Friday, August 25, 2017

On the Cusp of Becoming

On the Cusp of Becoming

By Tom Wachunas

   “E Concrematio. Confirmatio--out of the fire comes firmness, through stress we pass to strength.”  - Charles F. Binns

   EXHIBIT: Dark Forms – New Ceramics by Tom Bartel / at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio / THROUGH OCTOBER 29, 2017 / 330.453.7666

   What I’ve always found so alluring about the medium of clay is how readily it can give form to and harmonize with the idea of transcendence. Think on this - artists reconstituting the pulverized, gooey remains of animals, bugs, and rocks into forms that evoke life. Making dead stuff speak. The past becomes present. I am, in the words of poet Marvin Bell, “Drawn by stones, by earth, by things that have been in the fire.”

   In this exhibit of new works by Tom Bartel, who is currently Professor of Ceramics at Ohio University, the first element you will notice from a distance is the very low light. Soft and fragile, a palpable glow of votive solemnity has settled in the gallery. As your eyes adjust to the spectral, somewhat funereal setting, the six clay sculptures in this thinly dispersed installation are an eerie presence. It’s as if what were once mere shadows have become tangible inflations of bulbous black materiality. 

   Is someone, or something being mourned here? Seeming to preside over the procession of forms on the floor is an upright figure against the wall – a sentinel of sorts, bringing to mind an ancient sarcophagus. Mummy, or…mommy? Or could this figure, swaddled in mystery, be a person not yet fully realized or matured…someone on the verge of emerging? Further still, could it symbolize the ontogeny of an aesthetic - the arrival and development of a new idea? 

   In deciphering Bartel’s forms, a helpful clue can be found in the Autumn 2017 @Canton Museum of Art magazine, or on the CMA web site. Therein we read, “Tom Bartel’s life has changed, and so has his work. He is at a re-defining moment after recently becoming a parent, which greatly opened his eyes to the passage of time… he has set out to re-invent his work and push himself out of his comfort zone…”

   Knowing this, suddenly the forms become not so mute or somber. An egg, a foot, a nipple, a hand, a heart. In their exaggerated chubbiness, these larger-than-life fragments exude a distinctly neonatal character. There’s an implied expectancy of things to come, of things to grow. Despite their lack of exuberant color, and devoid as they are of carved surface textures or applied patterns, even in this dim setting they speak nonetheless, illuminated by their sheer potentiality. 

   Clay. From the primal muck of lifeless matter, the promise of fecundity.

Monday, August 21, 2017

A Helluva Dilemma

A Helluva Dilemma

By Tom Wachunas

   “I don't like to commit myself about heaven and hell - you see, I have friends in both places.”  - Mark Twain

   “Hell is empty and all the devils are here…” - William Shakespeare 

   “The safest road to hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”  - C. S. Lewis 

  “For Christians, this present life is the closest they will come to Hell. For unbelievers, it is the closest they will come to Heaven.”― Randy Alcorn

   Whether you call it anecdotal or apocryphal in nature, there’s enough evidence for the veracity of a journalist’s 1940s encounter with comic and movie actor W.C. Fields – a man certainly not known to be religious, but rather famous for his lascivious pursuit of mistresses and booze. Fields was seen anxiously perusing a Bible in the waning days of his life. When asked why, Fields replied simply that he was “looking for loopholes.” For many folks, the thought of an eternity spent burning in Hell is no laughing matter. So maybe Fields’ guilt-riddled conscience was prompting him to seek a back door entry to Heaven, or an emergency fire exit, so to speak.

   Christian doctrine tells us that Hell is the ultimate, very real and eternal destination for the unsaved. God’s fiery judgement on unrepentant sinners.  Lucas Hnath’s play, The Christians, is a cogent and captivating look at what happens in a modern-day evangelical megachurch when that belief is seriously challenged. Here then is the story of a painful schism caused by a pastor’s venturing to the outer edges of ecclesiastical possibility. He proposes that Hell, as the Church had always understood it to be, does not in fact exist. 

