Friday, September 28, 2007

TLT breathes life into dated 'Mame'

published in The News Tribune, September 28, 2007

The comic play "Auntie Mame" by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee has had an amazing history.

Based on the best-selling book by Patrick Dennis, it was the source of a Broadway play and a movie in the 1950s, both starring Rosalind Russell, and a 1966 musical starring Angela Lansbury. Then, in 1974, the musical version was made into a film starring Lucille Ball, Beatrice Arthur and Robert Preston. And in the 33 years since, both musical and nonmusical versions have been mainstays in community theaters throughout the country.

Tacoma Little Theatre is doing the original, nonmusical version.

I can see why "Auntie Mame" has been so popular. Attribute it to the lead character's enduring spirit; she's the woman we all want to grow into as we get older, a rebel who views life as a banquet and relishes every bite.

From a critical point of view, I cannot help but see it as dated and not particularly well written. Even with Mame's wonderfully rebellious spirit and thoroughly despicable bad guys in the persons of Claude and Doris Upson and the hateful banker, Dwight Babcock, it is hard to overcome comic dialogue that is only sporadically funny and a major turning point in the plot that is weak. (Mame's nephew Patrick has a major character change without sufficient motivation.)

Despite these shortcomings, the cast and crew at Tacoma Little Theatre manage to bring about an uplifting evening of entertainment. The large and complicated sets, including numerous revolves and minor scene changes, are well done. The constantly changing modern art in Mame's Beekman Place apartment, which is referred to as wallpaper but is actually more like large paintings, is particularly effective in indicating passing time – especially the pseudo Picasso and the faceted lion painting. Credit Henry Loughman and his crew for a job well done on the sets.

And the costumes by David Jerome are wonderful.

Mame is a theatrical, wealthy eccentric who spits in the face of authority and surrounds herself with artists and writers and actors, and household servants who are as eccentric as she is. Into her gay and devil-may-care life comes her young nephew Patrick Dennis, who becomes her ward when his father dies. Patrick brings out Mame's tender side as she welcomes him with open arms and an equally open heart, and teaches him to embrace her belief that life is a banquet.

Even losing everything in the stock market crash of 1929 fails to dampen Mame's spirit; poverty is just another adventure for her. During these years she takes on and is fired from a series of mundane jobs and then marries a wealthy Southerner named Beauregard Burnside. Together they embark on a series of adventures while Patrick is in boarding school.

Sharry O'Hara seems born for the role of Mame, and she dives into the part with gusto. If anything, however, I wish she were even more flamboyant. Young Patrick is played by Caleb Wilkerson, an accomplished child actor who handles subtle emotional changes like a pro as shy Patrick throws himself wholeheartedly into Mame's adventurous life.

But when Patrick grows up to be a serious young man (played by Kody Bringman), he tosses aside everything he has learned from Mame when he becomes engaged to boorish socialite Gloria Upson (Christina Leamer).

The cast is large, with almost too many supporting characters to keep track of. A number of supporting cast members are outstanding. Most notable are Brittany Henderson as Agnes Gooch, the most outlandish comic character in the play, and Carol Richmond as Mame's actress friend Vera Charles. Also doing a good job in small roles are Jay Iseli as the mean-spirited and puritanical Babcock, Michael O'Hara as Burnside (despite a Southern accent that would make Gomer Pyle sound like a New Englander), and Lynn Geyer as Burnside's imperious but loving mother.

It's a long play. We were told that it runs two hours and 35 minutes. Counting intermission, it is much closer to three hours. I laughed a little; most of the audience laughed a lot more the night I attended. Perhaps they are less jaded than I.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 7; ASL performance, Oct. 5
WHERE: Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N. I St., Tacoma
TICKETS: $20 general admission, $18 seniors and military, $16 children younger than 12
INFORMATION: 253-272-2281,

Thursday, September 27, 2007

New cover art

Publication still fast approaching

Two weeks ago I posted a promo for my new novel, The Wives of Marty Winters, with a picture of the cover I had just designed, which, BTW, I was quite proud of.

But then my best friend pointed out that the photo I used, which was of me and Gabi, should not be on a work of fiction but should be held to use on the cover of a memoir that we are going to write.

She was absolutely right. So I designed a new cover. This one is based on a photograph by Michael Christopher -- thanks, Michael -- that I radically altered in Paint Shop Pro. I'd love to hear from friends what they think of this new cover. Please post comments or email me privately.

