Friday, May 30, 2008

Cast delivers oh-so-loverly ‘Fair Lady’

Published in The News Tribune, May 30, 2008

Pictured, top: Sean Mitchell as Henry Higgins and Natalie Moe as Eliza Doolittle; bottom: Eric Hartley as Alfred with ensemble cast. Photos by Michele Smith Lewis.

If “My Fair Lady” is not the most popular musical of all time, it might be among the top five. It has been charming audiences since 1956. The Centerstage production at the Knutzen Family Theatre in Federal Way is definitely worth the drive and the price of admission.

The Lerner and Lowe musical is based on George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion,” which was based on the Greek legend of a sculptor who falls in love with his sculpture of a maiden.

The Centerstage version is shortened from the original, but still runs a whopping three hours.

Set in London in the early 20th century, “My Fair Lady” is the story of a professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins (Sean Mitchell), who bets his friend Col. Pickering (Andy Tribolini) that he can teach a guttersnipe flower girl named Eliza Doolittle (Natalie Moe) to speak and act in such a way as to be accepted in upper-class English society.

It is a big production and costly for a theater of this size, but I wish it could have been even bigger because this is the kind of play that calls for a full Broadway-type staging, if for no other reason than to make the many set changes less distracting.

The cast, the choreography and the music were all superb, but there were things about the production values that disturbed me – nitpicky perhaps, but bothersome nevertheless. The revolving set designed by Craig Wollam changes from a believable upper-class home to a gritty street scene. The design is excellent, but I wish the carpentry had been more finely finished. And it would have been nice if they could have had flying sets or motorized revolves and more dramatic lighting to minimize the distraction of the set being pushed by hand and actors and stage hands carrying furniture about.

I also felt the musical overture and entr’acte could have been shortened or even omitted as a concession to modern audiences, which are not used to sitting through three-hour productions. Similarly, I wish the scenes at the racetrack and at the Transylvanian Embassy could have been shortened. All those dreary upper-class snobs are quite tiring, although the part of the racetrack scene with Col. Pickering and Professor Higgins’ mother (Rosalie Hilburn) is precious, as is the part where Eliza bursts out with a cockney curse.

The principle actors are all marvelous. Moe truly looks the part of Eliza. She handles the cockney accent well and transforms gradually and convincingly into a swell lady – with occasional slip-ups into her past speech patterns that are hilarious. And her voice is beautiful. I especially loved her rendition of “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

Eric Hartley makes a lovable Alfred Doolittle, Eliza’s hard-drinking father. His growling renditions of “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church On Time” with the full chorus of street urchins are the most rousing song-and-dance numbers in the play. The choreography on these numbers is also outstanding, especially the slow- and stop-motion action. Hartley sneaks in little comic bits that are almost unnoticeable but which help define his character, such as the way he scratches his belly and butt while talking to Higgins.

Which brings us to the main attraction, Mitchell as Henry Higgins. Mitchell enlivens this wonderfully complex character with snide looks and controlled fury when angered. I can’t imagine anyone being more perfect for the part.

Finally, there are two actors in supporting roles that deserve special notice: Loretta Deranleau Howard as Higgins’ servant, Mrs. Pearce, and Ben Cournoyer in the ensemble cast. Cournoyer is not even a named character, but his performance is mesmerizing. Both he and Howard have amazingly expressive faces.

It’s been almost a week since I saw it, and I’m still humming those marvelous show tunes.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday through June 1
WHERE: Centerstage at Knutzen Family Theatre, 3200 S.W. Dash Point Road, Federal Way
TICKETS: $8-$25
INFORMATION: 253-661-1444,

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Pure form

GREEN CHORD: acrylic on canvas by Julia Ricketts.
Photo: Courtesy Photo
GREEN CHORD: acrylic on canvas by Julia Ricketts.

Julia Ricketts at Fulcrum Gallery

Published in the Weekly Volcano, May 29, 2008

Since opening this past December, Fulcrum Gallery has been known for cutting-edge art with an emphasis on sculptural work and installations. But its current show features traditional modernist paintings by Julia Ricketts. These are abstract paintings in acrylic on canvas plus one oil painting and a small group of etchings and mixed-media works on paper.

Ricketts paints brushed bands of various colors arranged in repetitive grid patterns in a style that relates to the color field paintings of the ’70s and ’80s. There are hints of early Frank Stella paintings and even a nod to Mark Rothko, the grandfather of color field painting.

Her compositions are classical and simple with a harmony and contrast of watery bands of color set off against sharp ruled lines. There is a musical feel to her shimmering colors as they dance around the spaces between. The ruled lines may or may not be done with paint. They look more like graphite and colored pencils to me, like architecturally precise grids laid down as a preliminary study and painted over with thin washes of color that overlap and bleed one into another. Ricketts does not color within the lines.

Most of her paintings consist of evenly spaced horizontal bands, some in contrasting colors that play off against one another like notes in a jazz composition and others in harmonizing colors that create a smooth flow from shape to shape.

Temperature is a major factor in her color choices. By this I mean either contrast or harmony of warm and cool colors. Warm paintings such as Excerpt in Orange I glow with hot oranges and yellows that remind me of the explosion of scotch broom and California poppies we see along the freeways this time of year. Her reds, yellows and oranges are expansive. They brush against and expand beyond the marked edges of shapes both physically and optically. The orange bands gradually change color from a burnished red-orange to a yellow-orange that is so hot it almost hurts the eye, and the white areas between bands of color have a silvery sheen. This is sophisticated use of color.

