia! Art is
the most enrapturing orgy within man's reach. Art must make you laugh a little
and make you a little afraid. Anything as long as it doesn't bore.” -Jean Dubuffet
This collection of
two and three-dimensional works (something of a mini-retrospective, actually)
is a raucous hybridization of modernist visual languages. The earliest language
goes back 100 years to Cubism, with its radical deconstruction of the painted
picture plane and its integration of found objects. From there, it would be difficult to believe
that Tom Megalis hasn’t consciously distilled a syntax that blends such
dialects as Jean Dubuffet’s art brut,
Saul Steinberg’s off-kilter cartoons, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s oracular
primitivism, or Tim Burton’s more macabre figurations, to name just some.
That said, Megalis
certainly brings his own imaginative recipe for animated storytelling - both
prosaic and poetic - to this multiplicity of influences. Combined with his
dizzying arsenal of fabrication techniques and media (read his statement at the
gallery or on the Translations web page), he has concocted a highly textured
gumbo, as it were, or chunky-style hunter’s stew of motley characters and
Some of his
depictions - his jarring Trouble at the
Doorstep from 1998, or the dowdy Smoking
and Drinking Woman (2011), for example - are earthy, essentially low-relief
sculptures, scruffily painted and constructed with utilitarian detritus such as
slices of wood, scrap metal, and corrugated board. His three-dimensional pieces,
such as the sinewy musician in Flute Shed,
and the whimsical Brush Head Man, are
gritty, highly tactile assemblages full of humor and mischief.
The more recent
(2013) acrylic and spray painting, The
Birth, is a commandingly sprawling abstraction. Far from a romanticized
translation of wondrous or tender nativity, this is a visceral, writhing array
of amorphous anatomical shapes interspersed with thick paint splats and drips –
an altogether electrified grimace.
In general, the physical
rawness of this art exudes a picaresque sensibility, not too
unlike the untamed, indelicate spirit we once commonly associated with
“outsider art.” So yes, to borrow from the Dubuffet quote above, this is indeed
delirious art that can make you laugh,… or be a little afraid. The collection
here presents a tenuous balance of innocent playfulness with palpable angst.
Still, it’s art that intoxicates with an uncanny mystique.
PHOTOS, from top: The Birth; Trouble at the Doorstep; Brush
Head Man; Eden; Stand Up
A Mixed Scottish Bag from Canton Symphony Orchestra
By Tom Wachunas
appropriate way to begin a Scottish-themed program than with a live pipe and
drum band? Members of the Celtic Eagle Pipe Band joined the Canton Symphony
Orchestra (CSO) in opening its 2013- 2014 season with Marches and Airs, written by local composer and Music Director of
the Tuscarawas Philharmonic, Eric Benjamin.
In his program
notes, Benjamin made no secret of his love for the sound of bagpipes. Addressing the task of effectively blending
the orchestra with the sequence of six traditional Scottish tunes that comprise
the work, he wrote, “As the music exists for pipes and drums alone, the
challenge for me as an arranger was to come up with interesting things for the
orchestra to do so as to contribute something unique to the sequence.”
Not least among
the challenges was to allow the orchestra instruments to be heard against a
loud group of three pipers and two drummers. When the piece began, with
distant, dream-like tones from the bagpipes emanating from the rear of the
auditorium, there was every indication that a pleasing aural blend was
achievable as the orchestra echoed the haunting effect from the stage.
waxed problematic, however, when the band marched to the very front of the
house to play the remainder of the piece. Here, the famous (or infamous?)
Scottish two-tone pipe wail became an obstacle to hearing the orchestra. To be
fair, there were some audible enough passages wherein the orchestra delivered
genuinely stirring and lush melodic transitions between pipe tunes. But such
moments were short-lived respites from the seemingly incessant off-pitch
piercings of the bagpipes. Notably absent from the overall sound was a counter-
balance that might have been accomplished with elevated sonority from the bass
instruments. Yet for all of that, the performance exuded a type of frenetic
heroism, prompting a portion of the audience to a standing ovation.