My rant about print-on-demand and self-publishing

The new novel, just like the first two and my book about art, will be self-published using print-on-demand technology, or POD.

POD is a marvel of electronic technology, but it's a last resort for people like me who can't get a "legitimate" publisher to even read our stuff. POD is easy to do and it allows me the luxury of complete control over everything from choosing a type style to designing the cover. The downside is that bookstores rarely stock POD books because people like me can't give them big discounts and guarantee returns on unsold books, and I have to do all my own publicity and distribution, which translates to pitiful sales.

The worst thing is that self-published books carry a nasty stigma. The foregone conclusion is that the writer must not be any damn good or else he could have found a "real" publisher. Never mind that I make my living as a professional writer and the few professional critics who have reviewed my books have given them glowing reviews. Even close friends and regular readers of my columns in The News Tribune and the Weekly Volcano seldom buy my books. They just can't believe they're for real. I've even had a few friends who actually bought my novels say things like "Wow! You're just like a real writer."

Those folks make me happy. That's all that really matters.

Back to The Wives of Marty Winters

I'm waiting for my friend Larry to finish editing the final re-write, which should be any day now, and then I should be able to publish it within a month. If you want a little bit of a preview, I've posted some teasers and a brief excerpt on my website. Go here to read more.

Walks on water

Kyle Dillehay succeeds with oceanic looking sculptures at a.o.c. gallery

published in the Weekly Volcano, Sept. 27, 2007
pictured: "Earth and Water," mixed media by Kyle Dillehay; “People Say I’m Deep,” ink and wax, by Ellen Picken.
photo courtesy a.o.c. gallery

Kyle Dillehay rules the roost at a.o.c. gallery this month. The other two artists — Ellen Picken and Jason Sobottka — are not too shabby either, but Dillehay’s the main man. As you walk into the gallery, the first thing you notice are clumps of rusted steel, driftwood, rock and moss hanging from the ceiling, jutting out from the back wall and in random groupings on the floor like beach detritus on an alien planet, like the eerie closing scene in “Planet of the Apes.”

Dillehay’s sculptures work together as an installation because each of the pieces have a vaguely oceanic look.

“Deprivation,” a hanging sculpture in wood and bronze on the back wall, looks like driftwood. “Sacred Balance,” a group of podlike forms in iron, bronze and soil, lie on the floor like washed up sea pods or moss-and-coral-encrusted rocks. “Disconnected” is a big, elliptical glob of dried soil wrapped in coral like tentacles of oxidized bronze. And “Sacred Balance” is a canoe-shaped frame of rusted steel hanging from the ceiling by a heavy chain with the canoe seats being shelves of oxidized bronze with rectangular spires jutting out like so many models of city skylines.

I don’t think the maritime theme was intentional. But it works. These sculptures are imposing and gritty, and they stimulate the imagination.

Dillehay is a recent arrival to the Pacific Northwest. He grew up and went to college on the East Coast and, according to gallery owner CJ Swanson, was a major figure in the Atlanta-area art scene before relocating here. I suspect he will soon be considered of major stature out here as well.

Sobottka is showing a group of relief constructions in mixed media. They are all rather small, averaging around 12 to 16 inches in width and height. They are basically flat and read as paintings or collages with materials that protrude no more than an inch or two from the wall. There is very little color in these pieces — mostly earth tones. I was told that his work is very popular, but I have a hard time getting excited by these works because the imagery is something I’ve seen a little too much of: Native-inspired images of crows and skulls and other animals.

On the other hand, I like the heavy look of most of his pieces and his use of stenciling negative images. The heavy look comes from using a lot of old wood, dirt and discarded building materials. The stenciling is most noticeable in one piece with a white horse silhouette and another with a squirrel stencil.

Picken’s drawings and paintings in ink, acrylic and wax are startling in their imagery and filled with a kind of macabre humor. Her surfaces are rich. Her drawing is competent, but there is a crude quality that is off-putting at first glance. (It grows on you.)

“Nothing Hugging Something,” ink on paper, is a white figure on a black background. The very subtle and ghostly markings within the figure look like erased vine charcoal, but it’s not; it’s ink. The slight contrapposto of the figure gives it a look of contained energy. This is simply an outstanding drawing.

“As Is,” monotype and ink on paper, combines very childlike drawings of clouds with heavily outlined line drawings of a field of reeds that is cut and pasted. At the bottom is scrawled: “Hey, That Cloud Looks Like Something.” This is a nice combination of different styles in a simple landscape.