While paintings such as Excerpt in Orange I are burning hot, paintings the likes of Green Chord I and Green Chord II are as cool as a dip in the ocean. These are predominantly blue and green and are very restful. With a minimum of visual clues, they create the feel of landscapes, and another whole group of paintings on the left side wall as you enter the gallery looks like seascapes. There is a hint of a crescent moon in one painting and shapes that remind me of fish in another.

In a lot of Ricketts’ paintings there is also a reference to the American flag. The colors are not red, white and blue, and there is no field of stars, but simply by making the top bar shorter than the others she creates the illusion of a flag — the flag being such an iconic figure that the slightest hint puts the thought in the viewers’ mind.

Her etchings and mixed media works on paper have a different feel and look. They are more architectural. Whereas the paintings evoke feelings of sunsets and fields and water, the etchings are gritty and urban feeling with duller colors and a layering of marks that creates the feel of looking through dirty windows onto an industrial area of a city, perhaps on a Sunday morning when no one is at work.

In my descriptions of Ricketts’ art I have used a lot of referents to things such as landscape and urban scenes, but like Ivory soap, her art is 99.9 percent pure. Pure abstraction that is. It is all about balance, rhythm and harmony — color and line. There is nothing new or particularly innovative here, but for what it is, it is beautifully done. She is a strong painter.

[Fulcrum Gallery, noon to 6 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, Thursdays 6-9 p.m. and by appointment, 1308 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma, 253.250.0520]

Avant on Guard

Alex Walker, a volunteer at the Black Front Gallery in Olympia, knows avant-garde art.
Photo: J.M. Simpson
Alex Walker, a volunteer at the Black Front Gallery in Olympia, knows avant-garde art.
Jennifer Bullo, owner of Underground Green – Eco Clothier, checks out the art at the Lark Gallery, which is across the hall from her shop at Sanford & Son’s Middle Floor Merchants in Tacoma.
Photo: J.M. Simpson
Jennifer Bullo, owner of Underground Green – Eco Clothier, checks out the art at the Lark Gallery, which is across the hall from her shop at Sanford & Son’s Middle Floor Merchants in Tacoma.

Galleries in Olympia and Tacoma struggle to survive.

Published in th Weekly Volcano, May 29, 2008

Perry Onorio is trying his best to keep the Black Front Gallery in Olympia alive. I’m afraid his chances for success are slim to none. Keeping a small art gallery alive anywhere in the South Sound is tough — especially if it’s a gallery that shows risky, young artists.

The last show at Black Front featured weird sculptural pieces like something out of a horror flick crawling across the walls and hanging from the ceiling. What’s the chance of someone paying money for something like that? Art buyers, few and far between to start with, generally spend their money on safe, non-offensive pictures to hang over their couches, not on experimental monstrosities that might take over their homes and scare their cats.

“I thought that the gallery would only run for one year,” writes Black Front founder Jason Sieling on the gallery Web site. “That’s all that I had money for and we made it almost two years. … I certainly never expected it to be a money making venture. It was always for you, the community.”

Now there is a slim chance that it can continue under a collective ownership made up of previous volunteers with Sieling operating as a silent partner. But only if they can round up some kind of financial backing.

“The whole community supports us and has expressed dismay that we might be gone, but none of the individuals or businesses has stepped in to sponsor us,” says Onorio, who is spearheading the movement to keep the gallery going.

The patient is fading fast, and the prognosis is not good.

The South Sound arts community does not have a good record for doctoring ailing galleries. The latest case — the former Art on Center Gallery — is barely hanging on under a new name and new cooperative ownership. For a couple of years it was among the best contemporary art venues in Tacoma. But it was a financial drain on owners CJ Swanson and David Goldberg. They moved it to a better location two doors down from the Grand Cinema and changed the name to A.O.C., sought other artists to go in with them on a cooperative venture, and eventually opted out. The co-op gallery that took its place is now called Grand Impromptu — or just Impromptu (they can’t agree on a name). It’s surviving, but not thriving.

When I started reviewing area art galleries around 1995, there was a lively gallery scene in Tacoma’s Theater district. Galleria on Broadway, Aesthetics Art Gallery, and Commencement all went belly-up as did Penny Loucas Gallery near where Grand Impromptu and Two Vaults are now. At the same time, the hottest galleries in Olympia were Childhood’s End and Marianne Partlow. The Partlow gallery was taken over by State of the Arts, which morphed into a gift shop, and Childhood’s End has survived only because it is attached to a gift shop. Since curator Stephanie Johnson left to go to work with the Olympia Arts Commission the quality of Childhood’s shows has gone down.

Another great Tacoma gallery that bit the dust was Random Modern. Ironically, it failed (so it seemed at the time) because it was too successful. The owners ran another business and wanted the gallery as a tax write-off. It started off slowly but was beginning to sell a lot of paintings when it suddenly went out of business.

More recently we’ve seen the demise of Ice Box Gallery and Critical Line in Tacoma, both of which really pushed the envelope, and Side Door Studio in Olympia, which was not exactly avant-garde but was a good venue for local artists. It seems like the only galleries that can survive are those with safe (read boring) arts and crafts or those attached to a related business that pays the bills, such as a gift or frame shop.

On the positive side, avant-garde art is like the legendary phoenix constantly arising from the ashes. Every time an exhibition venue closes one or two more pop up. Folks in the arts are nothing if not optimistic. The newest to pop up in Tacoma have been The Helm, Lark and Fulcrum.

Sean Alexander, co-founder of The Helm, says it is “the most important small arts venue in Tacoma.”

“We are the only serious local arts venue that is focusing its energy on young people and young ideas,” Alexander says. “I strongly believe that the most interesting developments in our culture are occurring within those younger circles. We have mainly focused on showing art made by early career artists; within that category a lot of pop, conceptual and folk-influenced work is being made. We think that as a burgeoning city, Tacoma must have access to current visual ideas now, so that those ideas are carried with it during its development.”

