Saturday, May 30, 2009

OMG Where’s my Volcano

OMG Where’s my Volcano?! I always pick up the latest copy of the Weekly Volcano at (pick one - coffee shop, bar, art gallery, other) and suddenly it’s gone. Where oh where can my Volcano be?

The Weekly Volcano is THE alternative weekly for Tacoma and the South Sound. It’s your best source for unflinching news and opinion, and for arts and entertainment news and reviews. But starting June 4 your favorite weekly is going into hiding. You might have a hard time finding it. But rest assured, it hasn’t gone away; it’s hiding inside the Ranger.

The Ranger? Do you mean the military paper? How can that be? That would be like distributing the Village Voice as in insert in the Wall Street Journal — or worse yet, inside of Stars and Stripes.

Sadly, the Weekly Volcano is being forced to take this step in order to save money during the recession. Some readers may recall that the Weekly Volcano started out as an insert in the Ranger. Other than hiding inside the Ranger, there will be no noticeable changes to the Volcano, or so we’ve been assured by editor extraordinaire Matt Driscoll. So dear friends, I urge you to look for the Ranger beginning June 4. Inside you will find your favorite weekly newspaper with all the great stuff you’ve come to expect — including my Visual Edge art review column.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Re-furniture Recovery

The many talents of Steve Lawler

The Weekly Volcano, May 28, 2009
pictured: installation view of gallery, photo courtesy Gallery Madera

Woodworker Steve Lawler is a man of many talents. His handcrafted furniture — or as he calls it, “re-Furniture” — is both beautiful and functional, and it is made from reclaimed fir and scrap plywood collected from local cabinet and furniture shops.

But that’s just one small part of his many talents. As seen in his latest show, Recover, at Gallery Madera, he is also a painter, photographer, sculptor and collage artist. “My work represents my passion for two things: First, reusing what others have found to be useless and second, creating something in a way that nobody has thought of before,” Lawler says.

Particularly attractive in his current show at Madera are groupings of chairs, coffee tables and lamps made of recycled wood and featuring strips of variously patterned wood. His table tops tend to be made from pieces of unequal length, which create jagged and slightly off-square shapes. Typically two sides of his tables with be jagged (offset strips of wood of different lengths), and the opposing sides or ends will be straight. One table top made from triangular-shapes strips looks like a staircase when looked down upon from above, an effect that is more noticeable in the photograph on the gallery’s Web site than in person.

His lamps and lamp shades employ combinations of collage and woodwork in unique modernist-classical styles that are sleek, simple and striking. One of my favorite lamps in this show has an angular stand with a map of Texas collaged on it.

His collages combine modern architectonic forms, squares and circles with organic shapes on flat surfaces with loosely brushed, layered and scraped surfaces and often some strange little bit of a figure or face or recognizable object that lends the mostly abstract collages a funky or humorous quality. These collages — especially the larger ones — remind me very much of work by Tom Anderson, whose work can be seen at Robert Daniel Gallery and in Anderson’s studio in downtown Olympia. There are two very attractive collages of this type on the back wall of Gallery Madera with rich reddish-brown colors and strange floating amoeba-like shapes in bright tones of red, blue and yellow that glow as if lighted from within.

His found wood sculptures are mostly small and more rugged looking than his furniture or his collages, often made from rusted metal and old wood, and although some of them (particularly the abstracts) are excellent, some of them are gimmicky with trite imagery — a cruxifix with a bent wire Jesus being one example of imagery that is just too corny. Another one with a little G.I. Joe figure hanging from an abstract tower-like form is similarly gimmicky, but I liked it nevertheless.

Likewise, his acrylic portraits of Mexican men, women and children are a little too common looking, but nicely done; and the people look like real people you could get to know and like, not some generalized ethnic types.
Overall it’s a very nice show.

[Gallery Madera, Steve Lawler’s Recovery, through June 6, 2210 Court A, Tacoma, 253.572.1218]

Children’s tale as sweet as a pot of honey

Olympia Family Theater's "Winnie the Pooh"

The Olympian, The News Tribune
pictured: Martin “Boojie” Waldron and Joel Christopher
photo by Kathy Strauss

How can you not love Winnie the Pooh? He’s cute, cuddly, and all he wants is honey – lots and lots of honey.

Olympia Family Theater is putting on the children’s play “Winnie the Pooh” in the black box theater at the Kenneth J. Minnaert Center for the Arts at South Puget Sound Community College. The play, based on the popular children’s stories by A. A. Milne, was written by Kristin Sergel. The production is directed by Jen Ryle and stars Martin “Boojie” Waldron as Pooh, Sigal Rose Gerson Kadden as Piglet, Raychel A. Wagner as Eeyore, Ted Ryle as Owl, Heather Matthews as Rabbit, Kim Holm as Kanga, Amanda Christopher as Roo, and Joel Christopher as Christopher Robin. A chorus of cute unnamed animals (which are probably meant to be bunny rabbits based on their long ears and the fact that they do the bunny hop) is made up of Maya Jolley, Dominick McClure, Emily Charles and Kathline McClure.