“People Say I’m Deep,” ink and wax, is simultaneously hilarious and disturbing. Two gnarly hands reach out of the deepest black hole you’ve ever seen. The subject, ostensibly the artist, has fallen into the hole and is clutching at the ground in an attempt to get out. But the circumference of the hole is not big enough for a human body to fit in. The heavy wax surface works particularly well on this one and on “Dead Trees,” which hangs in the gallery window.

[a.o.c. gallery, through Sept. 29, Tuesday and Wednesday 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m., Sunday 12-5 p.m., 608 S. Fawcett, Tacoma, 253.230.1673,]

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Powerful ‘Doubt’ will spur debate

"Doubt" at South Puget Sound Community College

published in The News Tribune, Sept. 21, 2007

The set is softly lighted with the warm glow of table lamps and sunlight through stained glass windows. It’s 1964, a time when the Catholic Church was modernizing as dictated by Vatican Council II. A simple altar sits at stage right. Father Flynn (Erik Endsley) steps up on the altar and announces that his sermon is to be on the subject of doubt. Both his sermon and the John Patrick Shanley play “Doubt” begin with the question: “What do you do when you’re not sure?”

There are no clear answers in this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. As the play slowly develops, increasing layers of doubt are brought into the light.

The central question: Is the young priest guilty of inappropriate actions with a teenage boy, Donald Muller, or is his accuser, Sister Aloysius (Trisha Hatfield-Graves) an embittered old nun who resents the modernization of the church and is quick to think the worst of Father Flynn because he epitomizes all the changes that are upsetting her once-secure world?

“Doubt” is a simple but compelling play with only four actors on stage, no set changes and no intermission. It runs an hour and 25 minutes. Everything is kept simple so the audience can focus on the thoughts and emotions of the four characters: Father Flynn, Sister Aloysius, Sister James (Ingrid Pharris) and Mrs. Muller (Necashaw “Nicci” Montgomery).

Credit this stark minimalism to director Donald Welch and scenic designer Tom Daurelio. The simple set consists of three set pieces: the altar, stage right; Sister Aloysius’ office, upstage center; and a serene rock garden in the priory yard, stage left. Changes of scene are accomplished by simply fading lights in and out.

Father Flynn loves working with young people and strongly believes in a personal touch. Sister Aloysius, principal of the church school, believes in stern discipline and thinks Father Flynn is coddling the children. “Every easy choice today will have its consequence tomorrow. Mark my words,” she says.

Young Sister James wants to please everyone. In many ways, she is the most complex and well-rounded character in the play. She is caught between the warring nun and priest, both of whom are her superiors and both of whom she looks up to. She comes across as a bit scatterbrained and nave, but she is smarter than she seems. To convey all of that convincingly takes tremendous acting ability, and Pharris, who has been seen mostly in outlandish comedy roles, nails Sister James.

Reluctantly she reports to Sister Aloysius that she saw Father Flynn take the young boy, Donald Muller, into the rectory alone, and that when he came back to class he was acting oddly and had alcohol on his breath. Sister Aloysius suspects Father Flynn of sexually molesting the boy – although she has no hard proof. She calls a meeting and with Sister James as her witness she accuses him. He vehemently denies her accusations.

Further complicating the situation, we learn that the boy is the first black student in the school and the hope is that his success at the school will open the way to more racial integration.

Sister Aloysius calls in the boy’s mother to question her, with unexpected results as Mrs. Muller defends her son and demands to know why he, and not the priest, is being treated as the guilty party. (Montgomery is outstanding as the proud and stoic mother.)

The play starts slow. It is highly cerebral at first, but the emotions and tensions gradually build to a fever pitch toward the end. How it ends, of course, I cannot divulge. But I will say that the conclusion leaves the audience with more questions than answers. It is a play that should spark a lot of heated debate.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 30
WHERE: Kenneth J. Minnaert Center for the Arts, South Puget Sound Community College, 2011 Mottman Road S.W., Olympia
TICKETS: $15 general, $10 seniors, military and state employees, $5 students
INFORMATION: 360-596-5508,

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Too sweet for me

Kittredge Gallery show worthy, except Claire Johnson

published in the Weekly Volcano, Sept. 20, 2007

In my fall arts guide article last week, I said I was majorly impressed back in '99 by Claire Johnson's realistic paintings of scenes in a San Francisco nightclub and that I looked forward to seeing what she's doing now.