Alexander says they are out of money and are working on a fund-raiser and that if that doesn’t work he will probably move to an area that is “either more or less progressive.” Exactly what he means by that I don’t know, but what I do know is that it will be Tacoma’s loss.

The Lark Gallery inside Sandford & Son was started in November 2007 by Gretchen Bailey and her partners, Chaundra and Adam Pospychalla. “The name of the gallery is apt because it was, in the truest sense, on a lark,” Bailey says. “Our initial goal was to showcase up-and-coming artists and be able to offer great art with an entry level price tag. We all wanted to see the usual Art Walk attendees be able to purchase the art they go to see. As artists ourselves, we just wanted to be able to make enough to support the gallery and give artists a way to showcase their work, make enough money to buy art supplies, create energy around their work, and build a resume.”

So far they’ve been relatively successful, but personal tragedy struck when Chaundra’s father was killed in a freak accident. The Pospychallas have not been able to continue with the gallery, and Bailey says she can’t do it alone. Beginning next month additional artists will be stepping in to share the work and the finances.

She doesn’t yet know what direction the gallery will take but hopes to be able to do more theme shows such as the Bad Girls and Bold Boys show and the current show, Family Portraits: Current and Future Works, which Bailey describes as a provoking and slightly tongue-in-cheek installation.

Fulcrum Gallery opened around Christmastime 2007. Founded by glass artist Oliver Doriss, the gallery on MLK Way specializes in sculptural and installation work. “I run a bare bones, underground fine art gallery,” Doriss says. “The Fulcrum project is a constantly evolving amalgamation of gallery/installation space, fine art retail, as well as an artistic community hub. As little Tacoma grows and develops, it becomes fertile ground for these avant-garde galleries. The amount of support I have received from my community has been staggering. I feel Tacoma wants and is mature enough to handle a gallery of this nature, and as a member of this same community I intend to bring it on.”

I haven’t seen the current installation at Fulcrum, Karla Melo Santos’ The Road to Heaven, but it is described as a multimedia installation video, found and original recorded media, experimental theater, writing, still images, light, tile and sod. That sounds pretty avant-garde to me. Fulcrum is also showing paintings by Julia Ricketts, reviewed in my Visual Edge column this week.

With the vision and energy of people such as Doriss, Bailey and others, the art scene in Tacoma may blossom after all. And if the Black Front in Olympia doesn’t make it — as sad as that may be — some other starry-eyed artistic entrepreneur is sure to come along and open another hot art space.

Writer’s note: Two days after sending this article in to my editor I received an e-mail from Perry Onorio saying they have given up on finding sponsorship and will be closing the Black Front Gallery at the end of this week.

[Black Front Gallery, 106 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia, 360.786.6032]
[Grand Impromptu, 608 S. Fawcett, Tacoma, 253.307.1011]
[Childhood’s End Gallery, 222 Fourth Ave. W., Olympia, 360.943.3724]
[The Helm, 760 Broadway, Tacoma, 253.627.8845]
[The Lark Gallery, 743 Broadway inside Sanford & Son, Tacoma, 253.383.3168]
[Fulcrum Gallery, 1308 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma, 253.250.0520]

Friday, May 23, 2008

Musical goes on delightful trip down rabbit hole

Published in The News Tribune, May 23, 2008

There are only two more performances of “Alice in Wonderland” at Tacoma Children’s Musical Theater, an offshoot of Tacoma Musical Playhouse. Shows are Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Plus, there is a special tea party luncheon with the performers at noon Saturday. Tickets for the tea party are sold separately, and seating is limited.

Don’t confuse this with a children’s workshop production. This is professional-level theater with adult performers playing for the enjoyment of children. Some of the better-known actors in the South Sound can be seen in this show, including Micheal O’Hara and Scott Polovitch-Davis, both of whom were terrific in the recent run of “Miss Saigon” at Tacoma Musical Playhouse. (Incidentally, two other casts members, Jon Huntsman and Katie Peters, also performed in “Miss Saigon” and had to rehearse this show at the same time.)

This musical adaptation of the Lewis Carroll classic is a sweet and gentle version of the story of Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole. Sets are sparse, yet nicely done, a theme carried to the music. Instead of the usual full orchestra at Tacoma Musical Playhouse there is a single keyboard accompanist providing the music. Musical director Debbie Hushagen and actress Katie Peters (who alternates in the role of Alice) alternate on the keyboard. On the day I attended, Peters was playing Alice and Hushagen was on piano.

Credit resident costume designer Joan Schlegel and Marijo Hening for the great costumes. Particularly outstanding are the colorfully feathered bird costumes for Duck, Lory and Dodo, whose fluttery movements are accentuated by the herky-jerky way they move around the stage. The traditional playing card costumes of the royal court are also terrific, though not unique.

I only wish the staging could have been as big as the costumes. I felt they played it too sweetly and too small-scale. I would have liked to have seen more elaborate sets and lighting, sweeping dramatic effects, a full orchestra and the actors pulling out all the stops with rousing slapstick gestures. Some of the actors did go all out, notably Polovitch-Davis in his various roles, Sharry O’Hara as the Queen of Hearts and Heather Malroy as the Duchess.

Malroy plays the Duchess as haughty and regal, sneering at lesser creatures in a parody of an opera diva. She is hilarious and has a fantastic voice. O’Hara plays the even haughtier queen with the same kind of style. Her “Off With Your Head” song is one of the highlights of the play, and she ends it with a long-held high note that verges on the glass-breaking level.

