Thursday, February 27, 2014

All That Remains

All That Remains

By Tom Wachunas

    “I have to become a good person on my own.” –Anne Frank

   For a few days prior to seeing the current production The Diary of Anne Frank at the Players Guild Theatre, I struggled with compassion fatigue. Maybe it’s the ceaseless misery of this winter we’re having, translated into cold cynicism. Not to minimize the staggering scale of Nazi atrocities during World War II…but why should I want to revisit such a story as this one, as iconic as it is, when our world is so saturated now with stories of unspeakable human suffering? But enough of my diary.

    Directed here by Tammie McKenzie, this is the 1997 adaptation by Wendy Kesselman that includes diary excerpts deleted from the original 1947 book publication. And despite the depressing inevitability of its tragic end, I left the theater with not only a rekindled appreciation of its inspired examination of hope and dignity in the face of horrific tribulation, but also truly captivated by the believable performances from the cast. Impressive, too, is the authenticity of the set designed by Joshua Erichsen (neither too dark nor claustrophobic) along with sound (recorded street noises and periodic snippets of radio broadcasts) and highly effective lighting designed by Scott Sutton.

    Crammed into dowdy living quarters never designed to accommodate eight people, the characters’ flaws and foibles emerge in fairly short order. John T. Green and Ruth Dubinsky bring a down-to-earth grit to their roles as Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan, but even their most acerbic bickering can’t blot out the love that binds them. And speaking of love, Donald Frederick Curie turns in a remarkably textured portrayal of the wizened dentist, Mr. Dussel. He glows when he speaks longingly of his absent wife, and glowers at Anne’s cloying intrusions.

   As Margot Frank (Anne’s older sister), Tess Roholt is a poignant embodiment of fragility and loneliness. There’s a similar quality in Marilyn Wells’ portrayal of the mother, Edith Frank, though with a decidedly more rueful, somber edge.

    At first, Liam Roth in his role of the Van Daan’s son, Peter, is overly stilted. But he becomes increasingly credible as a painfully shy 15 year-old who is easily exasperated by Anne’s unbridled impishness. And as all of the characters grow a little older, so he too matures. In the process he genuinely warms to an emboldened Anne, and romance blossoms.  

    For all of his commanding physical presence, Tom Bryant as the Frank family patriarch, Otto, carries himself with an understandably weary demeanor, at times seeming stiff and detached. That said, he nonetheless projects a tangible aura of leadership tempered by authentic empathy and affection. In a particularly tender moment, he thanks Anne for her exuberant embrace of being alive, saying to her, “You showed me that I can escape.”

    Escape. That’s precisely how Anne, compellingly played here by Rebecca Yourko, manages to remain so ebullient in her outlook. Yourko presents a convincing portrait of emotional and psychological escape from futility and fear by holding on for dear life to the possibility if not promise of a bright future. While her irrepressible spunk can often be annoying to the rest of this moody community, it’s nonetheless her primary defense against complete hopelessness, albeit for just two years.

    It’s fascinating to hear the youthful urgency in her voice as she speaks her diary entries while peering out at the audience. Some of those entries are especially disarming, as when she reveals her disconnectedness from her mother, or the intense awareness of her burgeoning sexuality that she compares to the onset of spring. Look out, Peter Van Daan, here comes hormonal honesty.

   ‘Compassion fatigue’…What was I thinking?! At the end of the play, Bryant’s delivery of Otto’s final monologue is both numbing and heartbreaking. One by one the overhead spot light on each of the eight attic captives goes black as he reports their fates, leaving him standing alone, looking down at Anne’s diary in his hands. “All that remains,” he says solemnly.

   All indeed. “I want to go on living even after my death,” Anne Frank wrote, a desire ironically born of her ceaseless commitment to living passionately in the short moment. Her wish was granted, thanks to potent art such as this, and no doubt that we remain not drained, but enlivened by her hope and honesty.

