Friday, September 27, 2019

Cheeky Cellblock Shenanigans

 Cheeky Cellblock Shenanigans 

Sarah Marie Young as Roxie

Allen Cruz as Amos

Serena Fronimo as Velma

Mason Stewart as Billy Flynn

Korecca Moore as Mama Morton

By Tom Wachunas

   For openers, here’s a few my closing ARTWACH  thoughts about the Players Guild production of Chicago from back in April, 2018 : “… Maybe it’s a piquant metaphor. Real life these days seems more than ever driven by insatiable social appetites for debauchery and scandal, or for the rationalizing of our celebrities’ moral turpitude, or the self-congratulatory pleasure we take in witnessing their demise. Is the audience for such things as complicit as the perpetrators?...” 

    OK, gratuitous moralizing aside, maybe I was overthinking it a little. The fact of the matter is that the big, funny, sizzling spectacle that is Chicago was made, ironically enough, all the bigger, funnier, and sizzling to the point of boiling, when it played in the small, intimate confines of the Guild’s downstairs arena theater. So it's interesting that the musical is being presented again - this time on the Guild’s main stage - so seemingly soon after that eminently successful run. In any case, it's always a real pleasure to see a show directed by Jonathan Tisevich, as this one is, and with a typically superb cast. I decided to revisit it, wondering if the bigger space could give a bigger bang. 

   Bigger space indeed. The stage looks cavernous and empty but for the towering, two-tiered scaffold platforms spanning the entirety of the back wall (scenic design by Joshua Erichsen). Helped along by the generally tenebrous lighting (designed by Reed Simiele) throughout the show, it’s all a somewhat Baroque-ish representation of cellblock gloom in Cook County Jail - home to a bevy of vaudeville showgirls awaiting trial for various crimes of passion. Additionally, the front of the stage has been extended by a wide ramp floated over the orchestra pit and stretching into the second row of house seats. It’s like a fashion-show runway, installed, no doubt, to shoot some explosive energy directly into the audience.

   Yet these contrivances don’t quite fully succeed in launching a consistent spirit of gripping immediacy, despite the excellent playing by the live band conducted by Steve Parsons. And yes, the choreography by Brandon Leffler is itself, like the music, delightfully scintillating, but could use a bit more polish and precision as executed by the dancers. There are many moments on this stage, wide and deep as it is, when the action feels too diluted, too casual, too… routine. It tends to ramble when it should strut more with crackling intensity.

   The true electricity, the real power and saving grace here, is in the compelling performances given by Serena Fronimo as Velma; Sarah Marie Young as Roxie; Mason Stewart as Billy Flynn; Allen Cruz as Amos; Korreca Moore as Matron ‘Mama’ Morton; and J. Ball as Mary Sunshine. Each member of this remarkable core ensemble is certainly a skilled-enough singer. More importantly, each fashions something more than a shameless burlesque, something more than a merely farcical caricature of a flawed or quirky individual.

   These performers give us singularly memorable characters of credible human dimensionality, however lascivious, troubling or dark that may be. Serena Fronimo’s Velma is all prideful sarcasm and swagger until Roxie steals the tabloid spotlight from her. Korreca Moore’s Mama Morton, the cellblock supervisor, is a gritty, fierce protector even as she glibly observes, “In this town, murder is a form of entertainment.” Mason Stewart’s Billy Flynn is a suave, narcissistic crooner and a manipulative, greedy shyster attorney. The hilarious J. Ball plays Mary Sunshine, a giggly gossip columnist in drag, and brings down the house with a howling and hoarse pseudo-soprano aria, “A Little Bit of Good.”

   A more tender, though equally show-stopping scene features Allen Cruz, playing Roxie’s hapless and timid mechanic husband, Amos, singing “Mister Cellophane.” In this self-deprecating, bittersweet moment, Cruz looks hard at his character’s social invisibility.

   And finally, Roxie. Aside from being a comedic powerhouse, Sarah Marie Young serves up a deliciously complex portrait that’s altogether riveting. She’s a lithe and limber embodiment of sultry sensuality, nutty naiveté, and dauntless determination to be a vaudeville icon. What a combination – salacious sass, slinky sashays, lusty laughs… and of course, all that Jazz.