But if there is anyone in this cast who truly shines with comic greatness, it is Polovitch-Davis. I have seen this young man in a variety of musical performances ranging from dramatic to romantic to comic, but I think he must have been born to entertain children. Area theatergoers may remember him as the lovable Buttons in “Cinderella” at Centerstage in Federal Way. He brings the same kind of delightful antics to this performance and is thoroughly delightful as a table, Tweedledum, the oyster puppeteer, the March Hare and Knave of Hearts. His song-and-dance number with Micheal O’Hara, “Tweedledum and Tweedledee,” blows the audience of all ages away.

Peters is a sweet and engaging Alice, and she sings beautifully. She alternates in this role with Elise Campello but will play the part in the final two performances this weekend.

A particular delight for adults in the audience is a set piece called The Palace Music Hall, which is a parody of a vaudeville show.

All in all, it is a show I can heartily recommend for young children and the rest of us.

WHEN: 2 p.m. May 24-25; Alice’s Tea Party luncheon with performers, noon May 24 ($12, tickets sold separately)
WHERE: Tacoma Children’s Musical Theater at the Narrows Theater, 7116 Sixth Ave., Tacoma
TICKETS: $10-$15
INFORMATION: 253-565-6867,

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Heavy art

Lynn Di Nino’s latest poke in the eye of art

Published in the Weekly Volcano, May 22, 2008

Pictured: "The Buck Stops Here," concrete, superballs, dice, arrows by Lynn Di Nino

Lynn Di Nino is a funny lady. But you knew that already, didn’t you? She’s clever, and she’s a skilled craftsperson. But that begs the question: does that necessarily make for great art? Cleverness alone often makes for gimmicky, pseudo art.

A good pun — visual or literary — can be a lot of fun. But is it art? What makes art art?
If I could answer that in 650 words or less, I’d be a genius.

For starters, an artist must have something to say and say it well or in an interesting way. Di Nino does that. Then there’s a thing called “significant form.” The critic Clive Bell coined that phrase and maintained that significant form was the one thing common to all good art. It took him a whole book to explain what he meant, but essentially it came down to aesthetically moving combinations of lines, shapes and colors. Like charisma or the chemistry between actors on a screen, it’s something that is easy to recognize when you see it, but hard to explain. I think Di Nino has it. At least in some of her works.

Her latest show at Mineral is a departure from her usual. Known for concrete sculptures of very weird and comical animals, in this exhibition she tackles the theme of martyrdom with a series of jewelry that would be impossible to wear — great big hurkin concrete jewelry that hangs like a millstone around the wearer’s neck. One of the pieces actually is a millstone, which is Di Nino’s way of acknowledging the source of her metaphor, the Bible: “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble.”

Each piece in the show is a metaphorical millstone of sorts, usually with a humorous twist and referring to some form of martyrdom, religious or domestic, and each piece comes with a written explanation. And the explanations are as clever as the art.

Stiff Upper Lip consists of a concrete dumbbell (35 pounds) and a brick and a stone on a heavy chain. It may be hard to carry, but keep a stiff upper lip and don’t let anyone see your pain.

Burn Baby Burn is a heavy ashtray with snubbed-out cigarettes and a hole right over, if worn around the neck, where the heart would be. The wall text says the hole is for burning a hole in your heart.

Fowl Play is one of my favorites. It’s a concrete albatross. The wings look like two twirling dancer’s skirts or a bra with black and white fringe — not, I’m sure, the intended interpretation.
Soft Touch is another favorite. It is an off-square field of tiles that duplicate the courtyard floor at Tacoma Art Museum and simultaneously looks like a woman’s purse with a pearl handle and an eight ball. Martyrs are always behind the eight ball.

Some of these skirt the edge of being just clever and nothing else, which is something the artist is very much aware of as indicated in one of the printed wall statements that says “I am a slut for a clever idea.”

“These cast concrete necklaces are intended for martyrs to wear,” says Di Nino. “I’ve created them to be as heavy and cumbersome as possible, with a range to fit any self-punishing person’s specialized needs.”

The name of the show is No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. It is a show that exhausts all the synonyms for heavy: ponderous, weighty, meaningful and … well, it’s not really any of that, but rather a lighthearted poke at everything that is heavy, ponderous, weighty, meaningful and … .

You’ll love it.

[Mineral, No Good Deed Goes Unpunished, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday noon to 5 p.m., and by appointment, through June 17, 301 Puyallup Ave. Suite A, Tacoma, 253.250.7745]

Friday, May 16, 2008

‘La Mancha’ ensemble among best in local theater

Published: in The News Tribune, May 16, 2008
Pictured: Aldonza
(Deanna Barrett), Don Quixote (Jeff Kingsbury) and Sancho Panza (Jerod Nace) Sancho Panza and Don Quixote with horse. Photos courtesy Capital Playhouse

Man of La Mancha” at Olympia’s Capital Playhouse is a big musical in every way – big sets and costumes, broad and boisterous singing and acting, dark makeup (including Don Quixote’s overdone theatrical makeup that is, purposefully, badly applied on stage), and larger-than-life passions.

It’s a play that can seem a little outdated and silly, but for audience members who allow themselves to suspend their cynicism and go along with the pretensions, it can be among the most heart-rending and inspirational theater experiences imaginable.

And Capital Playhouse does it up right, thanks to the combined efforts of director and musical director Troy Arnold Fisher, set designer Bruce Haasl (also in the cast as Anselmo), costume designer Tom C. Hudson, and one of the best ensemble casts ever brought together on a South Sound stage.

There were a few minor hitches opening night, including a moment during “The Impossible Dream” when Quixote’s voice sounded strained, but overall the acting and singing was flawless.