    The Diary of Anne Frank, at Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Aveue N., Canton. Shows THROUGH MARCH 9, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets $25, 17 and younger $19, Seniors $23. Box Office: 330-453-7617 

Friday, February 21, 2014

A Transcendent Brahms Requiem

A Transcendent Brahms German Requiem from Canton Symphony

By Tom Wachunas

    In celebration of its 30th Anniversary, the Canton Symphony Chorus joined the Canton Symphony Orchestra on February 16 for the Masterworks Series concert at Umstattd Hall. Augmented by the Malone University Chorus, the combined vocal ensemble, conducted by Chorus Director Britt Cooper, gave a truly beautiful account of the first work on the program -  Mozart’s brief motet, Ave verum corpus (Hail True Body). Hushed and ethereal, the performance was nonetheless an inspiring tone-setter for the more dramatically expansive Brahms German Requiem that followed, conducted by Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann.

   Unlike the traditional Latin Mass for the Dead, this requiem eschewed the blunt Biblical language of a wrathful God dispensing the fire and brimstone of the Last Judgment. Brahms composed it more in the fashion of an oratorio in seven movements, all with Old and New Testament texts intended to comfort the living rather than warn the dead. Conceptually, the music traces a steady transformation of dark mortality into the light of divine joy.

   Happily, the chorus was radiant, the orchestra powerful. Both ensembles were seamlessly blended into an uncanny manifestation of unified purpose, making the work’s spirit of solace and hope a soaring, visceral experience.

   The emotional thrust takes on especially poignant and dramatic dimensions in solos for baritone (third and sixth movements) and soprano (fifth movement). The singing by both guest artists – baritone Brian Keith Johnson and soprano Rachel Jeanne Hall -  was wholly impressive.

   At the end of the third movement there is a breathtaking crescendo - an orchestral and choral swelling of affirmation - as Johnson solemnly intones, “Nun, Herr, wess soil ich mich trösten? (And now, Lord, what is my hope?),” followed by the stirring response, “Ich hoffe auf dich (My hope is in Thee).” Brahms added the fifth movement as a remembrance of his beloved mother, who died in 1865. The text for the soprano soloist is from Isaiah, promising the bereaved child the kind of comfort that a mother would offer. Befitting the image, Hall’s achingly sweet soprano tonality, warm and full, was a moving embodiment of maternal consolation.   

   In its day, this Brahms masterpiece was soundly skewered by many critics on dogmatic, technical and philosophical grounds. Wagner, particularly contemptuous of Brahms’ desire that the work be regarded as a wholly German one, written for all of Germany, once quipped that when his own generation passed, “…we will want no German Requiem to be played on our ashes.”

   In retrospect, such short-sighted objections amount to missing the forest for the trees. This performance illuminated Brahms’ own description of the work, repeated on several occasions after its final version premiered in 1869, as a “human” requiem. It is, after all, unequivocally a work for the ages, presented here with compelling authority and palpable, indeed amazing grace.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Cause and Affect

Cause and Affect

By Tom Wachunas

    “By giving in to our need to see mayhem, we give more power to the terrorists. We are all part of this deadly triangulation between the act of terror, the media coverage and the viewing.”William Mastrosimone

    The act of terror that forms the backdrop for William Mastrosimone’s drama, Cat’s Paw, directed by Brian Newberg and playing for one more weekend the Kent State University at Stark Theatre Department, is a car bomb incident in Washington, D.C., that killed 11 senators. The perpetrators are a tiny band of environmental activists headed by Victor (John-Michael Roberts) under the flag of Earth Now.

    Desperate for media attention to their clean water cause, they kidnap one David Darling (David Sponhour), an EPA official they see as culpable in the deaths of thousands of U.S. citizens due to water pollution, and hold him hostage in an abandoned D.C. warehouse. Victor has his loyal compatriot, Cathy (Megan Deierling), bring a local TV journalist, Jessica (Sarah Peters), to the warehouse to do an interview. The warehouse here, by the way, is an effectively gloomy set, strewn about with weapons and bomb-making ingredients, by scenic designer Louis Williams).