   Chicago / Players Guild Theatre mainstage THROUGH OCTOBER 6, 2019 /   Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave. N, Canton, Ohio / Shows at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday ( 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 5) / TICKETS: $34 ($31 for seniors 65 and older), $27 for 17 and younger / may be ordered at   and 330-453-7619.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Faculty Faculties

Faculty Faculties 

Jack McWhorter, "Beginnings of a Complex"

Andrea Myers, "Switchswatch"

Kim Eggelston-Kraus, "Bound Geometry"

Erica Raby, untitled

Jennifer Jones, "All Things Considered"

Bridgett O'Donnell, "Cloud 0"

Mary Mazzer, "Where All the Cool Kids Live"

Tom Webb, "Nikola Tesla"

By Tom Wachunas

   “…a work of art is the product of strange activities in the human mind.” - Clive Bell

   EXHIBIT: Faculty Exhibition / through September 24, 2019 at the William J. and Pearl F. Lemmon Visiting Artist Gallery, located in the Kent State University at Stark Fine Arts building / 6000 Frank Avenue NW, North Canton, Ohio / featuring the work of Kent State University at Stark's art faculty members: Kim Eggleston-Kraus, Jennifer Jones, Mary Mazzer, Jack McWhorter, Andrea Myers, Bridget O’Donnell, Erica Raby, Danny Volk, Tom Wachunas, Tom Webb / Gallery Hours:  Monday-Friday 11:00-5:00 pm

   My unusually busy teaching schedule this semester at Kent State University at Stark has placed unprecedented demands on my time these days. Hence the long interval between blog posts. Regrettably, after today, there are only two full days left (Sept. 23 and 24) for viewing this current exhibit of 26 works by 10 Kent Stark Fine Arts faculty members. But it most definitely merits your close attention if you can manage a visit.

   It’s a highly captivating and impressively diverse show, rich in the way it engages not only the eyes, but the mind as well. I’m pleased to be a part of it. Included are two of my 3D drawings (graphite on salvaged computer towers) from a series called Deus ex Machina – commentaries on the self-perpetuating mysteries and mayhem of the Internet.

  Jack McWhorter’s visceral abstractions are sumptuous, exhilarating episodes of gestural action and reaction, of painterly call and response.   There’s an uncanny sense of being immersed in ever-evolving structural systems, or stratified, biomorphic phenomena. The tangible and ephemeral simultaneously congeal and disperse, depicting the history of their own making.

Switchswatch, a machine-sewn fabric collage by Andrea Myers, is an amorphous tapestry of sorts, with a subtly sculptural, kinetic, maybe even musical dimensionality. All those loosely attached stripes of vibrant color, like so many bright notes, punctuate and pop off the billowy, soft-toned ground, pulsing in an undulating crescendo which is in turn intertwined throughout with meandering, whispered lines of single colored threads. Here’s a harmony of macro and micro. The perpendicular warp and weft of fabric is elegantly balanced with a curvilinear countermelody.  

There’s also an elegant harmony in Bound Geometry, an earth-toned stoneware sculpture by Kim Eggleston-Kraus. Industrial-feeling, architectonic geometry is fused with organic forms that suggest curved, folded wings.

   The intimately-scaled, untitled mixed-media paintings by Erica Raby are infused with a quiet sort of playful tension and complexity. In these tactile explorations, at once dense and fragile, little scraps of collaged, repurposed paper shapes float atop, or peek out from underneath thin layers of paint, often with overlying clusters of seemingly random abstract patterns and wandering marks coexisting in a state of suspended flux. 

   All Things Considered is a particularly curious (if not somewhat jarring) installation by Jennifer Jones. It features a tipped-over baby carriage and coiled, intestine-like fabric forms embedded with rubber nipples - all spread out on a latch hook rug colorfully emblazoned with a not-too-vague likeness of a vagina. Is this a spilling out of maternal, feminist guts? All things considered indeed.

    One of Bridget O’Donnell’s intaglio prints on handmade paper, Cloud 0, presents some especially intriguing questions. In its meticulous rendering of illusory texture, it has the documentary immediacy of an archaeological photo of…what? A levitated fossil? An eerie shard of unknown substance? A relic from the primordial deep? Haunting.

   Questions abound, too, in both Mary Mazzer’s luminous oil and acrylic on paper painting, Where All of the Cool Kids Live, and Tom Webb’s enigmatic acrylic painting, Nikola Tesla (named for the inventor and engineer who designed the modern alternating current electrical supply system). Sometimes art can be a bit inscrutable. But a little mystery can go a long way towards keeping us alert to possibilities. To remain in a state of lingering inquiry is one sure sign of being alive.