Jeff Kingsbury is outstanding as Cervantes/Don Quixote. Tall and handsome with a wonderful white wig and beard, he looks the part of the proud old man. Quixote is a complex character, an idealist and a madman who, from moment to moment, is ludicrous, dignified, frail and shaky, who seethes with anger and melts with compassion. Kingsbury portrays all of this with mad-eyed looks, a regal toss of his head and theatrical gestures with long tapered fingers. He is equally believable as an insane man fighting imaginary foes and as a weak old man who can barely stand upright. (Interestingly, Quixote is not even 50 years old, but in the 16th century that was ancient, especially for a fighting knight.) Kingsbury’s singing is full-throated and mellow, best on the more tender songs.

Jerod Nace plays Quixote’s sidekick, Sancho Panza, as a sweet and loving character, not so comical as he is often portrayed, but simply playing him as a servant who loves his master and will do anything for him. Area theatergoers might recall that Nace played the priest in Lakewood Playhouse’s performance of “La Mancha” in 2005. At that time I praised his singing, saying his voice “rings out like the mellow notes of a flute carried on night fog.” As Sancho Panza, his voice is a little less mellow but equally effective.

Deanna Barrett brings to the stage the down-and-dirty scrappiness of a street fighter with underlying tenderness as the much-abused prostitute/scullery maid Aldonza. Her voice is haunting, especially on the tender ballad “What Does He Want of Me?”

The most outstanding job of acting in a supporting role comes from Chris Serface as the priest. Like most of the actors in this play-within-a-play, Serface plays two roles, that of an insane prisoner with a frightening cackle and the mild and loving priest. His sudden change from one character to another is astounding, and he displays the full range of voices theater lovers in Tacoma and Olympia have come to know through his many performances at Tacoma Musical Playhouse and Capital Playhouse.

Also outstanding in supporting roles are Adam Rudolph as the barber, Bruce Haasl as Anselmo, Heather Christopher as the innkeeper’s wife, Erica Penn as Antonia and Matt Posner as Dr. Carrasco and the Knight of Mirrors.

Christopher and Haasl are particularly powerful with their screeching voices at the end of the abduction scene – a rape scene that is highly stylized and choreographed but upsetting nevertheless. I would not advise letting young children see this.

It is an enjoyable show that will take your breath away in spots, but playing it with no intermission makes it a little hard to sit through. By the end, my old bones felt as frail as Don Quixote’s.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through May 31
WHERE: Capital Playhouse, 612 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia
TICKETS: $27-$33 general, $21-$27 seniors and ages 16 and younger
INFORMATION: 360-943-2744,

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Fascination and repulsion

The last show at Black Front Gallery has disturbing elements.

Published in the Weekly Volcano, May 15, 2008

Pictured: "Cowards take you from behind 1," digital photograph by Rodrigo Valenzuela; untitled sculpture by Julie Day, and untitled digital photograph by Daniel Barron. Photos courtesy Black Front Gallery.

Olympia is losing the only thing it has that resembles a cutting-edge art gallery. It’s not surprising. When it comes down to dollars and cents, Olympia is not much of an art town. There may be a shipload of artists in town, but there’s less than a rowboat load of collectors.
The current show at Black Front Gallery is its last. Featured artists are Julie Day (sculpture), Daniel Barron (digital photography), and Rodrigo Valenzuela (video and digital photography).

In a wall statement about his own work, Barron sums up the essence of the whole show when he uses the phrase “fascination and repulsion.” His large-scale photographs are strangely beautiful once you get past the initial shock of seeing such visceral images. Barron photographs what he refers to as biological and nonbiological forms and puts them together digitally into pictures in which all of the parts look vaguely familiar but nothing is quite recognizable. We’re looking at body parts here — things inside the body, living organs all pumped up with blood, and eye sockets with spikelike eyelashes. Clear glass objects are jammed into these eyes; empty eyes serve as frames for giant fingers and thumbs swaddled in hair. Human flesh sprouts hard, green, clawlike tentacles.

You can’t really tell what these images are, but they certainly strike a nerve. Technically, they are beautifully executed. You can’t see where or how different images are put together. The connections are organic and seamless. And the colors are soft yet vibrant with lots of skin and blood colors.

There are six of these large photographs in the show. They have the slick and polished look of high-fashion photography, but the images are nothing like fashion photography. The images are more like a record of something gone horribly wrong in a biological experiment.

Day’s sculptures are even more visceral and grotesque — more repulsive and more fascinating. Made of what appears to be molded polyurethane, cloth and metal, they hang off walls and crawl across the ceiling and floors in what looks like gut-filled sacks vomited out of stovepipes with wet arms oozing everywhere. Big sacks like distended testicles sprout mechanical handles and spouts. They look a lot like creatures out of the Alien movies. Wow! Creepy.

In the back room are two large digital photographs and a two-part video by Valenzuela. I’m not sure what the technique is, but I would guess the images are digitally overlaid. Intricately repetitive floral patterns are printed over soft-focus images of human figures that are barely recognizable. They are titled Cowards take you from behind 1 and 2.

Number one is made of 64 small panels, each with the same floral pattern in black line with various colors all printed over a large picture on the left of a standing female figure and on the right what may be two figures engaged in anal sex. I can’t be sure of that because the image is indistinct, but the way they’re positioned and the title both hint at that interpretation.

Number two is made of six large, vertical panels with similar floral patterns in white and brick red printed on a bright red background overlaid with a picture of a screaming woman. It is a powerful image of intense pain presented in a sweet way — a disturbing mixture of tenderness and pain.

Valenzuela’s video consists of gradually changing close-up shots of two women’s faces in grainy black and white.

The gallery plans on closing with a bang. First, on Saturday, May 24, it will host the Pushing Daisies, an underground experimental film and sound show featuring award-winning experimental filmmakers from Seattle, Tacoma and Olympia. All films will be accompanied with live experimental soundtrack performances by Bloodclot (Olympia) and Eric Ostrowski (Seattle).

