Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Digesting a Faustian Farce

Digesting a Faustian Farce

By Tom Wachunas


     On its 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 here: passionate.

    Directed and 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.

   Playing Seymour, 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.

    While there’s 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 or at 330-453-7617

    PHOTOS, courtesy Michael Lawrence Akers: (Top) Sarah Marie Young as Audrey, Matthew Heppe as Seymour; (Bottom) Bart Herman (left), Stephen Middaugh

Monday, October 21, 2013

Joie de la Danse

Joie de la Danse

By Tom Wachunas

“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 investigation.

    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.

    Under the 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 position.

    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 alive.


    PHOTO: The Dance Class, by Edgar Degas            

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Prismatic Devotions

Prismatic Devotions

By Tom Wachunas

    “Mathematics is the language with which God wrote the Universe.” -   Galileo

    “Geometry is the knowledge of the eternally existent.” –Pythagoras

    “Mighty is geometry; joined with art, resistless.” –Euripides

    Exhibit: – 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,

    Let’s get 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.”

    Schlabach’s deep 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.

    But most 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)

    I’ll sing to that.   

     PHOTOS, courtesy Elizabeth Blakemore (Little Art Gallery Curator), from top: The Godhead; Revelation 22:1,2 ; Archimedes’ Constant (y)

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Refined Crudities

Refined Crudities

By Tom Wachunas


    “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

    EXHIBIT: Curiosities: Work by Tom Megalis, THROUGH OCTOBER 26 at Translations Art Gallery, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton


   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 narratives.

   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 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A Mixed Scottish Bag from Canton Symphony Orchestra

A Mixed Scottish Bag from Canton Symphony Orchestra

By Tom Wachunas

    What more 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.

    The performance 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.

    Violinist William 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 fluidity.   

    Largely missing, 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.

    Mendelssohn’s 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            

Friday, October 4, 2013

Marketing an Impossible Dream?

Marketing an Impossible Dream?

By Tom Wachunas

    “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 – ), 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.

    Her comments 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.