Well, I saw what she's doing now — in a group show with Tom Foolery and Chris Theiss at Kittredge Gallery, University of Puget Sound — and I was majorly disappointed. Her earlier work was realistic in the true sense of the word, meaning unflinching and uncompromising. But her latest paintings are sugary sweet. Almost literally. They are paintings of donuts. Thirty paintings in acrylic on wood panels, each depicting one or two donuts on an unpainted wood surface with trompe l'oeil cast shadows to create a 3-D effect. They are skillfully painted and very decorative, but boring. Like Andy Warhols without the acid bite.

The other two artists showing with her are much more interesting.

Theiss is showing a series of houses and interiors complete with people, lampshades, televisions, and all the stuff you'd expect to find in a typical home. These interior set pieces are made of ceramic, vitreous slip and sgraffito. They are about the size of small flowerpots and are made of flat planes that jut out in weird angles as if a model room had been folded by some mad origami artist. And they are all colored matt black with white markings.

It helps to understand Theiss' methods and materials. Sgraffito is Italian for "scratched." It is a technique used in painting, pottery, and glass that consists of putting down a preliminary surface, covering it with another, and then scratching the superficial layer in such a way that the pattern or shape that emerges is of the lower color. Vitreous slip is a ceramic glazing method that creates a similar look. It was often used in early Greek pottery. The surface look Theiss achieves through these techniques is similar to scratchboard illustration, and the overall look of his interiors is that of pages from a comical pop-up book.

I didn't count the number of pieces, but there is a whole city of these sculptural works with each standing on a separate pedestal. A truly observant visitor could easily spend hours wandering among these and finding detail after detail.

Speaking of detail, Foolery is obsessed with realistic and witty details in his model cityscapes inside of gumball machines and jukeboxes of the type that sat on tables in 1950s diners. Like ships in a bottle inside of these vintage containers, he builds scale model city streets complete with buildings, cars, street signs, and people. His cityscapes are all satires on Western culture and Western art. They are all about upper-crust art galleries that specialize in cowboy art and the artists, dealers and collectors who inhabit them. Like most modern art galleries, Foolery's buildings are well lighted from within. The galleries are located mostly in renovated buildings, and everything is clean and bright.

His humor is manifested most obviously in the names of the galleries. One is called "Pair O' D Gallery" (get the pun?). The "Last Chance Western Art" gallery has a for rent sign on it. The "Old West Gallery" is in the ground floor of an old brick building with a big "Merchantiller" sign above the plate glass windows of the gallery. In front of the "Giddyup Gauche Gallery," an artist or dealer is seen loading paintings into the back of a renovated 1930s truck with the gallery name emblazoned above the words "Dead Era Denizens."

Foolery's realistic details are amazing. What sly humor from both Foolery and Theiss, two model builders gone mad.

[Kittredge Gallery, through Sept. 28. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, North 15th Street and North Lawrence Street, Tacoma, 253.879.2806]

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Wives of Marty Winters is coming

Get ready, here it comes! My latest novel, The wives of Marty Winters.

Exact publication date not set, but it should be within a month. Don't worry, I'll be sure to announce it to everybody I know whether you want to hear about it or not.

Also timed to coincide with the publication of my new novel will be the launch of our new publishing venture ClaytonWorks Publishing.

More details to follow.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Complex Christie drama done well

review of The Hollow at Lakewood Playhouse

published in The News Tribune, Sept. 14, 2007
pictured: Annie Coleman as Veronic Craye, photo by Dean Lapin

Agatha Christie’s “The Hollow,” now playing at Lakewood Playhouse, is one of the famous mystery writer’s later and more mature works. The humor is drier, the characters less eccentric and more fully rounded and the story line more sophisticated than your run-of-the-mill Christie or Christie-knockoff murder mystery.

Christie’s novel, written in 1946, was a Hercule Poirot mystery, but when she adapted it for the stage four years later she put Scotland Yard’s Inspector Colquhoun in the role. As the Lakewood Playhouse performance shows, that was a wise move. Poirot was a larger-than-life character but Colquhoun, as played here by Mike Slease, is a straight-shooter without noticeable quirks or affectations. This change takes the emphasis off the whodunit plot and puts it more squarely on the complex relationships between the various Angkatell family members, their houseguests and servants, making it less plot-centered and more character-centered.

That is not to say, however, that “The Hollow” strays very far from the typical Christie formula. Like nearly everything in the genre, it takes place in an English country home where various guests gather for a weekend. There is the inevitable butler and maid and the usual cast of upper-crust eccentrics. And, of course someone is murdered and everyone is suspect.