I list the entire cast for two reasons: first because each cast member deserves credit for a job well done, and second to point out the nature of Olympia Family Theater. This is not a children’s theater, meaning a theater company made up mostly of children and amateur actors, but rather it is a troupe of professional-level actors dedicated to entertaining children, much like Tacoma Children’s Musical Theater, both of which are patterned after Seattle Children’s Theater. Their plays are crafted to appeal to children, usually with some playful audience participation, but presented by skilled and seasoned actors.

The set for “Pooh” was designed by Jon Tallman and includes a large and fanciful tree house or cave (it’s hard to tell exactly which), flat sideways trees suspended by wires, and simple but effective lighting, also by Tallman.

The story is about what happens when the tranquility of the Hundred Acre Woods is disrupted by the arrival of a new creature, the frightening Kanga, played with great haughtiness by Kim Holm, and her child, Roo. What’s so scary about Kanga is that she is an overly motherly mother who is obsessed with cleanliness. She wants to give everybody a bath. And when her charges say something that’s not nice, she washes their mouths out with soap.

Everyone panics when they hear that Kanga is coming. None of them has ever had a bath of course, and the thought of it is quite frightening. Owl wants to call a meeting and insists that everything must be done according to standard procedures (a case of humor geared at children with underlying satire aimed at the parents in attendance). Eeyore, who is perpetually depressed, just accepts that everything is going to be terrible anyway, and all Pooh can think about is getting his paws on some honey.

Thirteen-year-old Joel Christopher underplays emotion in Pooh’s human friend Christopher Robin. Throughout much of the play he is cool and calm, but his character gets afraid at one point, and he portrays fear convincingly.

Waldron is thoroughly charming as Pooh. When he expresses his love of honey, he reminds me of Homer Simpson’s famous “mmmmm.”

Ryle and Holm are the most animated of all the actors as Owl and Kanga, respectively. And Kadden is loveable as the innocent and sweet Piglet. But my favorite actor in this production has to be Wagner as Eeyore. Seldom have I seen an actor portray dejection and depression so comically. She slumps, she practically drags her knuckles on the floor, she moans and turns her eyes heavenward, and I found myself looking forward to each time she would react with such a flat and funny expression.

All-in-all “Winnie the Pooh” is an endearing play with nothing more frightening than an overzealous mother forcing a kid to take a bath. And it’s short enough that there’s little chance of children getting antsy. Other than one crying baby, the children there on the day I attended had a wonderful time.

Warning for parents who may not want their children to have sweets: Candy is given out to the audience.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 4 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday through June 14
WHERE: South Puget Sound Community College Center for the Arts, 2011 Mottman Road S.W., Olympia
TICKETS: $15 adult; $12 seniors; $10 ages 13-18; $8 for 12 and younger; tickets at or at the door; May 28 is Thrifty Thursday – all tickets $5 at the door

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Strange thoughts about Mary Winters

I’ve been trying to find passages from The Wives of Marty Winters for my reading at Orcas. It’s harder than I thought it would be because I can’t seem to find more than three paragraphs in a row that aren’t sprinkled with curse words. Wow! I didn’t realize I cursed so much. No wonder Uncle Arthur said what he said about the language.

Depending on the audience, I guess that wouldn’t matter. George Carlin and Richard Pryor never hesitated to use that kind of language. But they’re dead, and I have this unexplainable dread of offending people. It comes from my upbringing as a Southern Gentleman.

Another problem with searching for a passage to read is that I keep wanted to rewrite as I read. I can never read things I’ve written without wanting to edit them. I start reading a section and say to myself, “Hey, that’s pretty good,” and then I’m suddenly brought to a halt by a sentence I wish I’d written differently and think, “Oh my god, people are going to read that and think I’m an idiot.”

Which brings up something that I probably shouldn’t say if I want to promote my reading, but the truth is I wish I could read from one of my other books. My earlier books are much better than this one. (And the newest one coming out this summer is by far my best ever.) Still, Marty is not half bad. Two or three people who read it said it made them cry, and at least one person said he laughed out loud at the farting hippie scene. Maybe I’ll read that part (no sound effects). Or maybe the scene with the acid trip in Nashville circa 1970 or the Pride festival in Olympia. Whatever scenes I choose to read, I’ll try my best to be entertaining.

