Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Year with Frog and Toad

Published in the Weekly Volcano, May 19, 2016
Kate Ayers as Toad, Harrison Fry as Frog. Photo by David Nowitz
Olympia Family Theater’s A Year with Frog and Toad is so joyous that watching it should banish all thoughts of election season politicking. For more than an hour all worries about war and poverty and climate change should go away.
It is the show Olympia Family Theater opened its first season with, and has become the company’s every-five-year anniversary show. This year marks the 10th season for this most enjoyable children’s theater.
Based on the books by Arnold Lobel and directed by Jen Ryle, Frog and Toad is a celebration of friendship, following a year in the life of these best of friends. Kate Ayers is Toad. Toad is neurotic, often fearful and excitable. Harrison Fry is Frog. Frog is as different from Toad as different can be. He is calm and caring, a voice of reason, and he will do anything for his friend Toad.
Ayers and Fry are wonderfully matched. As Ayers has proven in so many performances — Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day; Lyle the Crocodile; Busytown; The Monster Under the Bed; and more — she is among the most expressive of actors on South Sound stages, with broad facial expressions and wonderfully exaggerated physical moves. Plus she sings with a clear and lovely voice. Fry, who has been outstanding in everything from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee to Prince Rupert in Cinder Edna, is thoroughly loveable as Frog. He is the sweet calm in the storm.
Also a pure delight is Ted Ryle as Snail with the mail. Every time he walks across the stage the kids in the audience go wild. So do a lot of the adults. Who remembers Arte Johnson as the dirty old man on “Laugh In”? Every time Ryle carries the mail with his hurried-slow shuffle it is like Arte Johnson when Ruth Buzzi hits him on the head with her purse. It’s hilarious.
The set, props, and special effects are preciously cheesy-cheap. Admittedly “cheesy” and “cheap” are not usually complimentary terms, but in this show they apply purposefully and perfectly. Everyone knows the seeds in the box are going to sprout into flowers, and kids in the audience stand up and crane their necks in anticipation of seeing it. The snowy slope Frog and Toad sled down is nothing up a white sheet draped over some makeshift construction, but what they do with it is magical and ridiculously funny. And then there’s the puppet Large and Terrible Frog, and Toad’s puppet legs — you have to see it to believe it (credit scenic designer Steve Bylsma, scenic engineer David Nowitz, prop artist Rachel Ikehara-Martin, and puppet artist Sarah Lykins).
Also playing a huge role in the success of this play is the band: keyboardists Stephanie Claire and David Lane, bassist Matt Fearon, and drummer Theresa McKenzieSullivan.
The choreography by Amy Shephard is lot of fun and the costumes by Mishka Navarre are delightful, especially the colorful birds’ dresses, which make the quartet of singing birds look like a psychedelic girl group from 1962.
A Year with Frog and Toad is a show for children of all ages; i.e., parents will love it as well.
A Year with Frog and Toad,  Fri., 7 p.m., Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m.  through June 5, pay what you can June 20, $13-$19,, 612 4th Ave E, Olympia, 360-570-1638