Sir Henry Angkatell (played with restraint by Elliot Weiner) and his ditsy wife Lady Angkatell, aka Lucy (played by Syra Beth Puett with comic flair reminiscent of Jean Stapleton’s Edith Bunker), invite Dr. John Cristow (Christopher Gilbert) and his wife, Gerda (Leischen Moore) for a weekend at their country estate, The Hollow.

Henrietta, a self-possessed and strong-willed sculptress (Marie Kelly) has been living with them since her studio burned down. Other Angkatell family members who show up for the weekend include the somewhat pitiful Edward Angkatell (Michael J. Griswold), who has an extremely low opinion of himself, and a cousin named Midge Harvey (Emilie Rommel), who is something of a misfit in the family because she actually works for a living and has no outstanding eccentricities.

Throughout a slowly developing first act, the complex relationships between these people are revealed. Gerda, who seems not to have a thought in her head, is weak and shy and, apparently, has no life of her own but exists to serve her husband and take care of their children (who are left at home with a nanny and do not appear in the play). Over the years, Dr. John Cristow has molded Gerda into the subservient creature she now is, and he hates that she has become exactly what he wanted her to be – a living epitome of the old saw that you’d better watch what you ask for.

To further complicate Gerda and John’s relationship, he is having an affair with Henrietta – one of many women he has had short-lived affairs with going back to the actress Veronica Craye (Annie Coleman), a sexy, scheming woman he was in love with 10 years earlier who has recently bought a house near The Hollow. Veronica comes back into John’s life on this fateful weekend.

Further stirring up the intrigue, Edward is in love with Henrietta and Midge is in love with Edward; and Lucy is so absent-minded and irrational that Sir Henry has to act as her protector and sometime interpreter.

When the inevitable murder occurs, more than a few people in The Hollow have motivation, but only one is in the wrong place at the wrong time with a murder weapon in hand. But then what has Lucy hidden in her egg basket, and why is the butler (Michael Dresdner) acting so strangely?

The play is well directed by John Munn. The timing of the many entrances and exits keeps the action moving while building suspense, and the entire cast does a good job. Puett, Griswold and Kelly are outstanding. So is Dresdner as the oh-so-proper English butler.

WHAT: “The Hollow”
WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 30
WHERE: Lakewood Playhouse in the Lakewood Towne Center
TICKETS: $20 general admission, $17 seniors and military, $14 under 25 years of age, $12 under 15 years of age
INFORMATION: 253-588-0042,

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Gee! "Gee's Bend" is cool

Gee's Bend quilts at Tacoma Art Museum

published in the Weekly Volcano, Sept. 13, 2007
pictured: Blocks, strips, strings and half squares, 2005, by Mary Lee Bendolph. Courtesy of Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio, Rockford, Ill

The quilts of Gee’s Bend are simple, bold and beautiful. And absolutely quirky and unconventional or, to be more precise, unconventional variations on conventional quilt patterns.

“Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt” at Tacoma Art Museum is the second major traveling exhibition of these phenomenal quilt makers.

The show includes 51 quilts — all made by women who are friends and neighbors in the same little town in Alabama, and who are all descendants from the same slave woman.

Written records are scare to non-existent, but evidence supports the oral tradition tracing them all back to a woman named Dinah Miller. Miller was transported from Africa on the slave ship Clotilde, which unloaded its human cargo in Mobile Bay in 1859. A year later, Dinah was sold for 10 cents to Mark H. Pettway, a plantation owner from Gee’s Bend.

Today, the Millers and Bendolphs and Bennetts and Pettways of Gee’s Bend (the latter being descendents from slaves who were given their master’s name) continue the quilt making tradition begun by Dinah Miller. None are formally trained. They learned their craft and their art from their parents and their parents’ parents. The forms and colors of their quilts are passed down from African and Southern folk traditions and are inspired by the houses and barns and road signs of their rural homeland. (The exhibition catalog contains amazing pictures of quilts juxtaposed with pictures of structures in the area.)

For generations these quilters were unknown outside of their native environs, but they were introduced to the wider world first through a quilting cooperative in the 1960s and later via an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 2002.

At first, mainstream art critics scoffed at the show. Even as recently as 2002, quilts were not considered worthy of fine art consideration. They were dismissed as mere folk artists. But very quickly some of the most respected critics in American began to sing a different tune, and the rest followed suit.

