Friday, April 26, 2019

Deus ex Machina

Deus ex Machina 

By Tom Wachunas

   “It's instinctive in a certain kind of painting...It's like a nervous system. It's not described, it's happening. The feeling is going on with the task. The line is the feeling, from a soft thing, a dreamy thing, to something hard, something arid, something lonely, something ending, something beginning.”  - Cy Twombly 

   “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”  - 1 Corinthians 1:20

   UPCOMING EXHIBIT: The 77th Annual May Show, at The Little Art Gallery THROUGH JUNE 1, 2019, located in the North Canton Public Library, 185 N Main St, North Canton, OH / OPENING RECEPTION SUNDAY APRIL 28, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.; awards presented at 6 p.m.

   A blessing and a bane.  A tool and a torment. A world and a wasteland. The Internet. The cloud. The web. What have we wrought?

   The complexities of dichotomy, irony, and the arrogance of algorithms were very much on my mind when I made my most recent piece, a sculpture  which, I’m pleased to report, was accepted into the upcoming May Show at The Little Art Gallery in North Canton. I named the work Deus ex Machina (Latin for God from a machine). Here’s a definition of the phrase from Merriam-Webster: 1 - a god introduced by means of a crane in ancient Greek and Roman drama to decide the final outcome. 2 - a person or thing (as in fiction or drama) that appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty. 

   After removing the outer skin of a desktop computer tower to reveal its guts, I painted this complicated box flat white (an architectural cloud?) and activated every square inch of surface with gestures in graphite. The imposed scribbles, smudges, symbols, and scripts constitute a calligraphy of sense and nonsense, truth and fiction. A 3D essay on confounding dualities. 

   My intent is not to posit answers so much as to raise questions. So what indeed have we wrought? A treasure chest of incalculable riches, or a Pandora’s box of unspeakable ills? 

   Digital Deity. The god of our age.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Consummate Brahms and Rachmaninoff from the Canton Symphony Orchestra

Consummate Brahms and Rachmaninoff from The Canton Symphony Orchestra 

Violinist Jennifer Frautschi

CSO Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann

By Tom Wachunas

   Under the baton of Maestro Gerhardt Zimmermann, the final program of the Canton Symphony Orchestra’s MasterWorks season was yet more compelling proof of this ensemble’s consummate artistry. I have always enjoyed closely observing and listening to audience reactions, and on this occasion, awestruck wonder was the order of the evening throughout the performance of two masterpieces of the Romantic spirit: Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major, and Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 in E Minor. In the process, we witnessed the most magnificent performance by a guest soloist in recent memory.

   That honor goes to violinist Jennifer Frautschi. From the outset of the Brahms concerto, she was a stunning presence, her playing a breathtaking conflation of grace and grit, and at times downright ferocious. The riveting  breadth of her virtuosity – particularly powerful in her cadenza at the end of the first movement - along with her deep sensitivity to the music’s nuanced lyrical flourishes, worked flawlessly to conjure a wholly gripping emotional experience.

   This was no small feat, considering Brahms’ ceaseless and daunting technical challenges to the soloist. Beyond the sheer agility and wide span required of the violinist’s fingers, there’s the necessity for consistently strong intonation so as not to be drowned out by the lush sonority of the orchestral arrangement, which was never intended to be merely a soft accompaniment to the soloist’s bravura colorings. In that regard, Frautschi and the ensemble achieved a mesmerizing equipoise. Each navigated the work’s ebb and flow of Brahms’ rich melodic developments in a mutually energizing manner.

   Energized indeed, the performance of the Rachmaninoff symphony was every bit as enthralling. When played as originally written, the symphony is about an hour-long adventure, including an unusually lengthy first movement.  It’s not an uncommon practice for conductors to make some judicious cuts, as Maestro Zimmermann did on this occasion. But his editing did nothing to weaken or diminish Rachmaninoff’s masterful command of lyrical suspense and forward thrust.