   What ensues over the next nearly 90 minutes (no intermission) is a vexing polemical exchange between reporter and terrorist - make that “eco-warrior,” as Victor insists. He’s easy enough to hate when he utters such specious maxims as, “A car bomb is a moral position.” John-Michael Roberts’ chilling portrayal of Victor is a mannered calculation of an exasperated, cooly detached psychopath who seems really tired of spewing his own misguided rhetoric. Other than in the “shocking and surprising” (that’s debatable) conclusion of the play, his most animated moments come when he locks horns with Jessica as they squabble about what should or shouldn’t be in her video interview.

    And if there’s anyone who can argue with a sick mind, it’s Jessica, a self-possessed, vain and manipulative celebrity wannabe. Her arrogance and ego are every bit a match to Victor’s, and Sarah Peters plays the part with scary relish. But then, as the story develops, it’s fascinating to watch her slowly and skillfully shed her character’s cheeky artificiality and show signs of genuinely vulnerable humanity.

    As Cathy, Megan Deierling is strong in an unexpectedly tender, off-kilter sort of way. She’s an oddly principled terrorist (caring as much about seal pups as she does human beings), and her feelings for Victor seem to add a dimension of fragility to her demeanor.

    Speaking of fragility, much of David Sponhour’s remarkably intense presentation of the hapless Darling is an intriguing mix of woundedness and nervous if not repressed guilt. His oft-repeated line of “May I ask a question?” in jittery voice embodies the complicated heart of Mastrosimone’s writing.

    It’s not surprising that we can be riveted by these proceedings and in some ways be imprisoned by them. The play brings to mind how our culture seems pathologically drawn to human disasters, and how easily our media can orchestrate our collective, impotent tongue-clucking and gnashing of teeth. But Cat’s Paw isn’t about viable answers or inspired responses to the horrific dilemma of terrorism, if only because we have none. Yet. I wonder if Mastrosimone foresaw in 1984, when he wrote the play (updated in 2010 with a few references to more contemporary incidents), how the many questions and concerns it posed then would loom exponentially larger in the new millennium?

    To be sure, this is thoughtful, intelligent art. Then again, I’m reminded that it’s our best thinking that got us here. And that is truly…terrifying.

    Cat’s Paw, (for mature audiences) in the Fine Arts Theatre of Kent State University at Stark, 6000 Frank Avenu NW, North Canton. Shows February 21 & 22 at 8 p.m., Feb. 23 at 2:30 p.m. Adults -$10, Seniors 55 and over - $7, KSU students free with current ID. Call box office at 330-244-3348

       PHOTOS by Mike Rich, from top: John-Michael Roberts as Victor (left), David Sponhour as Darling; Sarah Peters as Jessica; Megan Deierling as Cathy; full cast

Monday, February 17, 2014

Emergings at Gallery 6000

Emergings at Gallery 6000

By Tom Wachunas

    EXHIBIT: Emergings: Captivating Paintings from Four New Artists. Elizabeth Dallas, Josh Humm, Jennifer Jones, Jennifer Northcut, at Gallery 6000, located in the University Center Dining Room on the Kent State University at Stark campus. OPENING RECEPTION on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. On view through April 4.

    On the face of it, the title of this exhibit might suggest that the four participants have never exhibited before or are newborn to the art world. But to clarify, my intent in calling them “new” is to celebrate the youthful emergence of their individual approaches in the context of either completing, or being on the verge of completing, work toward their undergraduate degrees in fine arts.

    In their advanced painting development, all four have worked under the steady guidance of Jack McWhorter, Associate Professor of Art in the Fine Arts department of Kent State University at Stark. And I think the outcome of their collegiate studio practices here has clearly generated artistic visions as captivating as they are diverse.

    In gathering and mounting this show, I was prompted at one point to consider the decisions a painter makes about the relationship between physical size of the picture plane and its underlying idea. Scale can be effective in how we discern or interpret artists’ intent.