Peter Plagens said the quilts were “the equals of any abstract paintings by any trained artist living in one of the world’s greatest cities.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Mark Stevens said: “These strikingly beautiful quilts from an isolated Alabama town just might deserve a place among the great works of twentieth-century abstract art.”

And Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic for “The New York Times” said their works are “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.”

The quilts are often ragged in form with sloppy stitching and are made from found or hand-me-down materials such as old gingham, corduroy and denim — what they call “old raggedy cloth.” Most are bold and simple variations on a few traditional patterns such as “bars and string” (ladder-like bands of bold colors), “housetops” (concentric squares), “blocks and stripes” (just what the name implies) and “Bricklayer” (stacked rectangles and bars in a typically pyramidal shape).

As with most great art, it is almost impossible to pin-point what sets these quilts apart from others. Many other quilters may employ similar patterns, but there is something special about every Gee’s Bend quilt that may not be definable but is certainly recognizable. It might be an unexpected change in a repetitive form or an unusual color combination, or maybe a single patch of red far off in a corner in a green and brown quilt, or the way a pattern suddenly reverses itself and positive becomes negative. These are things that can be taught in theory, but things that perhaps only a born artist can do successfully. These women seem to have been born with an unerring sense of color and form. Peter Plagens wrote, “It’s as if something in the local water has produced a whole villageful of Paul Klees.”

The Gee’s Bend quilts relate to abstract painting more than to other quilts. They are more akin to paintings by Paul Klee and Clyfford Still and Ellsworth Kelly and Al Held and Stuart Davis (but without the subject matter).

The show runs through Dec. 9 at the Tacoma Art Museum.

Special events held in connection with the exhibition include a panel discussion with four of the quilters from Gee’s Bend: Mary Lee Bendolph, Louisiana Bendolph, Loretta Bennett, and Nettie Young, Sept. 30, 2 p.m.

Sad ink

Troy Briggs’ Black Front Gallery show reads like elegant sadness

published in the Weekly Volcano, Sept. 13, 2007
pictured: “Losing My Memory, Part IV, scene 3,” ink and acrylic by Troy Briggs
courtesy Black Frong Gallery

The Black Front Gallery’s latest find is Portland artist Troy Briggs. He offers a group of six large ink and acrylic drawings of strange humoresque figures that relate to certain mythological creatures such as the Greek Minotaur and the Egyptian god Thoth, but their implied stories spring from Briggs’ fertile and perhaps warped imagination.

“In my attempt to make these empathic reflections accessible, I have objectified, simplified and separated these figures from specifics. I want them to read like memory. I want them to read like elegant sadness,” Briggs wrote in a brief wall text.

The drawings do convey sadness. And there is an unsettling harshness about them. Visually, they are adroit with a wonderful balance between soft areas of ink wash and lyrical lines.

The six drawings are all called “Losing My Memory” and are numbered Part IV, scenes 2 through 7. Seen as a group, they present a myth or memory told in mise en scène fashion. The impression on this viewer is that I could surely grasp the whole story if only I could see Parts I through III.

In scene 2, the Minotaur is a little man seated on a straight-back chair in front of a large wall filled with a curlicue, briarlike wall pattern. His bull head almost vanishes into the pattern, which becomes a kind of labyrinth (note that in the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur the beast hides in a labyrinth). In its stark simplicity, its elegant linear patterns and the delicate way figure and ground are interwoven, this is probably the most powerful drawing in the series.

In scene 3, the Minotaur-like creature stands strong and proud. His bull head is gigantic and his human body muscular; the muscles and flesh of his arms are stripped down to bone. The head is a soft, gray ink wash, the body a delicate and lyrical flow of line, and at the base is an inky black tangle of briars. This drawing reeks of muscular power.

In scene 4, a naked woman with a bird head emerges from a perfectly round egg that rises from a dark briar patch. The tonal variations in this are marvelous. With her skeletal and muscle structure clearly visible in the lines of her body, the woman seems a perfect mate for the Minotaur.

In scene 5, the man and the woman stand together looking off to the side. They seem sad and unconnected despite their closeness.

The drawings numbered scene 6 and 7 seem to break from the story or to redirect the story, and they are slightly different in style — smaller and not as rectangular in format. And there are no animal-headed figures. Scene 6 presents a seated woman — no longer the hybrid bird woman but simply a woman, muscular like the bird woman and with full breasts. Scene 7 is a total departure. It is an interior scene with a wall and a dresser and a crow sitting in a window. This is the weakest drawing in the show. The flat, rectangular forms have none of the rhythmic dynamism of the more organic shapes in the other drawings. The silhouetted crow in the window seems trite compared to the figures in the other drawings, and the only thing I like about it is a jagged area of dark gray that reminds me of a Clyfford Still painting.