   It’s a mastery given dramatic clarity by an electrifying ensemble. From the churning storminess of the first movement, into the sparkling syncopations of the lively second movement, on to the lovely and wistful Adagio - featuring an exquisite, haunting solo from principal clarinetist Randy Klein -  and on through the festive and triumphal finale, this inspiring orchestra once again served up an invigorating elixir of transcendent musicality.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Variations on the Theme of Living

Variations on the Theme of Living

"My own discursive thoughts oppress me"

Detail - "My own discursive thoughts oppress me"

"There's Emptiness at the Center of Everything"

"Shrine to Endless Cycles"

"Shrine to Longing"

"Shrine to my out breath"

By Tom Wachunas

   “…My haptic meditation and the viewer’s contemplation of the result are intimately connected. Both are sensory experiences of repetition that can transform anxiety about impermanence, uncertainty and imperfection into curiosity about the mystery of what’s actually here in the present moment…” - Stacia Yeapanis,

EXHIBIT: PRACTICE –  works by Stacia Yeapanis / THROUGH May 4, 2019, at The Lemmon Gallery, located inside the Kent Stark Fine Arts Building, 6000 Frank Avenue, North Canton, Ohio / Gallery viewing hours are Monday – Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

   One of the most striking aspects of this exhibit is its paucity of works. The 12 pieces here by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis are situated throughout the gallery so that there’s an unusual amount of unoccupied wall space, leaving a plentitude of whiteness. Yet this apparent emptiness wants for nothing. It becomes an integral component of the exhibit’s contemplative character, allowing lots of space to ruminate. In this setting, the relatively few wall pieces on display acquire an uncanny largeness that belies their modest physical scale. And the air in the room feels charged with a potent serenity.

  If you string just the titles of Yeapanis’ five wall pieces and four zabutons (her hand-stitched meditation cushions) together, you might sense a beguiling spirituality at once personal and universal. It’s a lyrical, in-the-moment flow of consciousness that reads like a diary entry, or a poem: My own discursive thoughts oppress me. Come Back, Come Back, Come Back, Come Back. Nothing is Missing. Nothing is Wrong. When I stitch, I think about swimming. When I swim, I think about stitching. Perpetually wanting things different. However Long It Takes. There’s Emptiness at the Center of Everything. May I find stillness within change. I’m in Love with My Own Boring Life.

   Yeapanis has written in her statement accompanying this exhibit that her pieces are about “… a longing for stillness and a compulsion towards action…the sacredness of everyday cycles…”  She has constructed a symbolic iconography, airy and delicate, born out of the practice of repeated, cyclic actions. Her meticulous, focused process of making is a fascinating metaphor for mindful attention to the ephemeral moment.

    The dominant material in several of her works here is of a decidedly ordinary, even throwaway nature: toilet paper tubes. She slices them into lens-shaped loops, then connects them into tactile matrices of patterns intertwined with remnant threads from her zabutons. Collect, cut, connect, repeat.  Let’s get real for a moment and consider the types of cycles that we engage daily. Some are lofty, some lowly, some desired, some not. Toilet paper tubes. I’m reminded how much daily living requires repeated rituals that are simply necessary, however mundane: Eat, poop, wipe, repeat. This too shall pass.

   Then there are Yeapanis’ floor pieces, her shrines. One, Shrine to Longing, is a sumptuous sea of tiny, intensely colored upright cardstock scrolls seemingly emanating in undulant waves from a golden bowl. The piece evokes something indeed sacred - timeless and therapeutic, like the ceremonial sand paintings of Navajo shamans, or the spectacular sand mandalas from Tibetan Buddhist monks.

   Another, Shrine to my out breath, is an equally intricate sprawl of miniscule cardstock tubes, rings, gold leaf and beeswax sticks. Think of it as an interactive altar, awaiting fulfillment. Viewers are encouraged to make it so by placing one of the waxed sticks into the shrine, not too unlike lighting a vigil candle. Breathe in, breathe out, slowly. Repeat. Rites of passage.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

At the Crossroads of Leaving and Cleaving

At the Crossroads of Leaving and Cleaving

Ananias J. Dixon (left) and Jeff Haffner

Stephanie Cargill (left) and Anne McEvoy

Scott Esposito (left) and Stuart Hoffman

By Tom Wachunas

   “How do we leave well and how do we cleave well?...It’s about what we owe the ones we love – and what we owe ourselves…about finding the balance between caring for others and allowing ourselves to be cared for…”  - from the Director’s Note by Craig Joseph

   First, here’s a little background on Canton-based Seat of the Pants Productions. It’s an itinerant band of theatrical storytellers established by Artistic Director Craig Joseph in 2012, with a mission to “…focus all our resources on telling tales, truthfully and beautifully; share compelling narratives in unique spaces and vibrant communities; develop an aesthetic rooted in imaginative staging and human connection.”  