   And finally, speaking of inquiry, there’s the fascinating installation from Danny Volk, The News Gallery (TNG) – 32 artist proposals printed on newsprint. The installation is set up like an archival reading room in a library, with 8 newspaper issues hung from slotted dowels on a wooden rack. Here’s the background supplied by Volk: “Volume 1 of The News Gallery was hosted by SPACES in Cleveland, Ohio from January 25 through March 22, 2019. Participation in the project was open to artists who submitted exhibition proposals to SPACES during the 2017 and 2018 open calls but who were not offered space in which to realize their visions. TNG is interested in recognizing the inherent energy with which these proposals were submitted, redirecting their intended trajectory, and providing an alternative exhibition opportunity within the space. With the artists’ consent, TNG published application materials for 32 artist proposals over the course of 8 weeks.”

   In some ways you might regard Volk’s generous acknowledgement of creative proposals as an artwork in itself, and his installation here as a work of shared performance art. You, the reader and assessor of artists’ ideas, are as much an active performer as Volk is.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Signs for the Times

By Tom Wachunas  

   “…Want nothing small about men. Except maybe their words, which should be modest and thoughtful and almost inaudible before their DEEDS. For the rest, bigness; heart, brain; imagination too; let it take the world in two hands and show us what it's like to BE! Tell us about it, we're hungry. Doesn't the Bible call truth BREAD? We're starved, our smile has lost out, we crawl around on a thin margin--a life, maybe, but what for? and who wants it anyway? Where's the man who says yes, and says no, like a thunderclap? Where's the man whose no turns to yes in his mouth--he can't deny life, he asks like a new flower or a new day or a hero even; what more is there to love than I have loved?”    - text by Daniel Berrigan, transcribed by Corita Kent into her 1965 serigraph series, “Power Up”

   EXHIBIT: Graphics by Corita Kent – designs from 1964-1968 / at The Malone Art Gallery, AUGUST 19 THROUGH OCTOBER 18, 2019 / located in the Johnson Center, on Malone University campus at 2600 Cleveland Ave, N.W., in Canton, Ohio / Gallery hours are Monday – Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.  Reception:  September 14,  2:30-4 p.m  
   This thoughtfully assembled collection of serigraphs (silk-screen prints) by Corita Kent, who was originally named Frances Elizabeth Kent (1918-1986), comes to us from the permanent collection of Thiel College, a private liberal arts institution located in Greenville, Pennsylvania. At age 18, Corita Kent entered the religious order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary where she took the name Sister Mary Corita. I highly recommend that you click on one or both of the following links to learn more about the life and work of this fascinating artist and activist, who was a passionate advocate for social justice:

   A central element in Corita Kent’s oeuvre is the printed word in the form of framed posters. Her expressions are playfully angled or inverted texts rendered in clashing day-glo colors and varying scales and fonts, drawn from literary sources, Biblical verses, and/or song lyrics of her day (such as Simon and Garfunkel’s “Slow down, you move too fast,” from “Feelin’ Groovy”).They effectively evoke the splashy zeitgeist of the cathartic 1960s in America.

   Throughout Kent’s captivating designs is an unmistakable family resemblance to Pop Art’s hard-edged, word-image aesthetic as practiced by such artists as Robert Indiana, whose iconic 1965 print of the word LOVE - with its stacked block letters and tilted ‘O’ - became an instant classic. The exhibit also wisely cites an article by Alex Hass about the influence of the Dada movement (originated in Zurich in 1916 as a cultural reaction to World War I) on Kent’s design sensibilities. Here’s an excerpt:  “…The movement radically changed typographic ideals and created fresh approaches to text. Unburdened of its rules and conventions, type was allowed to become expressive and subjective. This movement in particular advanced typography as a medium of its own. It promoted the use of typography as an art material that could be manipulated by artists and designers expressively.”

  On one level, Kent’s prints exude a vivacity reminiscent of the bouncing signs and banners commonly seen at protest rallies and street demonstrations of her era. Reading them brings to mind those moments we’ve all experienced to one degree or another – moments when we need to turn our heads just so, crane our necks and lean in to hear a singular voice above the din of many.

   Kent’s messages aren’t overtly angry or venomous so much as they’re her heartfelt prompts to consider something much larger than politics. There’s good news here, as in the Good News of the Gospel and its call for compassion and promise of hope and peace. These electrifying signs from her time still speak urgently to ours.