Then, opening Friday, May 30, will be a special two-day show of work by the photo interns at The Evergreen State College.

[Black Front Gallery, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday-Saturday, through May 31, 106 Fourth Ave., Olympia, 360.786.6032]

Friday, May 9, 2008

Paradise’s Kaufman-Hart comedy easy to take

Published in The News Tribune, May 9, 2008
Diane Daniels, left, Mick Flaaen, center, and Ivy Steinberg, photo courtesy Paradise Theatre

You Can’t Take it with You,” the classic comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, is being performed by Paradise Theatre in Gig Harbor. It is a joyful play that evokes an endless stream of belly laughs as a huge cast of eccentric characters interact in a madcap manner with so many plots and subplots and sight gags that it would be hard to keep up were it not for director Jeff Richards’ skillful timing and blocking.

During much of the play, the stage is filled with Sycamore family members and their many guests, and nearly always there are two or three side actions taking place at once – little comedic bits or humanizing touches taking place away from the main action, such as Grandpa (Ian Lamberton) throwing darts and almost hitting his granddaughter Alice (Bethany Hodges) or Essie and Ed (Ivy Steinberg and Mike Schiller) whispering and giggling behind everyone’s back – even during the blessing at dinner – or the maid, Rheba (Valerie Jolibois) scratching and wiping her nose during that same blessing. Little touches such as these bring the action down to earth and make the wildly eccentric characters more believable.

And wildly eccentric they are indeed. Grandpa’s all-consuming habits are going to graduation ceremonies and tending his pet snake, and he has never paid income tax. Lamberton’s portrayal of Grandpa seems a little stilted at first, as if he is reciting his lines by rote instead of conversing, and I wish he played the part in a more comedic manner. Still, as the play progresses he becomes more likable.

His daughter Penny (Diane Daniels) is a loopy dame with an abiding love for her family and aspirations to become a playwright. She has been writing plays almost nonstop since a typewriter was mistakenly delivered to her home. Daniels is wonderful in this role, with her nervous gestures, big eyes and a toothy smile.

Penny’s husband, Paul (Jim Curry) is one of the least interesting characters, and he is played rather woodenly by Curry.

The two daughters, Alice and Essie, are terrific characters and both Steinberg, as Essie, and Hodges, as Alice, do a fine job of acting. The physical resemblance is close enough for them to be believable as Penny’s daughters. They even have the same kind of jerky movements and big-eyed beauty as Daniels.

Steinberg is the more entertaining of the two with her bad dancing and over-the-top enthusiasm for just about everything. Hodges meets the challenge of portraying the only sane person in a wacky family. She seems to be the most sincere and unaffected actor on stage, which is exactly what the character calls for. And I love her hairdo and costumes, especially the lovely blue gown and the black hat with white feathers. (I don’t know who to credit for those as a team of volunteers is listed in the program as donating costumes and props.)

The cast is a mixture of beginning actors and those with a lifetime of experience and training, and although some are noticeably amateurish, most do a really good job. One who particularly stands out is Darla “Kate” Smedley as Mrs. Kirby. Smedley has never before acted on stage, but she is delightful as the somewhat snooty and ill-at-ease housewife.

Also outstanding for their broad comic antics are the director, Richards, as the Russian ballet coach Boris Kolenkhov, and Mick Flaaen as Paul’s assistant, Mr. De Pinna, who emerges periodically from the basement where he seems to spend all his time making fireworks. Both Richards and Flaaen have extensive acting experience, and it shows in Kolenkhov’s growling voice and big gestures and in Flaaen’s exaggerated Italian accent and his weird way of walking. Absurd comic prop glasses and hat add to Mr. De Pinna’s comic appeal.

Kaufman and Hart’s writing is excellent, which is a large part of the reason this play won a Pulitzer Prize and the movie version won an Academy Award for best picture. It is inventive and outrageous and still relevant some 72 years after it premiered on stage. Woven into all the crazy antics of this band of misfits is a simple tale of romantic love and love of family.

This is a fun performance that is enjoyable for people of all ages.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Paradise Theatre, 9911 Burnham Drive N.W., Gig Harbor
TICKETS: $18 adults, $15 seniors/military, $8 children
INFORMATION: 253-851-7529,

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Best pool in the world

Someone found my website and on it a mention of the old swimming pool in Tupelo, Mississippi, which is the setting for a big scene in my first novel, Until the Dawn. He sent me this old postcard.

It was the best swimming pool in the world and the only municipal pool I've ever seen that was perfectly round with a diving tower in the middle. So many wonderful memories there. The big building in the background is Church Street Elementary where I went to school from first through sixth grade. Guess who else went to school there. Elvis Presley. He was in the same class with my sister. There's a tale my mother told me that I've repeated many times. One day my sister came home from school and my mother asked her, "What happened in school today?" and she said, "Aw, nothing. Elvis brought his guitar again."

To Wade P. - Thanks for sending me the card.

Close as Close

Close Encounters and be found at Grand Impromptu Gallery

Published in the Weekly Volcano, May 8, 2008

Pictured: portrait of artist Bill Colby, photo by Chip Van Gilder

Photographer and curator Chip Van Gilder has come up with a clever concept for a group show at Grand Impromptu Gallery, the artist-owned co-op two doors down from the Grand Cinema. And it’s about time.

So far, every show at this gallery has been a hodgepodge of art by the member artists. It’s not that they’re bad artists, but how many times can a gallery recycle the same artists before it gets boring?