Remember, the reading is at 7 p.m., June 10 at Orca Books in Olympia. I hope to see you there.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Definitions of Space

I will have a new show of my paintings this summer at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in Seattle. It will be a four-person group show with painters C.J. Swanson, David N. Goldberg and Patrice Tullai. The show opens July 8 and runs through September 24. There will be an opening reception, but the date for the reception has not been set. I'll post more information as details are worked out. Meantime, I invite you to visit the Definitions of Space website.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Play starts slow, builds to elegant display of talent

"A Little Night Music" at Capital Playhouse
reviewed for The Olympian, The News Tribune

pictured, foreground left to right: Jamie Cooper, Jeff Kingsbury, Erica Penn, Bruce Haasl, Sara Flotree

“A Little Night Music” is one of those plays you either love or hate – or gradually learn to love. Ardent Sondheim fans tell me it’s their favorite of his plays. A post-opening-night press release bragged about a “weekend of full houses and rip-roaring applause!” But there were quite a few empty seats the night I saw it, and the audience was slow to warm to it. It starts off slowly and a little too ponderously, and the music is difficult to appreciate. It’s not easy listening and it’s not rock ’n’ roll. It’s more classical, lush and romantic, and nearly all set in waltz time, which is fitting to its late-19th-century Swedish setting.

It’s the story of Fredrik Egerman (Jeff Kingsbury), a successful, middle-aged lawyer married to 18-year-old Anne (Erica Penn). Still a virgin 11 months into their marriage, Anne vows that she will give in to her husband “soon.” Significantly, time is ambiguous throughout the play. It is not quite night but almost, though the constant backdrop features a gigantic harvest moon behind moveable scrims of birch trees seen by moonlight. And featured songs constantly refer to time: “Now,” “Later,” and the aforementioned “Soon.”

Frustrated with his sexless marriage, Fredrik has a brief affair with a lover from days gone by, the beautiful actress, Desiree Armfeldt (Jennie May Donnell). The well-crafted plot becomes a smorgasbord of secret trysts and jealousies involving Desiree’s other lover, the haughty and dangerous Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Bruce Haasl); the count’s wife, Charlotte (Sara Flotree); Fredrik’s son, Henrik (Jamie Cooper), who is morally conflicted and in love with his stepmother; and the deliciously promiscuous maid, Petra (Heidi Fredericks), who has her sights set on Henrik.

The simple set designed by Bruce Haasl creates the perfect air of mystery and romance. The orchestra lead by Troy Fisher provides elegant music for an ensemble of beautiful voices.

The chemistry between Kingsbury and Donnell is undeniable, and they both fit comfortably in their roles. Kingsbury, known for largely dramatic roles, plays Fredrik without dramatic flourishes, and Donnell is natural and unaffected. Her smile is worth the price of admission.

Penn combines innocence and sexuality to paint a wonderful portrait of Fredrik’s wife, Anne, and she has a strong, clear voice.

Cooper, just off his terrific turn as Jesus in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” shows his acting range and, if anything, his voice shines even more here than it did in “Superstar.”

Also deserving of special note is Mary Petzold, a longtime singer with the Seattle Opera and a performer on numerous Seattle musical theater stages, who lends her considerable talents to the role of Madame Armfeldt, Desiree’s wise, no-nonsense mother. She is simply grand.

Outstanding musical performances come from the ever-popular “Send in the Clowns,” the great ensemble work on “A Weekend in the Country,” and the one breakout, up-tempo tune, Petra’s boisterous and seductive “The Miller’s Son.”

This is not frothy entertainment. It is a fine play for sophisticated adult audiences.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, through May 30
WHERE: Capital Playhouse, 612 East Fourth Ave, Olympia
TICKETS: $29-$35 for adults, $23-$29 for seniors and youth 16 and under
INFORMATION: 360-943-2744,

Phantasm Chasm

Shannon Eakins and Marc Dombrosky at Fulcrum

published in the Weekly Volcano, May 21, 2009
pictured: "Ghost Log," Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen created from a Presto-Log, photo courtesy Shannon Eakins and Marc Dombrosky

Eakins and Dombrosky are installation/conceptual artists. Their work tends to be more experiential and thought provoking than visual, yet some of the works in Phantasm Chasm at Fulcrum are visually intriguing, and some are downright beautiful to look at.

Each piece has its story, and the more you know about the stories the more thoroughly you can appreciate the work. I’ve often said that a work of art should not have to depend on wall text or explanation but should stand on its own as a visual entity and any irony or message or story should be self-evident. In this show the works do stand on their own visually, if not narratively, but explanations are needed for full understanding. So be sure to read the wall texts and ask gallery workers for more information.

The following statement of purpose also helps: “Phantasm Chasm uneasily unites some of the failed opportunities, tragic events, and myths in Tacoma’s past.”

Tacoma’s seedier history is documented in strange and inventive ways. But also some of the nicer things about T-town.

The centerpiece of the front gallery is a bullet-shot portrait of John Allen Muhammed, the Beltway Sniper who with his teenage partner, Lee Boyed Malvo, murdered 10 people near our nation’s capital. The gun Malvo used was stolen from Bulls Eye in Tacoma, and Eakins shot this portrait full of holes at the Bulls Eye target range with the same model gun. It is a stark image made more powerful by knowing the story and imagining what emotions Eakins might have felt while shooting that gun.