One weak drawing in a suite of six strong ones ain’t so bad.

This is an excellent show. I just wish a larger gallery would invite Briggs to show a much larger body of work.

[The Black Front Gallery, through Oct. 2, Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., 106 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia, 360.786.6032,]

Thursday, September 6, 2007

One Degree

Coming up next month at a.o.c. gallery: "One Degree" an exhibition of paintings by Drake Deknatel, Mike George and Alec Clayton. (The title refers to one degree of separation - three artists from three different cities but all connected to the same gallery.)

Deknatel, who passed away in 2005, was a well known Seattle artist.

Read "Drake Deknatel, 1943-2005: 'Painter's painter' from Pioneer Square" by Regina Hackett, Seattle Post-Intelligencer art critic at

See Deknatel's paintings at Elizabeth Leach Gallery at
Mike George is a painter from Brooklyn, New York. See Mike George's paintings at

There will be an opening reception Saturday, Oct. 6. The show will run through Nov. 30. The gallery is located 608 Fawcett, downtown Tacoma, next door to the Grand Cinema.

Mark your calendar now. I will post more details closer to opening date.

Liquid light

Mary Randlett captures the essence of Northwest light

published in the Weekly Volcano, Sept. 6, 2007
pictured: "Above Paradise, Mount Rainier," 1992 and "Tidelines," 1999 by Mary Randlett
Photo: Courtesy of the artist

"Veiled Northwest: Photographs by Mary Randlett" is the latest show to open at Tacoma Art Museum. And it's about time. Randlett is mostly famous for her portraits of Pacific Northwest artists such as Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan and Guy Anderson, but her softly lit and mysterious landscapes are also greatly respected and have not been presented in a dedicated museum exhibition in more than 40 years.

Few painters or photographers have ever captured the essence of Northwest light so beautifully. Randlett speaks of it as "veiled" or "liquid" light. In "Alchemy," a poem inspired by a Randlett photograph, Denise Levertov coined the term "fogmuffled radiance" to describe the light. Needless to say, the unique silvery light of the Pacific Northwest and Randlett's way of capturing it in black and white photographs have inspired many a poet and writer.

While I'm quoting, I may as well mention one other well-known quote that comes to mind. Paul Cezanne said of fellow painter Claude Monet, "He is only an eye, but my god what an eye."

That statement could easily be applied to Randlett.

Randlett was born in 1924 and has been photographing the people and places of the Northwest for more than 55 years. She first became nationally known in 1949 for her photographs of the hydroplane Slo-Mo-Shun IV, which was the fastest boat in the world at the time. Her pictures have been published in hundreds of books, magazines and newspapers.

Over the years, she has known many of the best writers and artists in the region, and she says she has learned from all of them. "Everybody has opened up the world to me."
The show at TAM coincides with and celebrates the publication of a big, coffee table book — "Mary Randlett Landscapes" — to be published in mid-October by the University of Washington Press. The book features Randlett's landscape photography and essays by Ted D'Arms, Barry Herem, Denise Levertov, Jo Ann Ridely, and Joyce Thompson and seven poems by Levertov, some of which are printed as wall text in the exhibition.

Randlett travels extensively throughout the area taking pictures of rivers, lakes and mountains —nearly always in inclement weather, the stormier the better. She likes to catch trees and rocks and water just as they peek out from behind a veil of cloud or fog, to halt the sun as it winks from behind a cloud or over the crest of a hill, or in broken beams from behind trees. She never crops her photographs, and the only darkroom manipulation she admits to is a little dodging to enhance the back-lit effect she so loves.

She produces a range of gray tones from velvety black to blinding white. In most of her photographs, changes in value are softly muted and kept to a very narrow middle range, but in a few there are stark contrasts. A photograph of Deception Pass pictures a single tree next to a large rock with other trees in the background. Everything is a soft, misty gray fading to white. The only dark spots are in the water in the bottom left-hand corner of the picture. Here, the swiftly churning water looks almost like mercury.