This show is a refreshing change. It is a takeoff on the Chuck Close exhibition at Tacoma Art Museum: A Couple of Ways of Doing Something. Photographs by Chuck Close, Poems by Bob Holman. That show features large-scale portraits of the artist and his friends accompanied by poems by Bob Holman. This one features photographs of Van Gilder and his friends done in a style that almost exactly duplicates the look of Close’s prints. And just as Close’s portraits are accompanied by poems by Bob Holman, Van Gilder’s are accompanied by poems by local poet Daniel Blue.

Van Gilder’s photographs differ from Close’s daguerreotypes only in scale (Close uses gigantic scale, and Van Gilder doesn’t) and in technical differences (Close uses the camera for sharp focus in the center with fuzzy edges; Van Gilder gets the same effect through digital manipulation).

Against a back panel in the gallery is a group of small black and white portraits of the other gallery member artists. On one section of the adjacent side wall are larger portraits of artists Bill Colby, Daniel Blue, Lynn Di Nino and a self-portrait of Van Gilder. All range from the deepest of blacks to subtle gray tones with extra sharp focus fading to amorphous edges. They are beautifully rendered portraits, and they perfectly capture the Chuck Close look — a clever idea skillfully executed.

The other gallery artists are showing, with lesser success, works that fit in with the theme — not so much the specific homage to Chuck Close, but the more generalized theme of the close-up (the show is called Close Encounters). Trinda Love is showing close-up “portraits” of radishes painted with heavy impasto. Becky Frehse shows portraits of children drawn with mixed media on paper, each accompanied by a prose description by Judith VanPraag, a Dutch writer based in Seattle. Susan Paredes is showing close-up photographs of Tacoma scenes. Everybody’s getting up close and personal, but it’s a stretch to see how they all fit into the theme. With the exception of Van Gilder’s photographs, it’s still a hodgepodge of works by the various member artists — the best of whom (other than Van Gilder) are Bea Geller and Betty Ragan.

Ragan is new to the gallery. She is showing two large-scale photo collages from a series in which each work uses a woman to represent a continent. In this case it is an African woman and an Asian woman representing their respective home continents. The images are collaged into pictures of cherubs in Baroque picture frames and drawn into with a pencil. They are soft and delicate in mid-gray tones and are carefully executed. You have to look very closely to see that they are collages. As an aside, I was not familiar with Ragan’s work prior to this show, but a bit of online research has taught me that she’s been around awhile and is quite well known for her Buttoned Down Series, photo collages combining photographs of early 20th-century buildings with those of tailored women’s clothing.

Geller’s works include digital images of two of the member artists and two more generic images of an Actor and Youth. They are well composed with absolutely gorgeous color.
Also included are works by Dorothy McCuistion, Bill Colby and LeeAnn Seaburg Perry.

[Impromptu Gallery, Close Encounters, Thursday-Friday 4-8 p.m., Saturday 2-8 p.m., Sunday 2-6 p.m. and by appointment, through May 31, 608 S. Fawcett, Tacoma, 253.572.9232,]

Monday, May 5, 2008

Four star reviews

Two new reviews of As If Art Matters were recently posted on - both four star reviews. Thanks to Lynn Di Nino and Cami Abernathy.

Here are the reviews:

As a newcomer to Tacoma Washington I became aware of Alec Clayton's reviews in the local papers, The News Tribune and the Volcano. I thought this guy is pretty well-rounded, reviewing sometimes theater and sometimes art exhibited in local art galleries. Because of this I bought his book.
What's interesting about it is his casual approach to describing the visual arts, sculpture and painting, with little negative judgement, and he can place it in an art historical context. He (makes it) feel like you are seeing what he sees. I personally think it helps that he is an accomplished painter himself. It is a rare critic who can see from both sides of the fence. This is a really good and informative read. - Lynn Di Nino, Tacoma, WA

There are not too many regional art criticism books so that alone makes this book very unusual. It is not true that all the artists live in the major cities of the world, Alec does reviews and writes about his area artists and he gives them the respect that they deserve and need. His technique is like a professional art viewer or a chef who loves to cook for the flavor. As if he loves to look at art and think about it.
I know some art critics are swayed by mere trend and youth and therefore only gravitate toward the latest young artist out of art school,so his writings are the anecdote to those blinded by the glitz. He gets why artists keep at it. Alec reminds me of the artist/critic Fairfield Porter who made a living writing art criticism and was an accomplished painter. – Camile Abernathy "Cami", Sun Valley, ID

Friday, May 2, 2008

Polished writing gives drama glint of greatness

Published in The News Tribune, May 2, 2008
Pictured: Anders Bolang and Vince Brady; Jane May and Vince Brady. Photos by Tor Clausen

Conor McPherson’s “Shining City” is the latest poetic, Beckett-like modern drama from the playwright to be produced by Harlequin Productions. Harlequin has also brought us McPherson’s “The Weir” and “St. Nicholas.”

The play takes place over an unspecified span of time in the Dublin flat of Ian (Vincent Brady), a former priest who is now a therapist. It consists largely of long and poetically halting monologues by Ian’s first and perhaps only patient, John (Anders Bolang).

Ian has, in recent years, undergone a crisis of faith, left the priesthood, fallen in love with Neasa (Jane May) and fathered her child and is now going through a painful breakup. He says he can’t be with her anymore, but he doesn’t seem to know or won’t tell her why.

John comes to Ian for bereavement counseling. His wife was recently killed in a horrible accident, and he feels that he is to blame. He has seen her ghost in their house and has moved into a bed and breakfast to escape the haunting.

In his counseling sessions, John tells his story to Ian, which includes the reasons why he feels so guilty.

Along the way, Ian has an intense argument with Neasa and a homosexual encounter with a young man, Laurence (Brian Jansen). These two short scenes are interspersed with much longer scenes of John and Ian’s counseling sessions.