Less dramatic but equally inventive is a portrait of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen modeled after his sculpted portrait in Wright Park. The interesting twist is that this sculpted bust is made from a Presto-Log, and I was told that there was a connection between Ibsen and the invention of the Presto-Log; although in my brief online research I was unable to find any connection. Still, it’s a very interesting sculpture. I particularly like that the fiber shavings are left where they fell around the base, creating the impression that the bust was just finished.

A group of 14 embroidered fish in glass goblets called "Beautiful Males" is delicate and quite beautiful. Each of the 14 goblets is hand blown by a different local glass artists. Artists represented include Oliver Dorris, owner of Fulcrum Gallery, plus Eakins, Dombroski and others.

Also done in collaboration with another artist is a group of works collectively called "Weeds of Concern," oddly shaped terrariums made by glass artist Ellen Ito and filled with noxious weeks. The terraiums are shaped like goards or some kind of horn and the earth and grasses inside are attractive, but apparently deadly.

Another piece I really enjoyed was an embossed print of a manhole cover made by placing heavy paper over an actual manhole and driving over it with a steamroller. It was done as part of the Wayzgoose event at Kings Books, so in addition to being a nice work of art, it documents a Tacoma event.

Also on display are a group of popular Tacoma patches, which you can buy for a mere $15 each. Some of them are already sold out, but they’ll take backorders and make more.

[Fulcrum Gallery, through May 31, noon to 6 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and by appointment, 1308 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma, 253.250.0520]

Friday, May 15, 2009

Reading at Orca

A scene at Seattle Pride from my latest novel The Wives of Marty Winters:

... small clouds moving quickly overhead in a mostly blue sky, bits of paper flying in the wind, people moving about, semaphore flashes of bright sunlight across the assembled crowd. For just a moment Marty had begun to let the flashing light lull him into a reverie, remembering a sparkling disco ball and a beautiful young girl at a high school dance — not Selena, but Maria, his first wife. All day he had been haunted by memories from long ago. Where they had come from, he had no idea. This one came and went as quickly as the flash of a strobe.

Then he saw that other more immediate and dangerous flash of light. For a glimmer of time less than a full second it was a meaningless flash of light, and then he realized that it was light reflected off the barrel a gun. He shouted “Gun!” and rushed toward the stage. At the same instant, he saw Chloe go flying like some kind of circus performer, her ridiculous but beautiful rainbow wig and fiery cape streaming behind her, trying with all her might to put her own body between Selena and the gunman, willing, if she only could, to take the bullet for her friend.

The brief passage above is from the opening chapter of my novel, The Wives of Marty Winters. June 10 at 7 p.m. I will do a reading and book signing at Orca Books in Olympia. I will send out further information as we get closer to the event.

Child actors stand out in story of 1900s orphans

published in The News Tribune, May 15, 2009

Tacoma Little Theatre is producing the Aurand Harris play “The Orphan Train” with three performances only this weekend at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

I attended a pre-tech rehearsal, no lights or sets, minus the planned projections and with only one actor in costume. Even that bare-bones performance was mesmerizing.

There are 10 child and youth actors and seven adults, all under the capable direction of Nancy Wilkinson, and I was impressed at what a terrific job of acting the youths turned in – and not just because of their youth, but because of their ability to act.

Set in 1914, the play is based on actual stories of the “orphan trains” that ran from New York to the Midwest beginning in the first decade of the 20th century. In 1852 the Rev. Charles Loring Brace came up with the idea of gathering children off the streets and the overcrowded orphanages in the slums of New York and taking them to farm country out west where they could be adopted into families. In Harris’ play nine stories are told as representative of those of the thousands of orphans who rode the trains.

The orphans sit on boxes in a choreographed frozen dance, moving only during scene changes as one by one they step forward and tell their stories, alternating between acting and talking directly to the audience.

The first story is that of Mary (Kelty Pierce) who is taken in by Mrs. Herndon (Sandi Brown, who also plays an unnamed woman in another scene). Pierce plays Mary as a sweet, frightened young girl who immediately elicits sympathy from the audience. Mrs. Herndon is an abusive woman who wants Mary as a slave child. She treats her little better than chattel. I thought Brown overplayed this nasty woman and that she came across as laughable caricature, which I did not think was a good interpretation.

Among the more notable actors was Alex Newman for her ability to play two very different characters. First she plays a street urchin who pretends to be a boy as her only way to survive, and we see her change from a hardcore street kid to a soft and tender young woman. In her other role she is another streetwise kid, this time a girl whose survival technique involves flaunting her sexiness. Again she changes from hard to sweet, but more slowly this time. You can see that it’s going to be difficult for her to learn how to behave in polite society. This is excellent acting. The couple who adopt her, James (Colton Finch) and Emily (Rachael Boyer), are also convincing in their roles.