Bill Colby: The Sixties

Published in the Weekly Volcano, May 19, 2016
 “Tideflats East,” watercolor by Bill Colby, courtesy Matter.
Art entrepreneur Lisa Kinoshita, along with birdloft furniture (Jeff Libby and Adrienne Wicks) and rePly Furniture (Steve Lawler), have opened an exciting new shop on Pacific Avenue in downtown Tacoma. Called Matter: Tacoma made modern, the new shop is a showcase for furniture, woodworking and visual arts. For its inaugural visual arts show, Matter is displaying prints and watercolors by Bill Colby.
At 89 years old and an innovative artist who taught printmaking at University of Puget Sound, Colby is a revered elder statesman of the Tacoma art community, whose works are in the permanent collections of major museums.
The pieces selected for this exhibition are from the 1960s, shortly after he first came to Tacoma. The work on display, however, is not like the psychedelia and pop art of that decade, but is more like the more sedate work of the Northwest mystics: Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan, and Guy Anderson. There is a quiet, spiritual quality to it, and a sureness and economy of style, plus the muted colors reflect the colors not only of the Northwest mystics, but of the air we breathe.
Some of his prints display a bit of what I take to be influences from Coastal Indian art, not in subject matter but in style. This is evident in a piece called “Spring,” a woodcut that has a feel for landscape but is abstracted to the extent that I can’t recognize any intended subject matter. Native American influences can also be seen in “Ceramic Bird,” an artist’s proof drypoint etching of a bird in flight. The bird is more iconic and symbolic than naturalistic, with heavy dark-and-light contrasts and a strong feeling for sweeping movement. 
There are two lovely watercolors of Tacoma’s tide flats. “Tacoma Tideflats 1962” is the most naturalistic picture in the exhibition. There is marvelously rich blue water with dark, yellowish hills on the horizon and a gray sky that feels stormy and ominous without overly obvious storm clouds — Colby underplays dramatic effects. This painting looks more like a gouache than a watercolordue to its detail and opaqueness. 
By way of contrast, the other tide-flats painting, “Tideflats East,” is light and sketchy, a landscape with water, logs and posts in water in the foreground, and houses on the farther shore. It is done with a delightful economy of brushstrokes and appears spontaneous, as if dashed off in a matter of minutes. 
One of the more intriguing pieces is a silkscreen print called “Television Trance.” Done in broad dots and strokes of dull brown and ochre, it is an almost Pollock-like overall composition of quick marks that barely meld together into an interior scene with three figures watching television, apparently mesmerized by the screen.
This is a small show. The paintings and prints are neither large nor showy, but they are masterfully done. The furniture and woodworking by birdloft furniture and Steve Lawler are also nice to look at. Much of it would make a fine addition to any home.

Bill Colby: The Sixties, Matter, Monday-Friday 11:30-5:30, Thursday- Saturday and by appointment, through June 11, for appointment call Lisa Kinoshita 253.961.5220, 821 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253.879.3701.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Review: “The Language Archive”

Published in The News Tribune, May 13, 2016

from left: Pat Sibley as Alta, Aaron Lamb as George, and Russ Holm as Resten

Alyssa Ky as Emma and Aaron Lamb as George

Russ Holm as Resten and Pat Sibley as Altaall photos courtesy Harlequin Productions
The Language Archive.” It’s a title that conjures up dusty old libraries and esoteric and pedantic discussions between intellectuals. It is also a little-known but wonderfully quirky play now running at Harlequin Productions in Olympia. Be it ever so odd and intelligent, it is not just a play for intellectuals. It is a play that is easily understood and that can touch the hearts of all. It begins as a comedy that – especially when Russ Holm as Resten and Pat Sibley as Alta first appear – is insanely funny. But it does not remain solely comedic. It becomes a sweet and touching love story that looks at all sides of love and language and the barriers that prevent human beings from speaking from their hearts.
George (Aaron Lamb) is a linguist who knows many languages but has no words to speak to his wife, Mary (Caitlin McCown) when she says she is leaving him. The implication from Mary is that he has never been good at speaking to her. She’s not very good at communicating with him either. The best she can do is to leave strange notes to him in strange places. He calls her notes bad poetry.
George can say “I love you” in Esperanto, but he doesn’t know how to say it in English, at least not to anyone he actually cares about. Mary does not know how to speak from her heart either, nor does George’s assistant, Emma (Alyssa Kay). As it turns out, the only people who are able to communicate are Resten and Alta, the last two people in the world who can speak a dying (fictional) language. They can also speak in English, but only in anger, as they do in a great absurdist comical scene, because to them English is the language of anger.
Balancing somewhere between lyrical romance, fantasy and farce, “The Language Archive” does not attempt to portray reality. Actors step out of scenes to speak directly to the audience (the first time George does this, Mary says, “You know I can hear you, don’t you?”) and characters and scenes roll in on a revolving stage in a way that lends to the entire production the feel of a silent movie. Except, of course, it’s not silent; it is filled with words.
The five-person cast is splendid. Lamb plays George as a bumbling man with many uncomfortable tics who can wax eloquently when speaking of his love of languages but who is tongue-tied when trying to speak to Mary and Emma. A veteran of many challenging roles at Harlequin and elsewhere, including leading roles in To Kill a Mockinbird, Jekyll and Hyde and The Mating Dance of the Werewolf, Lamb displays skill at bringing a wide range of characters to life, as he skillfully does once again in this production.
Holm and Sibley play outsized characters with comical voices and gestures worthy of a Marx Brother or a member of Monty Python, not just as the very loveable Resten and Alta, but also as a baker and Zamenhof, a famous linguist who is actually dead (both played by Holm) and as a language instructor and a train conductor (Sibley).
The set by Jeannie Beirne is ingenious. The stage is absolutely bare except for a screen at the back wall. Furniture, appliances, and other set pieces come in and out on a revolving stage and lovely little watercolors of libraries, kitchens, train stations and other settings are projected against the back wall to simulate various settings. Looking something like New Yorker illustrations, these distinctive scenes were painted by Beirne.
There are also unlisted stagehands and probably dressers who are not listed in the program but who do a monumentally heroic job backstage swapping out large set pieces and helping bring about quick costume changes, and doing it all in utter silence. These are the people who are seldom acknowledged but who are responsible for the magic and wonder of live theater. In this show they work with stage manager Michelle Himlie and assistant stage manager Laurie Hubbs.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday,  2 p.m. Sunday, 2 p.m., through May 28
WHERE: State Theater, 202 E. 4th Ave., Olympia
TICKETS: $20-$34
INFORMATION: 360-786-0151;