   That mission has been very well accomplished in Seat of the Pants’ first venture into Cleveland city limits with Craig Joseph directing The End of the Tour, a fascinating tragicomedy by playwright Joel Drake Johnson. There is something oddly appropriate as well as ironic about experiencing this play in a church (Pilgrim Congregational Church, in Tremont). Church – a haven of rest and rescue, a house of solace for troubled souls. And is it not also a place for…confession? As it is, the play happens not in the ornate sanctuary, but in the big, bland expanse of an adjacent, windowless chamber. Life is large and often not pretty.

    This is an arresting tale of restive family members and partners desperately navigating their woundedness while floundering in the wreckage of their dysfunctional relationships. Set in Dixon, Illinois (the birthplace of Ronald Reagan), we meet former chanteuse Mae (Anne McEvoy) as she recuperates in a nursing home after breaking her ankle; her recently divorced  daughter, Jan (Stephanie Cargill), who urges her estranged, Chicago-based brother, Andrew (Stuart Hoffman), to visit their severely depressed mother. Andrew bickers with his lover, David (Scott Esposito), over the usefulness of such a reunion. Elsewhere, Jan’s ex-husband, Chuck (Ananias J. Dixon) wallows in his kitchen. Fretting obsessively over what to do exactly about his beloved, dying cat, he seeks comfort and counsel from his best friend, Tommy (Jeff Haffner).  

   Johnson’s writing about the vexing foibles and failures of his characters is remarkable in its sensitivity and insight – an intricate and sometimes indelicate symmetry of illuminating wisdom and dark wit. He doesn’t set out to cure them of their ills, but simply tells their truths. And it’s a marvelously facile ensemble here that brings those characters to life with unflinching, often startling authenticity.

    As Mae, Anne McEvoy is riveting as the impatient patient; the brooding and unapologetic matriarch given to explosive fits of anger and insult, or complaining about the theft of her candy and cigarettes by a wandering Alzheimer’s patient named Norma (Chris White). She seems unable or unwilling to resolve the long-festering conflicts with her children, and would much rather sing old standards to over-medicated senior citizens. Meanwhile, Stephanie Cargill is achingly credible as the dutiful but exhausted daughter, Jan, wearied and frustrated by the sheer emotional weight and complexity of her circumstances. In the midst of still processing her divorce, she’s sorely conflicted by caring for the mother she resents.

    Stuart Hoffman is equally commanding in his intriguing portrait of gay brother Andrew. Returning to Dixon to finally visit his mother, he carries a heavy load of painful memories from when he was kicked out of his home after coming out in high school. He’s a bit uncomfortable in his own skin - nervous and insecure about publically showing physical affection for his lover. In that role, Scott Esposito is particularly gentle, and might be arguably the most stable character of the bunch, even as he sadly strives to understand why Andrew keeps him literally at arm’s length.

   Back where a listless cat lies in a box on a kitchen table, Ananias J. Dixon, as Chuck, is terribly insecure, too. His exchanges with the delightfully wry and earthy Jeff Haffner, as Tommy, are among the play’s most tender and funny, though not without a moment of tearful rage. Watching Dixon agonize over his cat becomes all the more heartbreaking when sensing that it’s maybe his veiled way of finally owning the end his marriage.

   At the conclusion of this tour through intersected lives in flux, there was no formula offered, no prescription given for the characters to ultimately find cathartic healing or peace. Call it instead a momentary arrival, a tacit  acceptance of life on life’s terms. 

    Now, back to church, and confession time. Thanks to the expressive intensity of the ensemble’s performance, I began to view the characters not as merely fictive elements in a metaphor, but actual people. And who couldn’t love them? Despite the mess they’d made of their lives, I found myself empathizing with them, rooting for them, hoping the best for them. Good practice for real life. That’s the power of truly compelling theatre.   