Other noteworthy performances come from Mason Wilkerson as Raymond, who has been crippled from birth, or as long as he can remember, and from Kelsey Harrison as Pegeen, who is adopted by a loving and proudly eccentric old man (Curtis Beech); she is loved in her new home but tormented at her school because she’s Irish.

Since I don’t have space to write about all of the actors, I would at least like to name them. Those not already mentioned are: Josh Bode, Ryan Martin, Mike McGrath, Harrison Deatherage, Courtney Rainer, Amy Nygard, Kerry Bringman, Bob Yount, Jefri Peters, Naara Toole and Tori Dunlap.

Since the plight of many of the orphans was harsh and sad, this play has the potential of being maudlin or overly dramatic, but that potential pitfall is prevented by an honest and simple script, and by competent direction and acting. Finally, these are not all sad stories; most are uplifting.

WHEN: 8 p.m. today and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N I St., Tacoma
INFORMATION: 253-272-2281,

Thursday, May 14, 2009


Nicholas Nyland’s Objects of the Mind

published in the Weekly Volcano, May 14, 2009
pictured: untitlled watercolor by Nicholas Nyland

“When asked to describe my work, I usually answer, ‘Abstract,’“ says Nicholas Nyland. “Unfortunately, I’ve found that that answer is a great way to stop a conversation dead in its tracks.”

He’s talking about what he calls “Abstraction’s dumbness,” which he confesses is why he’s drawn to it.

Nyland’s show at mineral consists of one ambitious three-dimensional work and about a dozen smaller and more modest wall hanging paintings and sculptures. The more ambitious piece is a painted papier-mâché sculpture called "Crucible." It is a fire pit, rough and rock-like, it sits on the floor and stands about three feet high and equal distance in diameter. It is painted in blobs of various colors on the outside and in brilliant blobs of fuchsia and yellow on a stark white surface inside. The interior glows like fire, and Nyland says people automatically approach it and extend their hands as if warming them over a fire pit. I know I did. It’s almost impossible to resist.

The smaller works consists of watercolors, some on paper and some on canvas; some glazed ceramic works and one hanging sculpture made of something called paper clay, which I have never heard of. They are all abstract, and the artist’s primary consideration seems to be displacement in forms in space. The best of these, to my way of thinking, are delicate little watercolors with multicolored bands around the edges and open white space in the middle. The colors are brilliant and thin. The wet media is applied loosely and allowed to soak into the paper.

Some of his works on paper are done on ripped paper that is hung from the wall from ropes or chains. One of the most intriguing of these is "Rope of Eight Paintings" — which, as the title implies, is a group of eight little watercolor paintings on torn paper; in this case hung from moose antlers. Personally, I think it would have been much more effective if they had been dangled in front of the blank wall. I think the antlers conflict with the form and color of the paintings and destroy the integrity of the piece.

Most of Nyland’s work are simple and unpretentious, and very pleasant to the eye.

After seeing this show I stopped by Grand Impromptu Gallery to see their latest group show, "Feels Like Home," featuring Peter Serko, photographer, with guest artist Margo Macdonald, tapestry artist. This is a large show with a range of work tastefully displayed — paintings, photographs, sculpture, taspestry and more. Also included are works by Grand Impromptu’s member artists Bill Colby, Heather Cornelius, Becky Frehse, Bea Geller, Mirka Hokkanen, Faith Hagenhofer, Dorothy McCuistion, LeeAnn Seaburg Perry and Shirley Benton.

Both shows are enjoyable.

[mineral, Objects of the Mind, noon-5 p.m., Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and by appointment, 301 Puyallup Ave., Tacoma, 253.250.7745,]

[Grand Impromptu, Feels Like Home, 4-8 p.m. Thursday, noon-8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 2-6 p.m. Sunday, through May 30, 608 South Fawcett., Tacoma, 253.572,9232,]

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

New painting

I don't paint much any more. People who follow my blog and website may have noticed that. I used to paint almost all day every day. Now I go for months on end without touching paint to canvas. My latest painting is one I've been half-heartedly fiddling around with for a year or more. I just never could seem to get it right and never could get excited about it. Then I started simplifying the background and something sparked, and in a couple of hours spread out over two days I finished it. And I think it's a really good painting. I thought the figure looked like a pit bull. My friend Michael said it looked like a lion. I decided that, if so, it's a female lion. For no particular reason other than I like the sound of lioness better than lion. So that's the title I gave it.

Pictured: "Lioness," oil on canvas, 31" x 24", May 2009

BTW, people who subscribe to the PFLAG-Olympia blog may have been surprised to find this posting in their in-boxes. Sorry, I posted it on the wrong blog.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Big Voice in Olympia

Steve Schalchlin’s benefit concert for PFLAG-Olympia was the most exhilarating night of musical entertainment I can remember — perhaps ever. And as a theater critic who sees plays 52 weeks a year at minimum, a good half of those musicals, that’s saying a lot.

The performance took place at Olympia’s Capital Playhouse. A grand piano, drum set and three stools fronted by music stands were set in front of the set for the currently running musical, “A Little Night Music” - scrims with birch trees and a gigantic golden moon.