   For this, the final installment of the summer series by Seat of the Pants Productions, Director Craig Joseph went to considerable lengths in finding an actual church that would agree to stage the play – specifically, the spacious fellowship hall in downtown Canton’s Christ Presbyterian Church. It was a brilliant decision, right down to treating the audience as congregants gathered for a worship service, complete with live band (Steve Miller on piano, Scott Thomas on drums, and vocals by Lisa Kaye Pyles) playing contemporary praise tunes, a projection screen posting church announcements and song lyrics, and prayer time. And of course, there’s a sermon, but one like no other ever delivered to this faithful congregation.

    Scott Stachiw delivers a genuinely charismatic portrait of Pastor Paul. But his gently measured, soothing manner belies the disturbing nature of the radical new teaching he’s laying out for his ministry. He explains how his rationale was born while sitting on the toilet and having a conversation with God. It’s an unorthodox burning bush encounter if ever there was one. As the Pastor describes his divine revelation, Andy Simmons, playing the fervent young Associate Pastor Joshua, squirms quietly in his chair as he’s clearly having a tough time digesting the implications. At one point he passionately presents his objections, quoting supportive Scripture, only to be met by the Pastor’s equally passionate counter-arguments. 

   And so begins the fallout, slowly at first, but with ever-increasing momentum as members of the congregation become irrevocably divided, taking their financial support with them – a pragmatic concern sensitively voiced by Tom Stephan playing one of the church Elders. 

   Meanwhile, Julie Connair, playing a concerned congregant, is remarkably poignant as she pleads for a deeper understanding of her Pastor’s intentions, meanings, and motivations. She finds neither clarity nor lasting comfort in his answers to her urgent questions. Similarly moving in emotional resonance is Meg Hopp as the Pastor’s wife, feeling blindsided by her husband’s decisions, which he seems increasingly unable to defend with any certainty. Questioning the very integrity of their marital relationship, she sadly observes how difficult it is to discern between God’s will and our own wishful thinking.

   An especially fascinating narrative device here is the ever-present hand-held microphone, used by not only the Pastor as he addresses his flock at the beginning of the play, but by all of the characters as they speak their lines throughout most of the proceedings. It’s as if the sermon itself is more than just the Pastor’s prepared script, but in fact an amplified continuation of a living sermon – the ongoing thoughts and responses of the entire congregation 

   Navigating through perceived loopholes of Biblical interpretation can become a precarious plunge down the proverbial rabbit hole. That said, Lucas Hnath’s writing doesn’t succumb to preachy histrionics, melodramatic propaganda, or obtuse Christian apologetics. What we get instead is the uncanny sensation that these actors aren’t really acting so much as offering an unabashedly honest look at the complex reality of ideological impasses. Their sincerity is so palpable and disarming that we become not merely passive witnesses to a church’s plight, but engaged, sympathetic neighbors sharing the innermost spiritual struggles of a once harmonious community. Church as microcosm of our turbulent times?

   For all of the interpersonal Stürm und Drang that transpires during The Christians, the characters never stoop to the murderous rancor so prevalent in today’s societal conflicts. What still reigns clearly enough in this story is a spirit that’s in woefully short supply amidst those conflicts, and that would be…love.   
   The Christians, a Seat of the Pants Production, directed by Craig Joseph, at Christ Presbyterian Church, 530 Tuscarawas Street W., in downtown Canton, Ohio / Performances at 8 p.m. on Aug. 25 & 26, 2 p.m. on Aug. 27 / Tickets $20 at

     PHOTOS by Michael Lawrence Ayers, from top: 1. (l to r) Tom Stephan, Scott Stachiw (center), Megg Hopp / 2. Julie Connair (in center) / 3. Scott Stachiw and Meg Hopp

Monday, August 14, 2017

Much Ado About Hockadoo

Much Ado About Hockadoo

By Tom Wachunas

   …There comes a time when muddy waters run rough /There comes a point when a man has had enough /Like a friend who always stands by me/ Memphis Knows Me /Memphis Shows Me / How this life just has to be… - lyrics from “Memphis Lives in Me”