    The three abstract works on wood panels by Elizabeth Dallas (two mixed media, one acrylic), for example, have an impromptu, child-like energy about them. Varying shapes and textures seem to simultaneously converge into patterns and disperse into softly-colored air. Fleeting, or retrieved memories? Their small scale – approx. 11” x 12” – intensifies their sense of personal intimacy. And her titles, such as Playroom Study and Bedtime Study, enhance a sense of private meditation.

    Two of Josh Humm’s three oil paintings here (the third work, Blink 2Infinity, is an unabashedly murky foray into gestural abstraction) are similarly-scaled, but in  this case their smallness doesn’t so clearly exude lyrical cordiality. Yet despite their stark, “minimalist” appearance, their painterly manner gives them an expressionistic aura. His black and white Data Deconstruction: Reprogramming, and Data Deconstruction: Navigating a Void, are loosely delineated grid patterns of fuzzy-edged squares. Metaphors for microchips? The imprecision of the linear elements and variable blotchiness of the shapes, when considered with the titles of the paintings, seem to imply searching for a personal, maybe even emotional connection to the arcane technology of cyberspace.

    In contrast to Humm’s monochromatic palette and structural regularity, the three abstract oils by Jennifer Northcut are larger, exquisitely organic compositions of mellifluous shapes infused with a variety of saturated hues. Her brush work is sure-handed, broad and fluid, particularly in Lotus, wherein the spectacular dynamic of push-pull between hot and cool colors brings palpable motion to the floral configurations.

    In looking at the four large mixed media works on paper by Jennifer Jones, I imagined her being an avid doodler. I don’t mean that in any demeaning way, but rather in the sense of how unconscious or “automatic” drawing can ultimately generate coherent visual fields. On a purely formal level, Jones unifies the expansive busy-ness of her pictures with an astute sense of colors and shapes rhythmically organized…as if dancing.

     There is a playful, flow- of- consciousness feel about these pieces – panoramic, ornate, and executed with joyous abandon. This is drawing, joined with the physicality of paint, unfettered by the weight of overly-precious illusionism, yet still representational of specific memories or cathartic moments. Exclamatory epiphanies, or celebrating rites of passage. Certainly among those would be the emergence of a compelling aesthetic.

    PHOTOS (from top): Lotus, by Jennifer Northcut; Bedtime Study, by Elizabeth Dallas; Data Deconstruction, by Josh Humm; The Day Guests Arrived, by Jennifer Jones   

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Tangible Souls

Tangible Souls

By Tom Wachunas

    “The most difficult thing for me is a portrait. You have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt.”

  Henry Cartier-Bresson

   “The countenance is the portrait of the soul and the eyes mark its intentions.” – Cicero

   “Ah! Portraiture, portraiture with the thought, the soul of the model in it, that is what I think must come.” – Vincent van Gogh

    EXHIBIT:  50: New Portraits by Heather Bullach”  at Translations Art Gallery, THROUGH MARCH 1, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton. Viewing hours Noon to 5p.m. Wednesdays- Saturdays.  

    Heather Bullach web site:

    With this superb exhibit of 50 oil portraits (presented on 48 canvases) by Heather Bullach, Translations Art Gallery celebrates a milestone – its 50th exhibit. So here’s a heartfelt congratulations to curator Craig Joseph, both for his continuing dedication to consistently organizing exhibits of substantial aesthetic worth and his bold prompting that led Bullach to execute the hefty body of work we see here. A labor of love, really. For the full background, here’s a link to The Repository article from February 6 by Dan Kane:

    I’m well acquainted with the purist dictum that “truth” in painted portraits must come from disciplined observing and working from life – from the model posed in real time. Fair enough. But I believe that disciplined observing can employ many methodologies toward the same end, including Bullach’s use of a computer to accurately structure and translate her original photos of her subjects into the painted picture plane. And to her method she brings a necessarily keen, sensitive eye for nuances of light, color and perspective, along with a remarkably adroit physical touch that gives a silken presence to her surfaces.