Schalchlin stepped out into the spotlight, a striking figure, tall and rail thin with drawn cheeks and close-cropped gray hair, his classically handsome face now showing signs of his long battle with AIDS. He sat down at the piano and launched into a rousing, gospel-inspired anthem, “I Want to Make Music.” The audience burst into applause, and Schalchlin said, “That was the first song I ever wrote,” thus setting the mood for the night.

For the next two hours he told very personal stories in song and spoken word, effortlessly and without affectation, going back and forth between singing and talking to the audience, the music a balance between ballads and upbeat rock and jazz. He talked and sang about growing up as the son of a Missionary Baptist preacher in Arkansas and Texas, “The Preacher and the Nurse;” about the tender care of loved ones when he was hospitalized, “Connected” and “Going It Alone;” the horror and sadness of attending an AIDS support group. “The Group;” and his hilarious song about the side effects of the medications that keep him from dying, “Friendly Fire,” done as a parody of military march songs (“from the halls of pharmaceuticals to the shores of remedy” sung to the tune of “The Halls of Montezuma”).

All of those songs are from his award-winning musical “The Last Session.”

From there he went into more personal stories of a slightly different sort taken from the second musical co-written with his partner, Jim Brochu, “The Big Voice: God or Merman” (both plays with lyrics and music by Schalchlin and book by Brochu). These songs dealt mostly with growing up gay and religious.

The second act featured songs from his peace cantata, “New World Waking,” which premiered this past December at Davies Hall in San Francisco performed by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Choir. This suite of songs expressed hope for world peace, told personal stories of people who have been persecuted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and included asking “Where is God?” in a song about a god who seems to have taken “a small vacation” while allowing a deadly virus to get in a baby’s blood.

Schalchlin’s songs are powerful, personal, uplifting, and often perhaps unexpectedly humorous. His church music background shows in the big chords and driving rhythms of his piano playing. He sings with passion and energy, and connects with the audience as if personally talking to each and every person.

Backing him on drums was Chuck Oldright and a chorus made up of Jeff Kingsbury, Josh Anderson and a special guest from the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus, David Peterson. They had practically no time to rehearse or learn the songs so they were winging it throughout. Oldright, who had never played any of these songs, was able to anticipate complex rhythm changes. His drumming added immeasurably to the success of the performance. The three backup singers not only kept up with complicated lyrics and rhythms, but improvised around Schalchlin’s barbs and quips. When during the song, “The Closet,” Schalchlin sang a line about crossing his legs in a manly manner, Kingsbury and Anderson crossed their legs in unison at an exact timely moment that was improvised on the spot. And Kingsbury, the founder and artistic director of Capital Playhouse quipped in his best Paul Lyndish manner, “I don’t do backup,” reminding me of the comical scrap between two band members in “The Last Session.”

I’d like to finish with two personal notes. First, this was an almost completely impromptu performance organized by a small town PFLAG chapter. With proper promotion from national headquarters it could become a national tour, and I certainly encourage people in various chapters and at the national level to think about that. Secondly, I must include the disclaimer that I am not an impartial critic. My wife and I are longtime friends of Steve Schalchlin, and we helped organize the concert.

Friday, May 8, 2009

‘Heaven’ proves predictable but utterly charming

Published in The News Tribune and The Olympian
Pictured, top, Matt Garry as Tony, Hannah Baker as Bette, Scott Benson as Joe and Emily Tuomey as Julia. Photo by Toni Holm.
bottom, left to right: Corey Moore as Max, Dave Marsh as Lefty and Scott Benson as Joe;

Olympia Little Theatre’s production of “Heaven Can Wait” is funny and deeply satisfying despite being mawkish and predictable. Director Toni Murray acknowledges in a program note that the story is dated, old fashioned and highly improbable, but asks audiences to “set aside your cynicism and consider the idea that there are more Joe Pendletons than there are Jonathon Farnsworths -- even today.”

Pendleton (Scott Benson) is boxer who is snatched from a fiery death a moment too soon by an over-eager freshman angel, Messenger 7013 (Katy Shockman) and delivered to heaven before his time. To correct the messenger’s mistake, Pendleton, a not-too-bright palooka with a heart of gold, is given new life on earth in Farnsworth’s body. Farnsworth is an evil, greedy multi-millionaire whose wife, Julia (Emily Tuomey) and her lover, Tony (Matt Garry) have just attempted to murder by drugging and drowning him in the bathtub.

The principle actors in this show are outstanding: Benson, Shockman, Lynne Andreasen as Miss Jordan and Corey Moore as Joe’s manager, Max Levene.

Benson and Moore are both type cast in that their physical appearances fit the characters they play. Benson is muscular enough to play a boxer who brags about being “in the pink” and ruggedly handsome enough to be the hero in a romantic comedy. He plays Joe Pendleton with great energy and speaks in a manner that, while not being a precise accent, sounds like mugs from the Bronx that have shown up in countless movies. He truly becomes a likeable pugilist.

