Thursday, April 23, 2015

Four actors, two readings – Visual Liberties

Alec Clayton with wife, Gabi, at a reading of Return to Freedom at Kings Books in Tacoma

It was a few years back, I had done a few readings in a couple of bookstores and a library and thought I had done it fairly well, when it dawned on me that professional actors could make readings a much more dynamic experience; and since I am a theater critic and know a lot of actors, it was not hard to find actors who were willing to read for me. The first time was a revelation. It was ten times better than me reading my own stuff. The actors seemed to love doing it, and the audience reaction was terrific. That first reading with actors was from my book, Reunion at the Wetside with Dennis Rolly, Jim Patrick, Jennie Jenks and Chris Cantrell breathing life into my made-up characters.
Friday, May 1 at Orca Books in Olympia, Michael Christopher and Heather Christopher will read from my latest novel, Visual Liberties, and then on Tuesday, May 12 at Kings Books in Tacoma a different pair of actors, Scott C. Brown and Syra Beth Puett, will read the same selections. Each of these actors has read for me before. Scott C. Brown read the part of Pop Lawrence and directed the full movie script from The Backside of Nowhere in a reading at Lakewood Playhouse. In that same performance, Syra Beth read the part of Pop Lawrence’s wife, Shelly. Later she read multiple parts in a reading of selections from all three books in the “Freedom Trilogy” at the Tacoma Library. Michael and Heather, a married couple who have often acted together, were mesmerizing as the married couple Malcolm and Bitsey Ashton in Return to Freedom in readings at Orca and at the Olympia Library. When they read the part with the couple arguing I thought they were going to draw blood.
These four actors are highly skilled professionals. Whether acting in full-length dramas or comedies or standing behind a music stand reading brief selections from a novel, they immerse themselves in the parts. In these readings they will not be in costume, and they may not be called on to physically act the parts beyond facial expressions and maybe posture or a hand gesture, but they attack the roles in a professional matter, studying and rehearsing and getting to know the characters; and when they read their parts, you in the audience will feel what they feel.
Heather Christopher with Tim Hoban in How I Learned to Drive. Photo by Elizabeth Lord.

Michael Christopher at an Olympia Stobists meetup. Photo by Martin Kimmeldorf. 
Whether playing the parts of one of the witches in Macbeth (Heather Christopher) or McDuff in the same show (Michael Christopher) or “Blonde” and “Pink” in all-male and all-female versions of Reservoir Dogs, the Christophers have the kind of chemistry you would expect of professional actors who have been married for almost two decades. It’s exciting to see them play off each other like jazz musicians improvising while being different people (in this case Molly Ashton and Francis Gossing among others).
Scott C. Brown (center) as R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at Lakewood Playhouse, with Randy Clark and Julie Wensel
Scott C. Brown is a triple Best Actor selection in my “Critic’s Choice” column in The News Tribune, once as Salieri in Amadeus and once as Randle McMurthy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, both at Lakewood Playhouse, and as Bobby in Sins of the Mother at Harlequin Productions. He’s also been in more than a dozen Feature length films, and a number of TV/New Media series and in well over 30 local plays since 2000. Expect him to read Red Warner and Freight Train Taylor with humor and gravitas.
Syra Beth Puett in The Lion in Winter, with Kat Christensen. Photo by Dean Lapin.
Syra Beth Puett, among other attributes, does a great Southern accent. She’s a Southerner by birth. Local theater goers might have seen her in Driving Miss Daisy at Dukesbay Productions. Tacomans will also remember her for her commanding performances as Queen Eleanor in The Lion in Winter and Mousetrap at Lakewood Playhouse and in On Golden Pond at Tacoma Little Theatre.
The readings at Orca and Kings Books will be brief, but with such fine actors they should be memorable. Each reading will be followed by a discussion and book signing.
Visual Liberties is the final book the “Freedom Trilogy,” the saga of the little Bayou town of Freedom, Mississippi. It all started with The Backside of Nowhere and was followed by Return to Freedom.
In this final book of the series, Molly Ashton is now a college student majoring in art. She is trying hard to grow up, find her way in the world, but it seems she does nothing but make bad choices ... until she makes friends with Francis Gossing.
Francis is socially awkward but an artistic genius, and he is haunted by a frightening vision of his mother and a man with a gun. He can’t tell if the vision he’s obsessed with is a memory or a nightmare from long ago.
Struggling to find their way in the world, Molly and Francis find an unexpected ally in the person of Travis Earl Warner, the once famous artist known as Red Warner who has abandoned the world of art to live a hermit’s life at a fishing camp on the Mary Walker Bayou.