    So what I find most compelling about these paintings is how thoroughly they eclipse my rational consciousness of their artificiality. These are, after all, less than life-size, two-dimensional painted canvases, and twice-removed from “reality” since they are “copies” of photographs. But their impeccably skilled illusionism is such that they transcend merely credible likenesses and exude lifenesses. Even the sepia-toned portraits seem to breathe, to speak.

    And who are these people doing the breathing and speaking ? They collectively represent the ethos, the soul of the downtown Arts District in all of its aspects. Read the statements that accompany the portraits in this ambitious homage, and learn of individual motivations, contributions and influences.

    That said, I am equally thrilled and humbled to be included among them.  Seeing my excellently rendered portrait was a reminder of how oil paint adds ten pounds… Oops, wrong medium. Still, I must do something about this sweet tooth of mine…

    But seriously, folks… Thanks to Heather Bullach’s dizzying work ethic and astonishing virtuosity with a brush, this exquisite collection fills the gallery with palpable joie de vivre and authentic reverence for the community that has done so much to elevate Canton’s cultural vitality.

    PHOTOS, from top: Heather Bullach at work; Bullach’s portrait of Craig Joseph; preparatory drawings; installation view

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Story of a Lady Who...

Story of a Lady Who…

By Tom Wachunas

    “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.” –Andy Warhol

  "I've decided something: Commercial things really do stink. As soon as it becomes commercial for a mass market it really stinks." –Andy Warhol

   “If all life is sacred, then the marketplace is of the same spiritual significance as the temple...” - Harold Loukes

    Exhibition: Annie’s Love Story, by Judi Krew, at your local ACME Stores, ongoing while supplies last…

    Back in October of 2013, Judi Krew wrote in her blog, Snarkyart, about a recent ambitious project by interviewing herself. It was a clever idea, giving us a broad new app for “selfie.” Anyway, if you missed it, you’ll need to read it NOW to get the gist of what follows here.  Click this link:

   Thanks and welcome back.

   There was a time, long ago and in a land far away, when art that smacked of anything even vaguely commercial - and any ideas about marketing “art for the masses” -  were anathema to me. Older now, I realize that a mind is a terrible thing not to change. That said, the two Warhol quotes at the top of my post here were uttered many years apart. But oh, that Andy…such a kidder. I can just about hear him laughing all the way to the bank when he said the second one.

    Not that Judi Krew is getting filthy rich from her series of six reusable  shopping bags marketed at Acme. Frankly it’s not relevant one way or the other. At any rate, over the years I’ve come to better appreciate Krew’s wit, generous palette, noteworthy painting and compositional skills and yes, her business acumen. She’s one savvy bag lady, so to speak.

    I’ve now collected half the series. Is this how soap opera fans feel, following the doings of a beloved character? Will we see Annie kiss the man she smiled at on bag number two? Or will that come only after their hands  touch when reaching for a Honeydew? An exchange of phone numbers? I wait with bated breath.

   Seriously, it’s good fun to watch for elements repeated from one bag to the next – including references to other artists. Krew was spot-on when she described the experience of looking for recurring visual motifs as “…a sophisticated game of Where’s Waldo.” Maybe when I’ve acquired the whole series I’ll offer you my full “script” and eventually see how well it matches up with Krew’s.

    Meanwhile, I truly appreciate the bags as objets d’art -  an edition of “sculptural prints” on 100% woven polypropylene. And washable too (but DO NOT tumble dry)! I have no intention of using them for real shopping.

    Then again, the bags have given rise to a fantasy scenario. What if we begin to see shoppers using them in stores other than Acme? Annie goes viral. So OK, I bring one or two to use at my local Fishers one day - a performance art piece to see how many managers’ eyebrows I can raise.

    Oh, that Tom…such a rebel.
   PHOTOS (from top) First three bags, in sequence, from a series of six. Bottom photo - side views