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Seven Was to Get There

Published in the Weekly Volcano, May 12, 2016
Clockwise from left: Robert McConckey, Brian Jansen, Gabriel McClelland, Scott Douglas, Brian Hatcher and Heather Christopher. 

Playwright Bryan Willis’s riveting play Seven Ways to Get There premiered a year ago this month at ACT Theatre in Seattle and is now being performed by Theater Artists Olympia. It was good in Seattle, and it’s even better, perhaps — more intense and more engaging in the intimate performance space at the Midnight Sun.
Co-written by Dwayne J. Clark, the play is based on Clark’s experience some 17 years earlier when he took part in men’s therapy group. Michelle, played by Heather R. Christopher, is a therapist facilitating, for the first time in her career, an all-male group therapy session. Not surprisingly, some of the men question her ability to run an all-male group and complain that they can’t open up with a woman present. The men are a mass of neuroses. Throughout the play the group teeters on the edge of total chaos.
Anthony (Christian Carvajal) has severe anger issues. He attends the sessions under court order and constantly lashes out at and belittles the other men in the group, especially Richard (Robert McConkey, who is addicted to pornography and has urinary issues and is an infuriating sticker for following the rules most of the others ignore.
Mel (Brian Hatcher) can never make up his mind about anything. His “decider is broken.” Seated next to Mel in most sessions, Peter (Scott Douglas) is severely shut down, but when he finally does speak it is a flood of self-loathing.
Mark (Gabriel McClelland) is an artist who is just beginning to gain success. His self-esteem is in the toilet thanks to a wife who scorns him and whom he is suspects is having an affair with her “ugly” rock-climbing instructor.
Vince (Brian Wayne Jansen) is a likeable enough fellow who claims to have had sex with more than 2,000 women but never really cares about any of them, usually feels empty after sex and can’t even remember the women’s names.
And finally, a late-comer to the group, Nick (Michael Christopher) is rich, arrogant, and believes he can buy off anyone, but underneath all his bluster is fear.
The writing is superb, probably Willis’s best play yet, and pacing, blocking and interaction of the seven men and one woman is like the smooth running of a complex machine — thanks in large part to excellent direction by Pug Bujeaud.
This play is a showcase of ensemble acting at its best. No one actor stands out, and each is in top form. Beginning actors would do well to watch this play multiple times and observe how intensely each and every actor stays in character and totally engaged even when the others are speaking, their personal and often highly personal reactions when other actors are “on camera,” be it hiding within themselves, slouching is disdainful inattention, or listening with hyper attention (and often reacting violently).
There is violence, a gunshot, a lot of foul language, and a surprising amount of outlandish humor.