Orca Books, Friday, May 1, 7 p.m., 509 4th Ave. E., Olympia
Kings Books, Tuesday, May 12 at 7 p.m., 218 St Helens Ave, Tacoma

Susan Aurand and Lucia Harrison at TESC

Published in the Weekly Volcano, April 22, 2015

Susan Aurand, The Diver I (lower detail), 2015, oil on wood panel, overall 44" x 12", detail 21" x 12"

Lucia Harrison, Beneath the Forest Floor II, 2015, handmade paper, watercolor, ink, photopolymer prints, and thread,  9” x 1 ¾” x 9”
The latest show at the gallery at The Evergreen State College is a two-person show with longtime and recently retired TESC art faculty members Susan Aurand and Lucia Harrison. Each has taught both art and science classes, and each brings meticulous observation of nature to their work. Stylistically they are much alike, especially in their paintings and charcoal drawings.

One of Aurand’s charcoal drawings was the first piece of art by a local artist I saw when I movied to Olympia in 1988. I was impressed with her technical skill and with the lush tones of her hyper-realistic drawing, even though I thought at the time that the subject matter was a tad trite. There are two charcoal drawings in this show from the same period (1986). “Anna’s Idea” and “No One Could Account for It” both picture young girls and birds drawn in exquisite detail. Two earlier charcoals (from 1974) are detailed views of flowers. The drawings are crisp and rich in dark and light contrast with the blackest blacks and white that glows like snow in sunlight.

More recent work includes a group of landscapes painted on wooden and mixed-media constructions with carved and painted feathers, specimen bottles and other objects on structures shaped like houses with peaked roofs. Local art lovers should be familiar with these because works from this series have been shown often at Childhood’s End Gallery.

New to me is a group of paintings from her “Driver” series. There are four of these, each a vertical panel made up of five-to-seven sections with something different painted on each: grass, sky, reflections in water, and textured panels that could be anything from old fence boards to pieces of rock.

Harrison’s “Ancient Forest of Fraying Pan Creek” is a mixed-media installation that is hard to describe consisting of circles of hand-made paper with leaves, roots, paints representing, among other things in nature: decomposing leaf litter, Mount St. Helens ash, minerals from unknown volcanic eruptions — hung on the wall and hanging from the ceiling and displayed in Plexiglas trays.

Her prismacolor drawings from Red Salmon Creek are mounted on board and arranged in a set of 10, including “beaver,” “kill deer,” “red winged blackbird” and other images from nature, mostly seen in extreme close-up with density of detail. These are realistic but not as photographically realistic as Aurand’s paintings.

Like Aurand, she also shows paintings and charcoal drawings taken from nature. The charcoals in particular are similar. Had they not been labeled I would not have been able to tell which were by which artist.

Harrison is also showing a number of intricately constructed and painted (or drawn and lettered) art books that are simultaneously records of nature observation and stand-alone works of art.

Both artists are highly skilled, and their work reflects a deep love for their subject matter and for their craft. Teachers from all over the Puget Sound area should bring their students to this exhibition, and when its much-too-short run is over it should move to other venues from colleges to major museums. It would be an ideal exhibition for the Department of Ecology.

"Nature: Observation, Metaphor, Transformation," 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Wednesday, 12:30-5 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, through May 6, The Evergreen State College Gallery, 2700 Evergreen Parkway NW, Library 1st floor, Olympia, 360.867.5125

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Evita at Tacoma Musical Playhouse

Published in The News Tribune, April 17, 2015

Juan Perόn (Jonathan Bill) and Eva (Alena Menefee). Photo by Kat Dollarhide
Tacoma Musical Playhouse’s production of “Evita” is outstanding in every way. The set by Bruce Haasl and lighting by John Chenault are stunning, and the lead actors are outstanding. With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, “Evita” captured seven Tony Awards when it played on Broadway.

“Evita” is the story of Eva Perόn (Alena Menefee), an aspiring actress and singer who sleeps her way to fame and fortune, marries Argentine President Juan Perόn (Jonathan Bill), is seen by the people as a hero and a saint, and dies tragically and young.

The mood is set majestically with an amazing opening number, “Requiem,” performed by the ensemble in front of and behind scrims with projected video of the real Eva and her compatriots. The blend of action, music, video imagery and lighting in this and the followings scenes, “Oh What a Circus” and “On the Night of a Thousand Stars,” are musical theater at its finest. “Requiem” tells of the tragic death of Eva. In “Oh What a Circus” we meet Che (Rafe Wadleigh), the “Everyman” narrator who is cynical, angry, and seemingly the only person who can see through the political posturing. The third of these opening scenes takes place when Che says, quite snidely, that Eva met a tango singer, and we open on a club where Augustin Magaldi (Jeff Barehand) is singing. The opening of this scene is a visual marvel that looks like a baroque painting, and Barehand sings terrifically.