"Above Paradise, Mount Rainer" has a greater range of tone and more contrast with soft gray clouds that look like smoke looming over the sheer glowing white and velvety black of the mountain. Another extreme can be seen in "Tideline," a picture of water, sand and rock with stark contrasts between clearly demarcated bands of black, white and gray. This picture is almost totally abstract. It is almost impossible to tell what is water, what is land and what is horizon. It looks like a solarized photograph, but it's not.

Like "Tideline," an early photograph called "Ocean Beach" is almost totally abstract, depicting concentric circles made by waves. Shown alongside this is a small photograph of an abstract painting by Leo Kenney that makes you wonder who influenced whom. Or were they both simply inspired by similar visions? According to Randlett, influences between her and other artists she has known go both ways — and they are all inspired by the awesome beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

[Tacoma Art Museum, "Veiled Northwest: Photographs by Mary Randlett," through Jan. 27, 2008, $6.50-$7.50, free for children 5 and younger, free third Thursday, Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m., Third Thursdays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., 1701 Pacific Ave Tacoma, 253.272.4258,]

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Weird start pays off in ‘Accomplice’

Published in The News Tribune, August 3, 2007

Rupert Holmes’ “Accomplice,” now playing at Harlequin Productions’ State Theater, is one of the strangest plays I’ve ever seen, and one of the most difficult to write about – because the director, ostensibly speaking for the writer, asked theater patrons not to reveal anything about the story.

Of course a reviewer should never let the readers know whodunit, but Harlequin’s plea for complicity, and the very nature of this play, goes far beyond that. Even to mention certain actor or character names would be to give away some of the surprises.

Even before the performance began, there seemed to be something odd about this play. Director Frank Lawler even botched his curtain speech by forgetting to introduce himself. Someone in the audience had to shout out, “Who are you?”

Then he announced that an understudy, Paul del Gatto, would be playing the role of Jon, a role normally played by Gavin Cummins. Even that innocent announcement held an ominous ring.

Jon, the character played by the understudy, was the first character to walk on stage, and he was alone on stage an interminably long time, after starting off with a weak attempt to “break the fourth wall” with humor. Wearing a dreadful 1970s suit, he nonchalantly tossed his keys aside, went to the bar and mixed himself a drink with gestures that seemed simultaneously nervous and arrogant. Then he announced to the audience with a really bad British accent that “they always start like this,” meaning plays of this sort. And then he described to the audience everything he had just done and said.

The setting is the living room of an English country cottage owned by Derek (Peter Cook) and his wife, Janet (Samantha Wykes).

Janet enters, and she and Jon (who we discover is pretending to be Derek) discuss plans to kill Jon. Are you confused yet? Then she tries unsuccessfully to poison Jon, after which they exuberantly make love on the floor under the cover of a rug.

Jon leaves and Derek comes home, and all of the things that happened between Janet and Jon now happen between Janet and Derek, as if the first half of Act I were a rehearsal for the second half.

It is all very British and very upper-class and naughty, with lots and lots of sexual innuendo, an incredible amount of drinking, and – did I mention? – really bad British accents.

None of the characters seems quite real. Jon seems artificially sophisticated and self-assured, Derek is standoffish, and Janet seems to be trying too hard to be sexy. And none of their British accents sounds quite right. Ironically, the only actor who doesn’t have an English accent (at least in Act I) is Wykes, who was born in England.

The last of the four characters, Melinda (Jill Snyder), doesn’t show up until almost the end of Act I. And she doesn’t say a word.

By the time intermission rolled around (and Melinda finally made her strange and silent appearance), I was thoroughly confused. Other than a few clever lines of dialogue, nothing about this play seemed to be up to Harlequin’s high standards. But then, in Act II, everything changed. Things that had made no sense gradually began to come clear and then became muddled again as the twists and turns in this delightfully confusing sex comedy/murder mystery offered surprise after surprise.

At this point, there is really very little else I can tell you without giving away some of the many surprise twists in the plot. As playwright Holmes said, “Even if I told you the truth, I’d be lying.”

I will provide one other tiny hint: There is a play-within-a-play element, and what appears to be bad acting is really good actors playing the part of really bad actors. Cook, Wykes and del Gatto are all convincing as not-very-likeable characters, and Snyder is absolutely hilarious as Melinda, a character I cannot describe in any way without giving away too much.

Publicity for “Accomplice” warns of brief nudity and violence, but both are totally innocuous.

Fans of murder mysteries and British comedy should love this play. Just stick with it through the odd start.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 15
WHERE: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia
TICKETS: $24-$33, rush tickets $12-$15 available half-hour before curtain
INFORMATION: 360-786-0151;