Seven Was to Get There, Thursday-Sunday at 8 p.m., through May 21, The Midnight Sun, 113 N. Columbia St. Tickets: $12-$15, Available at door night of show or online at

Hatch: Poems/Installation by Jenny Montgomery

Published in the Weekly Volcano, May 12, 2016
Carriage with rocks and rope

Coat with strange medal and medical reports printed on strips of paper.

Salon Refu owner Susan Christian describes the gallery’s current show, Hatch, as an experiment in literary installation. “It began as a chapbook of poems exploring a devastating birth experience and the eventual joys of parenting an uncommonly determined (and exceptionally funny) child. Images from the poems are ‘built out’ into the gallery space, made from materials which  reach back to touch prehistoric ritual traditions surrounding death and the afterlife, as well as incorporating toys from our own culture.”
The artist’s seven-year-old son, Heath, was born with severe cerebral palsy.
Words from Montgomery’s poems about her son are mixed with words out of Heath’s mouth and things others have said about and to him, along with many artifacts from and about his young life. In some cases the words make up titles for the artifacts presented as sculptures and wall reliefs. The pieces are not put together in a coherent or easily understood manner, but rather in a kind of hodge-podge that forces the viewer to puzzle out the meanings. 
It is not an easy installation to suss out, but it is an installation that can be emotionally moving and intellectually stimulating.
Symbols of birth and death abound, often in the form of eggs or of swaddling or bandaging. There is a giant inflatable egg swaddled in gauze, and there is a little toy horse and rider bandaged head-to-toe like a mummy, with medical reports typed out in tiny letters and adhered to the bandages.
Examples of random words and items:
     The child's grandfather's childhood coat combined with shredded lab reports and "a strange medal.”
     Printed large on the wall: "Hug Goofy," "Know your carnivores," and "Is that the wrong word?" 
     A small bunny doll sits in a bed of pills in a Tibetan singing bowl. A label explains that the pills are anti-cholinergic medicines.  The title card includes a   warning (in all-caps): “For God's sake do not eat, very dangerous and has no enjoyable side effects."
     A baby carriage filled with large stones and a rope extending to and visually through the ceiling represents life, death, and the umbilical cord. 
     Another label explains that viewers are invited to play with an installation of toys and medical supplies titled "What is so atrocious it gives rise to laughter?"

Montgomery is a poet and a mother, not a visual artist, but this installation displays outstanding aesthetic sensibilities.

Salon Refu, Thursday-Sunday 2-6 p.m., and by appointment. Through May 29, 114 N. Capitol Way, Olympia,

Off the Wall

Hatch: An installation by Jenny Montgomery at Salon Refu
(not a review)
In an email announcing the latest show at Salon Refu, Susan Christian wrote: “This is going to be quite a complicated show. As has been my continuing trajectory, it's not an ordinary images-in-frames-hung-on-the-wall show. (The last one of those I did was back in November I think, and it was sticks not easel paintings). This one is yet another installation, with a good deal of poetry applied directly to the walls, and many large and small setups which refer to steps and pieces of the artist's little son Heath's journey through a childhood deeply affected by cerebral palsy brought on by oxygen deprivation during the birth process.”
The previous show at Salon Refu was Anne de Marcken’s installation The Redaction Project (reviewed here). The “sticks,” of course, referred to a show of Christian’s own paintings on sticks, which was wonderful (reviewed here).
Is Susan Christian, the most innovative gallerist south of Seattle, abandoning traditional easel-and-pedestal art in favor of art that defies categories? Good for her—although I must admit I have a particular fondness for painting and hope she does not abandon it altogether.
Way, way back in 1970 I championed this kind of non-traditional art in my graduate thesis at East Tennessee State University. The title of my thesis was “A Ground for Today’s Art: An Alternative to the Frame Pedestal Aesthetic.” My thesis advisor came up with that title. I thought it was rather wordy and academic sounding, but I agreed to it because it described the gist of my thesis. Starting with Jackson Pollock taking his canvases off the wall and laying them on the floor and walking around and on them—getting into his paintings in the most literal sense—and graduating from there to Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein rejecting the idea of “the hand of the artist,” Robert Rauschenberg taking part in Merce Cunningham’s dance performances and making “paintings” out of a stuffed angora goat, and happenings by Allan Kaprow and others, I traced the movement of modern art away from aesthetic items decoratively hung on walls to events, performances, mail art, and happenings that embrace all of art and all of life.
You might think that if an art student out of Mississippi could see that trend and celebrate it almost 50 years ago that you’d see more of this non-traditional art in local and regional galleries. And it is around. A little bit. Performance art has become fairly well established. Graffiti, poetry slams, theatrical events and all kinds of things that do not fit in the old categories now find their way into the more progressive and forward-looking museums and galleries, but such events, shows, or whatever you want to call them demand open eyes and open minds on the part of the art public and a willingness to take big risks on the part of gallery owners. Especially if they depend on sales to keep their doors open. After all, who could possibly buy a happening or a mixed-media installation that takes up an entire gallery?
The latest show at Salon Refu is just such a show. It is an installation by Jenny Montgomery, a poet—and in this instance, most importantly, a mother. There are individual pieces in her installation that can be seen as sculptures or paintings. I don’t know if any or the pieces are for sale or not. But it is the totality of the words and images that makes it art.