   After seeing the opening night Players Guild performance of Memphis, I was finally convinced that director and actor/singer Jon Tisevich must have some sort of virus. Furthermore, he consistently passes it on to his superbly versatile cast members who sing, dance, and act with often thunderous ebullience. They’re clearly all too eager, indeed grateful to be infected. It’s a viral tendency you could call the personification of unbridled passion. Combined with the sizzling live eight-piece band under the direction of keyboardist Steve Parsons, and the hot-stepping, hip-swiveling choreography by Michael Lawrence Akers, Memphis is a show that will rattle your rafters and send your heart soaring.  
   This Tony Award- winning musical (book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro, music and lyrics by David Bryan) was partly inspired by Dewey Philips, one of the first white disc jockeys to play black music for white audiences in Tennessee during the 1950s. Here we meet Huey Calhoun, a white, ninth-grade dropout with dreams of being a star radio (and later TV) host who wants to turn the whole world on to black R&B music (or “race music” as it was disparagingly called by whites). His passion for the music is matched only by his love of Felicia, a beautiful black singer he meets at an underground club owned by her brother, Delray. 

    The dramatic tension in this story springs from the romance between Felicia and Huey in a place and time fraught with racial bigotry, and significantly underscored here by Delray’s stern objections to Huey’s pursuit of Felicia. As Delray, Mark Dillard is a towering presence who turns in a genuine and at times chilling portrait of a pragmatic custodian of his sister’s career interests while remaining her militant protector.

   As Felicia, Joy Ellis is absolutely stunning. She deftly balances a complex array of sensibilities. They range from fierce independence and sassiness while basking in the warmth of love, to festering woundedness, and uncertainty about her future with Huey. It all comes out with heartrending sincerity and electrifying urgency when she sings “Make Me Stronger,”  “Colored Woman,” and “Love Will Stand When All Else Falls.” When she was singing, I think I heard not just a voice, but a collective soul. I think I heard history. Passion personified. 

   And then there’s Jon Tisevich as Huey. Director as singer and actor. And again, passion personified.  With a soft southern drawl, he’s quirky, endearingly eccentric, even awkward, and a seemingly unlikely mentor of an aural phenomenon that would change the world of popular music. Whenever he gets excited about an idea he impulsively blurts “hockadoo!” Like Felicia, he’s at once driven and defiant, vulnerable and victorious. His powerful singing of “The Music of My Soul” and “Memphis Lives in Me” are among the most riveting, soul-stirring moments of the evening. 

   A similarly moving and startling passage transpires when Justin Woody, in his role of Gator, who was traumatized into muteness by the childhood memory of his father being lynched, suddenly finds his voice to sing a desperate call for racial peace in “Say a Prayer.” Woody’s tearful voice is an unearthly wail, a piercing, bittersweet plea to Jesus. 
   Other memorable scenes include Micah Harvey, wickedly smarmy as the white disc jockey Buck Wiley, and sounding downright lewd as he breathily announces the latest “hot hits” from Patti Page and Roy Rogers. Anthony Mitchell Jr. plays Bobby, a jittery janitor cajoled into singing on Huey’s Memphis TV show. He begins his song, “Big Love,” in a sweetly apologetic and nervous manner, but quickly enough morphs into a gyrating firebrand who brings down the house with charged vocals along with startlingly agile jumps and splits. 

   And speaking of charged, Stephanie Cargill, playing Huey’s mother, sheds her character’s bigotry in a grand way as she belts out “Change Don’t Come Easy” with all the intensity of a preacher at a revival meeting. She exhorts, “Gotta electrify!..We gonna glorify!..Come on, everybody justify!…ooh, I gotta testify!” 

   One distinction between a good theatre experience and a great one is that good theatre will invariably leave audiences pleased that they have been sufficiently “entertained.”  Great theatre certainly achieves as much, but in the end aspires to something far more edifying. 

   As Players Guild productions so often demonstrate in sublime fashion, great theatre is always kind of baptism, and in the case of Memphis, an especially immersive experience wherein we witness the ineffable power of art to inspire hope, harmony, and healing in a dissonant, fractured society. In other words, art that electrifies, glorifies, justifies.