Eva Perόn (Alena Menefee) and Che (Rafe Wadleigh). Photo by Kat Dollarhide
From this auspicious beginning, the cast takes us through the stormy life of Eva Perόn. It is anything but light musical comedy. It is highly dramatic with dark scenes sparked by moments of subtle but sparkling humor and music with Latin and jazz influences. The oh-so-subtle comic relief comes primarily from sly expressions from Che, and from small but precious bits in the background by ensemble actor Samantha Camp and Francesca Guecia, whose one moments to step out of the background and into the spotlight comes when she solos superbly on the song “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” as Juan Peron’s mistress.

Menefee has a strong and lovely voice and is expressive as Eva. Bill presents a strong if somewhat stiff Juan Perόn and has a deep and resonant voice. Wadleigh absolutely steals the show. He has a commanding presence, a range of moves and expressions that nail the characters, and he sings with clarity and power.

The most famous song in the show is “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” which Menefee sings beautifully from a balcony. One of the most delightful songs is “Waltz for Eva and Che,” which is a kind of musical standoff or duel or tango between Menefee and Wadleigh. Other outstanding songs are “You Must Love Me” and “Lament,” both solos by Menefee.
This may well be THE hit musical of the season in South Puget Sound. I definitely recommend it.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 21, Saturday matinees April 25 and May 3 at 2 p.m.
WHERE: Tacoma Musical Playhouse at The Narrows Theatre, 7116 Sixth Ave., Tacoma
TICKETS: $20-$29
INFORMATION: 253-565-6867,

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Celebrating 50 years of art at TCC

Published in the Weekly Volcano April 16, 2015

Gallery installation view with Kyle Dellehay sculpture in foreground
For its 50th anniversary Tacoma Community College features works by current and former art instructors and alumni, and it’s one of the better shows I’ve seen there in quite some time.

Entering the gallery, you’re faced with a wall of circular shapes in shades of white and brown that looked to me like oversized sand dollars. My wife, who attended the show with me, thought they looked like extremely thin slices of wood. The piece is called “Consumption.” It’s by Kyle Dillehay, and it’s made of 69 coffee filters stained with coffee and water and arranged in a grid with a single empty space disrupting the otherwise perfect symmetry. It’s a wonderful piece of wall sculpture.

In many ways, Dillehay dominates this show through the variety, number and inventiveness of his work. In addition to the coffee filter piece there is an installation called “Process” that is like a museum ode to photography and printing with many photographed faces on glass plates arranged on a table with photographic equipment, and on the wall behind them are prints of faces presumably made from the same or similar glass plates. I loved the subtle variety of colors in the soft-focus prints and the antique look of the installation.

Another Dillehay piece dominates the back section of the gallery. It is a sculpture with three large honeycombs set in a wooden tray that balances at an extreme angle on a stand that is a tree branch.

Painting from the “Biome” series by Merit Berg
I was impressed with Merit Berg’s four oil paintings from the “Biome” series, each on a canvas shaped like a house with a peaked roof. In each of the four there are three layers of imagery. The lower level is a landscape. On the middle layer are rectangular shapes painted in flat colors that look like windows in one of the paintings and like floating monoliths in the others, and on the top layers are contour drawings of birds and animals. All of the animals, being contours only, appear to be transparent. The beauty of these paintings is that the images, while clearly layered one on top of the other, do not violate the integrity of the flat picture plane (a concept from Greenbergian formalism that remains important today, despite claims to the contrary by many contemporary critics).

The show also features a lot of nicely-done ceramic vessels by various artists, one of the nicest of which is a water jar by Anthony Gaudino; a delightful group of gouache paintings of ceramic dogs by Melinda Liebers Cox; and a terrific little painting by Frank Dippolito of a flock of crows flying close to the ground with a black hashtag floating in the clouds.

There are too many others of note to mention them all, but I will close with pointing out one other series of digital prints on what the wall label calls “time warp inkjet paper.” By The pieces in the series by Anthony Culang are called “Rift#1,” “Expand #2” and “Rip#3,” each is an image of a woman in a red dress on what appears to be a floor of concrete tiles. The woman’s body is distorted as in a funhouse mirror, and the floor undulates in waves. These are strange and fascinating images.

"TCC 50," noon to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday, through April 30, Tacoma Community College, Building 5A, entrance off South 12th Street between Pearl and Mildred, Tacoma, visitor parking in Lot G.