Watch for my review of her installation in the Weekly Volcano tomorrow, It should hit the streets later today, May 12. I will also post it here.

Friday, May 6, 2016

A Doll’s House at Dukesbay Theater

A Double Dose of Ibsen
Published in the Weekly Volcano, May 5, 2016
Ryan St. Martin as Torvald and Katelyn Hoffman as Nora. Photo courtesy New Muses Theatre Company.
A Double Dose of Ibsen
New Muses Theatre Company is performing two plays by Henrik Ibsen in repertory: A Doll’s House and Ghosts. New Muses Managing Artistic Director Niclas Olson, who directs and performs in both plays, explained why he decided to do the two plays on a rotating schedule: “When Ibsen experienced the backlash from A Doll’s House he responded with Ghosts, a play that imagines a different sort of circumstances in a traditional marriage. While A Doll’s House is all about Nora gathering the courage to leave her marriage, Ghosts is about the aftermath of Mrs. Alving deciding to stay. I read a quote last year that said Ibsen wrote Mrs. Alving because he wasn’t finished with Nora after A Doll’s House and looking at the two scripts together the parallels are fascinating.”
The backlash Olson referred to came from the fact that A Doll’s House was essentially considered the world’s first feminist play, written in 1879. It made the case for a woman leaving a less-than-satisfying marriage.
I caught the opening performance of A Doll’s House. It is a smart play that is both intriguing and provocative, given perhaps more to contemplation than to the bombast of more contemporary plays. Some of the acting opening night seemed a little stilted and hesitant, perhaps due to opening night jitters or perhaps because people in the 19th century were more formal and more reserved than now. Characters such as Nora’s husband, Torvald (Ryan St. Martin) might have been stiff and formal, which would make St. Martin’s stifled acting a correct portrayal. In a period play like this, set in a culture modern audiences may not relate to, it is hard to separate the characters from the actors. Was Torvald really that expressionless or was St. Martin holding back? Was there something unsettling about Ben Stahl’s posture, or was it the result of the fact that the character he was playing, Dr. Rank, was suffering from a hidden but fatal disease?
I felt that the most believable and engaging acting came from the two lead female characters, Katelyn Hoffman as Nora and Kathryn Grace Philbrook as Mrs. Linde. In Hoffman’s subtly controlled expressions of anger and joy I sensed the withheld fury of a woman held prisoner by circumstances. The range of expressions by Philbrook and by Olson as Krogstad, the most complex character in the play, were both noteworthy.
I loved the beautifully layered blue-lighted backdrop (design by Olson), and I loved the equally beautiful white dress that Nora wore (no costumer listed).
Both A Doll’s House and Ghosts are plays that are historically important and that intelligently and dramatically depict the evolution of relationships between the sexes. These are plays that should be seen. The audience opening night was pathetically small, and that is a shame. Independent production companies such as New Muses should be better supported by the community.

A Doll’s House and Ghosts, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m., Sunday through May 22, with additional matinees May 7 and 14., $10, Dukesbay Theater, Merlino Arts Center, 508 S. Sixth Ave., Tacoma. Full schedule at