    So hey, I’m infected. I just gotta testify.

   MEMPHIS, at Players Guild Theatre, in the Cultural Center for the Arts, THROUGH SEPTEMBER 3 / 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio / Shows Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. / Tickets $29 adults, $26 seniors, $22 for 17 and younger / Order tickets at  or call  330.453.7617

   PHOTOS from top by Michael Ayers / Joy Ellis, Jon Tisevich, ensemble

Friday, August 11, 2017

Canton's Hall of Game

Canton’s Hall of Game
By Tom Wachunas

  “The function of football, soccer, basketball and other passion-sports in modern industrial society is the transference of boredom, frustration, anger and rage into socially acceptable forms of combat. A temporary subsitute for war; for nationalism; identification with something bigger than the self.”  - Edward Abbey 

  “Rugby is a beastly game played by gentlemen, soccer is a gentlemen's game played by beasts and U.S. football is a beastly game played by beasts.” - Henry Blaha

   “Football is a great deal like life in that it teaches that work, sacrifice, perseverance, competitive drive, selflessness and respect for authority is the price that each and every one of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.”  - Vince Lombardi

    EXHIBIT: Scrimmage – Football in American Art from the Civil War to the Present / at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue North, Canton, Ohio / THROUGH OCTOBER 29, 2017 / 330.453.7666 /


   My most recent visits to the Canton Museum of Art (CMA) continue to stir up complex reactions in me, stemming from the fact that it’s so impossible to ignore that towering football mural at the Market Avenue entrance to the Canton Cultural Center for the Arts. If you need a refresher, here’s a link to my original commentary:
   In one way, the location of the mural is an unabashedly bold public declaration that Canton, the birthplace of the NFL, is so passionate about the game of football that it regards playing and watching it to be just as important and enriching as the making and viewing of fine art. On the other hand, the mural’s placement suggests something perhaps unseemly and incongruous in the same way, say, a pentagram painted on the side of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist (in downtown Canton) would be unseemly and incongruous. I realize that such a perspective seems to imply a perceived disparity between art and sport, or art and entertainment if you will, as if they’re mutually adversarial cultural pursuits. But are they, really?   For the moment, at least, this impressive public artwork on the outside of the Cultural Center for the Arts is a perfectly placed program note for what’s currently on view inside the CMA.

   With nearly 80 works to view in a diverse array of paintings, sculptures, original prints, photos and artifacts, football fans and aficionados alike (and there’s certainly no shortage of them in these parts)  should be sufficiently enthralled. Important to realize, however, is that this exhibit, which premiered in 2015 at the Gregory Allicar Museum of Art at Colorado State University, is not an exhaustive analysis or glorification of the game as such. Think of it as a thought-provoking narrative journey into how football has become such an embedded and potent component of American popular culture. Max Barton, CMA Executive Director, has written, “Visitors will find the works aligned with themes such as Race, Class, and Ethnicity; Gender in Football; Football and Violence; Athleticism; and Celebrity Culture. It is my hope that visitors will experience both the excellence and debates of the game through art.” 

   “…debates of the game through art.” So it is, then, that the art lovers in our midst – including those flummoxed by our culture’s gluttonous adulation of football - will find truly fine art here aplenty to whet their appetites.

   If we consider art to be (on one level anyway) the ritualized expression of human aspirations, the disciplined application of physical and mental skills, and the persistent desire to engage and elevate the emotions of viewers, then maybe football and art aren’t such strange bedfellows after all. Football and art. Two sides, one coin – the currency of Canton culture.  

   PHOTOS, from top: Fumble in the Line, acrylic on canvas, by Ernie Barnes / Forward Pass, lithograph, by Thomas Hart Benton / Junction, oil and silkscreen on canvas and metal, by Robert Rauschenberg / 1st Down, oil on canvas by Clyde Singer / Touchdown, Yale vs. Princeton, oil on canvas, by Frederic Remington / Jack Beal Watching Superbowl, etching and aquatint, by Red Grooms / Fran Tarkenton, painted vinyl, by Red Grooms