Stocky and unkempt with a funny hat and a lumbering walk, Moore is absolutely believable as a stumblebum fight manager about five cards shy of a full deck. He is by far the funniest character in the show. I’ve seen Moore in a number of OLT shows, most noticeably “The Foreigner,” “The Gazebo” and “Moonlight and Magnolias,” and this is by far the best performance I’ve seen from him.

Shockman comes across as flustered, perturbed and terribly confused as the bumbling angel who can’t seem to do anything right. As implausible as her character may be, I couldn’t help but root for her.

Andreasen deserves special accolades for a job well done as the lead angel. She is the assistant director on this production and was called upon to fill in for the original actor cast in the major role of Miss Jordan a week before opening night. The audience was notified before the play started that she was still on book. She hid it well. Her character logically carried a clipboard with notes she could refer to, so it was impossible to tell that she was reading lines, and she never missed one or slipped out of character.

Actors in some of the supporting roles came across as reciting lines without enough expression, and two of them -- Eric Mark as Inspector Williams and Dave Marsh as Lefty -- shouted some of their lines too loudly.

The set by scenic designer Kathy Gilliam is very well done. Her furnishing choices were excellent, especially the lion sculptures. Also outstanding were some of the costume choices, which were everyday clothes but chosen for variety and appropriateness of style, particularly those worn by the passengers being herded to heaven.

It should be noted that there have been many versions of this Harry Segall play on stage and in film. It has appeared under a variety of titles and Joe Pendleton has been a boxer, a football player, and even a comedian (played by Chris Rock). And in most versions the lead angel was Mr. Jordan, not Miss Jordan.

This version sticks to Segall’s original script and is wonderfully entertaining in spite of the sentimentality and a touching final scene that you see coming a mile away.

WHEN: 7:55 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 15 p.m. Sunday through May 17
WHERE: Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave., NE, Olympia
TICKETS: $10-$12, available at Yenney Music Co. on Harrison Ave (360-943-7500) or on-line at
INFORMATION: 253-272-2281,

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Frasca and Gumaelius

Birds of a feather

Published in The Weekly Volcano, May 7, 2009
Pictured: "After Raphael II" pastel on monoprint by Marilyn Frasca

The current show at Childhood’s End Gallery is one of the better shows they’ve had in a long time. Featured artists are Robin and John Gumaelius, ceramic and mixed media, and Marilyn Frasca, pastel on monotype.

Frasca’s drawings are wonderful. They picture fantasy people (some borrowed from Renaissance and medieval art) and animals (including some human-animal hybrids) on beautifully textured surfaces. Frasca works with a delicate balance of opposing forces and objects or figures placed in odd relations to her backgrounds. And I use the term “background” loosely because ground and sky are seldom behind the figures; they are brought forward in the best modernistic tradition to share equal weight and importance with the figures.

"Expert Guide" pictures a boy with donkey ears riding an ostrich. The ostrich’s body is the rich black of charcoal. Its jutting wing reflects the shape of the boy’s ear, which reflects the shape of a tree on a hilltop behind him. The figures are fascinating because of their inventiveness. Do they represent some mythological story, or are they figments of the artist’s imagination? Either way they are fun to contemplate, and the shapes seen as pure abstraction represent masterful placement and balance.

"Lovers, Once," a title with mysterious implications, is notable for the four stone-like forms in the background, which are roughly textured and look like concrete blocks floating in a black abyss.

Another drawing depicts a seated gorilla, looking sad and lost in front of a very busy gray background that looks something like the rough face of a mountain and simultaneously like a stormy sky. In these and many other drawings, texture is of overriding importance.

"Rock Faces" is a series of 10 tiny drawings done by lightly sanding and drawing into Polaroid photographs of textured surfaces in tones of burnt sienna and burnt orange.

Also of interest are two drawings in homage to the Renaissance artist Raphael, "After Raphael I" and "After Raphael II." The first of these pictures a woman floating in air with flowing gowns, perhaps an angel from one of Raphael’s religious paintings. Next to her is a monolithic dark triangle. The stark contrast between Renaissance figure and modernist abstraction is graphically powerful. The second pictures a single figure taken from one of approximately 50 figures in Raphael’s large painting, "The School of Athens." The placement of the figure makes it look like a collage, and the linear perspective has been slightly reversed to flatten the figure in a manner reminiscent of Cezanne (Google Raphael School of Athens to compare the two).