- Photos by  Aimee Lambes -   
The End of the Tour /    Remaining performances are Friday, April 5th at 8 PM, and Saturday, April 6th at 2 PM and 8 PM. All shows are performed at Pilgrim Congregational Church in Tremont, 2592 West 14th Street, Cleveland. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at

Additional information about Seat of the Pants Productions at:

Monday, April 1, 2019

Their Cup Runneth Over

Their Cup Runneth Over

Justin Woody as Jesus

(Center) Desiree Hargrave and Justin Woody

Desiree Hargrave as Mary

Daryl Robinson as Peter, with Desiree Hargrave

(Center) Sean Fleming as Judas

(Center) Micah Harvey as Herod

By Tom Wachunas

   “Wipe your face, you just swallowed my soul.”  - Hugh Prather

   The Players Guild Theatre continues to wreck my heart in a most wondrous way. With its production of the musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, opening night left me not only gobsmacked  (as its English composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice might put it), but God-smacked as well. And once again, director Jonathan Tisevich has brought to the stage his uncanny prowess at not only assembling astonishingly gifted performers, but also inspiring their impassioned immersion in the spiritual and emotional essence of the story.

   Every element of this production works successfully to maximize  electrifying drama, including the set designed by Joshua Erichsen, with its towering, cavernous Romanesque architecture encased in scaffolding; the infectious tribal energy of the choreography by Molly Weidig; the rugged, streetwise modernity of costumes by Stephen Ostertag; the fiery textures and relentless rhythms from the superb live orchestra conducted by Steve Parsons.

   Here is a briskly paced, implacably humanist perspective on Jesus Christ. We watch him struggle mightily to reconcile his humanity with his divinity. While he intimately knows the what and the how of dying, he also questions the why of it. Nowhere is this tension more heartrending than in the second-act song, “Gethsemane,” when Jesus is praying alone in the garden, his apostles fallen asleep around him. As Jesus, Justin Woody is an enthralling and luminous theatrical force. The expressive sonority and amazing range of his singing voice is breathtaking in the way it makes both gentleness and anger a tangible presence.

   This sublime emotive potency is all the more enhanced and amplified when seen in tandem with the volatile performance by Sean Fleming as the conflicted Judas, the unbelieving apostle we love to hate. With a singing voice every bit as compelling as that of Justin Woody’s, Fleming’s haunting rants and wails are truly frightening.

   Speaking of ‘conflicted,’  it’s Desiree Hargrave, in her role of Mary, who most tenderly embodies the sociocultural angst that surrounded the misunderstood Jesus. When she sings the powerful anthem, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” time seems to stop altogether. The sheer pathos of the moment sears our hearts as she tearfully voices her urgent spiritual dilemma in achingly sweet and soaring tones. Later, she sings the equally sweet “Could We Start Again, Please?”  It’s a brief but very moving duet with Daryl Robinson, who plays Peter. Their piercing harmonies are a brilliant articulation of real sorrow and supplication.

   In “King Herod’s Song,” Micah Harvey delivers one of the evening’s rowdiest and most salacious interludes – as hilarious as it is chilling. Accompanied by high-kicking showgirls, he brings down the house with his bawdy portrayal of a viciously strutting monarch hurling sardonic taunts at a passive Jesus.

   Not so overtly raucous are the stern-faced demeanors and throaty intonations of Christopher Gales as high-priest Caiaphas, and Mark Dillard as Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Both are remarkably solemn if not downright  scary in how they wield their dark authority over the fate of Jesus.  
   Finally, there’s the otherworldly lighting, designed by Scott Sutton. It creates a consistently charged atmosphere of ethereality that culminates in a mesmerizing flash of white at the conclusion of the production - like bolts of frozen lightning delineating the suspended body of the crucified Christ. But this startling image doesn’t depict the devastating end of a life. It is indeed the profoundly contemplative and glorious vision of a life beginning.

 Jesus Christ Superstar /  Through April 14, 2019 / Performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday / at Players Guild Theatre Mainstage, Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave. N, Canton / TICKETS: $32 for adults, $25 for 17 and younger, $29 for seniors. Order at 330-453-7617 and   (Photos - courtesy Players Guild Theatre)