Preucil, concertmaster of The Cleveland Orchestra, was the guest soloist for
the second work on the program, Max Bruch’s Scottish
Fantasy. If wizardly technique were the sole measure of perfect playing,
this performance would indeed qualify as a flawless gem. Through all four
movements, the work calls for commanding virtuosity from the soloist in
articulating flurries of arpeggios, sustained trills and crisp
double-stoppings. Preucil met that requirement with astonishing precision and
though, was the emotional resonance of the folk melodies which inspired the
composer. The prevailing spirit here seemed more intellectual than lyrical. As the sonic temperature of Preucil’s playing
remained somewhat tepid throughout, Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann kept the
orchestra at a similarly understated level, no doubt to stay balanced with both
Preucil’s soft touch and the important, lovely accompanying solo work from CSO principal harpist Nancy Patterson. As
it was, the performance elicited another standing ovation.
So too the
evening’s final work, Mendelssohn’s magnificent Symphony No. 3, the “Scottish.”
Only this time, the reaction from the
audience seemed more unanimous and palpably electric, surely because the
orchestra had shed all traces of the overly-finessed restraint so apparent in
the previous work.
compelling and evocative musicality, especially in the drama of the third
movement and vivacious majesty of the finale, provided solid ground from which
the orchestra could truly soar. With impeccable artistry, the CSO demonstrated
the full range of its technical and expressive capabilities. And nowhere in
this remarkable body of musicians are those elements more evident than in the
powerful, refined sonority of the string section. This was the orchestra we came to hear.
PHOTOS (from top):
CSO Music Director Gerhardt Zimmermann; Composer Eric Benjamin; Cleveland
Orchestra concertmaster William Preucil
Marketing an Impossible Dream?
“Art washes away
from the soul the dust of everyday life.” -Picasso
File this one
under response to a response to a plea(se). I just finished reading Judi Krew’s
Oct. 1 blog post (here’s the link – www.snarkyart.blogspot.com
), wherein she re-prints and then responds to an impassioned Sept. 29 facebook
post from artist Tim Carmany (The Hub Gallery and Studios in downtown Canton).
If you haven’t read Krew’s stirring
response, please do so before proceeding here.
conjured my favorite scene from the 1989 fantasy-drama film, Field of Dreams. Kevin Costner, walking
through his Iowa corn field, hears a disembodied voice whispering, “If you build
it, he will come.” Long story short, Kostner plows his field and builds a
baseball diamond in its place, which becomes a symbol of realized dreams and in
the process saves him from bankruptcy via the paying customers who come to
watch baseball games.
So let’s consider
an analogy for a moment and think of the heart of downtown Canton as a once
dowdy if not forbidding piece of real estate, transformed over the past decade
into a destination we now call the Arts District. I imagine that the building process
was initiated by a collective inspiration, voicing itself thus: “If you build
it, they will come.” In this analogy,
I understand the ‘they’ to include not only the proprietors and owners,
curators, artists and related culture mavens who originally boarded the
downtown renaissance train – pioneers all, who courageously forged a trail for
others to follow - but also a responsive, “supportive” Canton public.
I do count myself
among those artists who passionately believe that the making (and viewing) of
art is as vital to a meaningful life as eating and breathing. I also fully
understand that the market for local original art is a very tiny niche when
seen in the larger context of the public’s discretionary spending on “luxuries”
and “entertainment.” (By the way, if it
hasn’t been apparent yet, my comments are predicated on my unwavering belief
that art isn’t a luxury, but an indispensable cultural necessity.) We live in a
society wrestling with a terribly frail economy amid intensely divided allegiances,
and beleaguered with desperate cries for all manner of help, including
financial. The ever-present call – indeed pressure - to prioritize our
sympathies, discerning between needs and desires, can often bring us to a paralyzing
compassion fatigue and complacency.
In this climate,
is it reasonable to think that local gallery owners and artists, who have up to
now been so admirably dedicated and tenacious in bringing substantial life to
downtown, could continue to do so indefinitely without a consistent show of
material support from the public? Just what is the shelf-life of dreams anyway?
So here’s where
things remain at a dicey crossroads. However we might characterize the
inspiring voice that fuels the evolution of arts sensibilities in our town, it
is a voice which really never promised anyone, “If you build it, they will buy.”
Arts District notwithstanding, it remains to be seen if Canton could
become a cosmopolitan center of truly sustainable, thriving retail art
businesses. And so far, the downtown First Fridays, even at their most joyously
frenzied, are no guarantee of such a reality. We’re still largely in dream mode
and may be teetering on a precipitous threshold: Buy art, or bye art.