The Gumaelius ceramics fit well as three-dimensional contrasts with Frasca’s two-dimensional drawings. Like Frasca, their works are filled with fantasy creatures and human-animal hybrids. But whereas Frasca’s drawings are serious in intent and lofty in aspiration, the husband-and-wife team of John and Robin Gumaelius are lighthearted and frivolous. Their ceramic sculptures are of people with bird heads or people with birds perched on their heads or birds and other creatures with people heads. They are comical, bizarre and highly inventive; and they are technically laudable because of the intricacy of forms, the monumental size of some of them, and the very complex decorative glazes (or painted surfaces, I can’t tell which). I hesitate to call these art. They lack the awe-inspiring or transformative quality of great art. But they are great crafts objects. Gumaelius ceramics must make fabulous conversation starters in the homes of those who can afford them.

[Childhood’s End Gallery, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, through May 31, 222 Fourth Ave. W, Olympia, 360.943.3724]

Friday, May 1, 2009

Playhouse’s ‘Producers’ charms with wit, timing

“The Producers” at Tacoma Musical Playhouse is fabulous.

For The News Tribune
pictured, top, left to right: Frank Kohel as Max Bialystock, Jenny McMurry as Ulla and Scott Polovitch-Davis as Leo Bloom; bottom, Bialystock and Bloom. Photos by Kat Dollarhide

The incomparable Mel Brooks took Broadway by storm in 2001 when he adapted his own 1968 movie of the same name for the stage and garnered an incredible, record-breaking 12 Tony Awards (and followed up by making a new movie of the play of the movie -- does that sound like a bit out of a Mel Brooks film, say for instance the climax of “Blazing Saddles”?).

“The Producers” is a self-proclaimed equal opportunity offender that lampoons Broadway musicals and makes fun of everyone -- especially Jews, Nazis and homosexuals. It’s the ideal example of how to be offensive without truly offending anyone. Brooks does it by skewering stereotypes, overdoing everything, and doing it all with an affectionate spirit. The director and cast at Tacoma Musical Playhouse obviously understand the spirit of Brooks’ humor.

The storyline is absurdly simple and simply absurd. Max Bialystock (Frank Kohel) and Leo Bloom (Scott Polovitch-Davis) attempt to bilk the investors of their Broadway musical by producing a gigantic flop and pocketing the millions of dollars Bialystock has wheedled out of little old ladies by seducing them. They attempt to produce the worst and most offensive play imaginable, and it turns out to be a huge hit.

From the opening strains of the overture by Jeff Stvrtecky’s orchestra, which begins with the hauntingly lyrical “Springtime for Hitler,” it is clear that this hummable and danceable music would be great even if the lyrics were not so funny. Other great songs include the almost touching “I Wanna Be A Producer,” sung beautifully by Polovitch-Davis in an accounting firm; the hilarious “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop” sung by growly-voiced Chris Serface as the insane Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind; and the indescribably campy “Keep It Gay” by Gregory Conn as the prancing drag queen Roger DeBris with a chorus line led by John Huddlestun as Carmen Ghia. (Note: I didn't mention this is the print version but I think people should take particular note of Huddlesun. He's one of those actors who keep showing up in ensemble casts, usually in unnamed roles, but who always manages to stand out. I think he's going to be a star.)

The casting is outstanding, and by this I mean that not only are all of the primary characters played by accomplished singers and actors, but they are well matched to their characters in terms of physical appearance. Serface, for instance, is a big man with a commanding voice who looks comically frightening as the nasty Nazi, and Polovitch-Davis has moves that remind me somewhat of Pee Wee Herman and somewhat of a young Jerry Lewis, making him the ideal choice for the nerdy and nervous Bloom. He and Kohel are well matched (or more accurately beautifully mismatched) as the unlikely partners. Kohel plays Bialystock differently than his predecessors, Zero Mostel and Nathan Lane; his Max is toned down a bit yet still very funny, and he has a terrific voice.

Conn -- whom audiences will fondly remember in a much straighter role (pun intended) as the preacher in “Footloose” -- seems to have been born to the role of Roger DeBris. He’s funny enough in the gay spoof “Keep It Gay,” but when he steps in as a substitute actor to portray Hitler in the “Heil Me” portion of “Springtime for Hitler” he absolutely wows the audience. He’s not only the hammiest of hams, he has an amazing voice.

The other outstanding principal character is the ditzy and sexy Ulla (Jenny McMurry). She puts on a Swedish accent so broad that it is almost impossible to understand a word she says, and she’s a terrific dancer.

The sets are kept fairly simple and consist mostly of scenic backdrops painted by Dori Conklin. The most inventive bit of scenery is the accounting office with the stacks of file cabinets that open up to reveal chorus line dancers. And the pigeons are quite an enjoyable surprise. Most scene changes are handled unobtrusively by having actors sing and dance in front of a curtain while props are moved, thus doing away with the often frustrating distraction of stagehands moving things about between scenes.

Publicity materials for “The Producers” list it as not appropriate for children younger than 12. It is a bawdy show, but not prurient or otherwise objectionable.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through April 5
WHERE: Tacoma Musical Playhouse at The Narrows Theatre, 7116 Sixth Ave.
TICKETS: Adults $25, students/military $23, children 12 and younger $18
INFORMATION: 253-565-6867,