Ian also comes to terms with his demons and seems to have made up with Neasa and, at the end, is packing up to move in with her. But I had serious doubts as to whether or not he has truly resolved his conflicts.

The writing is outstanding. McPherson weaves the story line through dialogue without ever resorting to straight exposition. John’s long monologues – which would be boring in the hands of a less skilled writer and actor – are prose poems splattered with aching pauses and constant repetition of the phrase “ya know” and with John’s favorite curse word. Bolang convincingly captures the halting and painful manner of a man struggling to express his deeply felt and painful emotions. Bolang, who looks a lot like Albert Finney, has a believable Irish accent.

As the therapist and as the failed lover, Brady comes across as bumbling and hesitant. The audience can see him struggling to contain his emotions, and when he finally does express himself in his fight with Neasa, both Brady and May are explosive. When he insists on breaking up with her, she is shattered. Her expression of pain is so huge that it is hard to watch.

Jansen’s role is the smallest. He’s on stage for only one short scene and doesn’t have a lot to say, but his physical gestures and facial expressions are wonderful. People who saw Jansen in “Picasso at the Agile Lapin” and “Take Me Out” know that he is a natural-born character actor. Outrageously comical in previous roles, in this play he is like a sweeter and softer version of a young Marlon Brando.

One of the biggest problems in any play is how to handle transitions between scenes. Stagehands coming out and moving props is highly distracting. Even dropping a curtain takes the audience away from the magic of the play. In this play, all transitions are handled beautifully with a variety of light changes and onstage actions by the actors. This is helped by the use of freestanding doors that allow actors to walk in and out of rooms while remaining visible to the audience, which metaphorically relates to the peek into the hearts and minds of the characters in the therapy sessions. These smooth transitions are the result of a brilliant bit of staging by scenic designer Nate Kirkwood, lighting designer Jill Carter and director Scot Whitney.

“Shining City” is modern drama at its best.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through May 17

WHERE: Harlequin Productions at State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia

TICKETS: $24-$33, rush tickets $12-$15 half-hour before curtain

INFORMATION: 360-786-0151;

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Young at art

TCC student show at Gallery Madera

Published in the Weekly Volcano, May 1, 2008
Pictured: "Adaptation," painting on found fiberglass trays by Jefferson Elliott (installation view and detail) - photo courtesy Gallery Madera

All honor and glory to Gallery Madera and the Tacoma Artworks Group for showing a deserving bunch of college art students. But that is exactly what Tacoma Artworks Group, or TAG, is all about. TAG is a sanctioned club through the Associated Students of Tacoma Community College. The mission of TAG is “to provide TCC students with real-world opportunities to showcase their artwork at venues in the Puget Sound region, and hold activities to enhance their exposure to the diverse mediums of the world of art.”

Of course, they can’t fulfill that mission without the cooperation of participating Puget Sound venues, so again — All honor and glory to Gallery Madera.

The artists featured in Gallery Madera’s latest show are all students and include: Jessica Atal, Jefferson Elliott, Joey Freer, John Gordon, Lizzie Gulick, Jessie Krett, Jimmy McDonough, and Mahta Shakib. That’s too many artists to write about in a single 650-word column, so I’ll just highlight the best and encourage you to go see the rest. The best are a couple of painters whose works have a lot in common — Joey Freer and Jefferson Elliott.

Both Elliott and Freer paint in a free-flowing, graffiti-inspired manner that calls to mind works by Jean-Michael Basquat and Cy Twombly coupled with a line quality in Elliott’s work that looks a lot like Willem de Kooning. Their paintings are gritty and energetic. They are drawings in paint. Color is almost incidental, mostly monotones with line drawings superimposed over washes of a single color. Their paintings are all about the line and the image.

Freer’s paintings are untitled. They are painted with oil paint on wood — specifically old found scraps of wood such as the fronts of old kitchen cabinets with the pull handles left in place. One painting is of flowers and surrealistic animal and human body parts drawn in sepia and white line on a dull green background. On the left-hand panel there is a creature that looks something like an upside-down baby bird. Above it is a large flower. In the center panel is a gradual slope of a hillside or what could perhaps be interpreted as the contour of a body. Above this is what looks like a pair of long, drooping female breasts. Or maybe they are cartoon eyes popping out of their sockets. Only one of the eyes has an eyeball, or if interpreted the other way, only one of the breasts has a nipple. The third panel has a pair of hands and a flower. The three panels are visually disjointed yet related. There is an upward diagonal thrust that serves as a unifying element counterbalanced with the two flowers that create an opposing diagonal.

Another Freer painting done on old cabinets repeats many of the same elements: the flowers, the body parts, the upside-down birdlike creature, and the dangling breasts (in this case sans nipple). Plus, it has the additional element of a train engine that is drawn more realistically and in much more detail than any of the other images. Normally such a tightly controlled drawing amidst so much sketchy drawing would seem out of place, but this train engine has just enough of a sketchy quality to fit in.

Elliott’s Adaptation is a mixed-media painting that is seen hanging from the ceiling in a triangular configuration with line drawings in dark red and a runny white on a blue background and odd little objects and figures painted in a totally different manner that look like 3-D objects standing in front of the painting and interacting with it. Including a baby (or doll) in diapers that appears to be painting the painting and a squirt bottle with a trompe l’oeil cast shadow. The baby does not fit well within the style of the painting, but the bottle does. I think if the three panels were hung side-by-side at eye level it would be a better work.

This is a show that is well worth seeing, featuring artists who might become the next big names in the area.

[Gallery Madera, through May 31, 2210 Court A, Tacoma, 253.381.0039]