Friday, September 30, 2011

Watch what you ask for

Top: Ryan Holmberg and Gerald B. Browning; 
bottom: Alison Monda and Gerald B. Browning. 
Photos courtesy Harlequin Productions

Review "The Love List"

Harlequin Productions’ “The Love List." is one of the most insanely funny plays I’ve seen in a long time, Jill Carter’s set is outstanding as usual, the script by Norman Foster was witty and inventive, and each member of the three-person cast was phenomenal.

I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises in the story by outlining the plot – and there are plenty of surprises, although once you figure out the basic (crazy) premise, it’s easy to predict things before they happen which is great fun, because it’s so rewarding to be proven right and everything you suspect after the first act does happen, but always with a surprising little twist you didn’t expect. One little twist after another.

"The Love List" offers comedic proof of the truism: be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

Bill (Gerald B. Browning) is a statistical analyst, a profession he admits is about as exciting as “an Amish keg party.” He’s just turned 50 and he’s divorced and lonely. His best buddy, Leon (Ryan Holmberg) is a cad and a womanizer who hates to admit he’s over the hill and no longer attractive to women. For his birthday, Leon signs Bill up for a dating service run by an old gypsy woman, the first step in which is to fill out a “love list” enumerating, in order of importance, the 10 most desirable qualities in a mate. As expected, they have entirely different ideas about what should be on the list, but they at least agree on number four. They keep changing some of the other items, but number four is sacrosanct. Hint: it has something to do with sex.

After Bill finishes filling out the list, Justine (Alison Monda) appears. She’s his dream woman, the woman who loves him unconditionally and has all 10 of the qualities he most desires – and she is the woman who soon turns both Bill and Leon’s lives upside-down.

This show is Browning’s Harlequin debut, and it is the first time I’ve seen him perform, even though he’s done work on area stages ranging from Centerstage in Federal Way to Burien Little Theatre and Seattle’s Second Story Rep and Public Theatre and has appeared in numerous film and television projects. He seems born for this role. He fits the character so well that I’m tempted to say he’s typecast even though I have no idea what he is like outside this role. He plays Bill as a man who is nervous, highly excitable and unsure of himself.

Holmberg is a young actor on a fast track to the top of the heap among area actors. I first saw him in a student production of “Laramie Project: Ten Years Later” at South Puget Sound Community College and was impressed with how easily he played nine different characters, and then I saw him as Bogle in “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” at Olympia Little Theatre, and I was sufficiently impressed to name him “Best Supporting Actor” in my annual Critic’s Choice column. At first – early on in the first act – I was uneasy watching him in this show. His posture, the way he held his arms and hands, and some of his facial expressions looked like a parody of a street gang member, which doesn’t fit with his character. But I soon got used to that and began to buy into him as a man who is arrogant and shallow on the surface but actually quite real and sincere.

The third actor and the only woman in the show – the character who truly makes this show sparkle and zing – is Monda, one of the most talented, versatile, and hardworking actors in the South Sound region. Monda is equally at ease in comedy, drama and musical productions. I’ve seen her as a zombie and a witch, and I’ve seen her rock the house in musical reviews – the recent “I’m Into Something Good” at Centerstage and “Summer in the Sixties” at Harlequin, for which she was another of my Critic’s Choice picks (Most outstanding singer (female) in a musical or music review). In this show she gets to demonstrate the range of her talent as she transposes herself into a variety of radically different personalities. She is sexy, she is demure, she is a weeping mass of insecurity, an almost Stepford-like housewife, and an ambitious career woman. At one point she burst into song in what people who saw her in “Summer in the Sixties” will recognize as self-parody, and she climbs on furniture and dances acrobatically. Watching her is exhausting but fun.

Set changes and transitions are often killers of otherwise good shows, but never at Harlequin – or, for that matter, never at Capital Playhouse. In this respect Olympians are fortunate to have two of the theaters that handle changes beautifully. Credit Jill Carter for both lighting and set design. Making it easy this time, the physical properties never change except for during intermission, and transitions between scenes are taken care of with some subtle but beautiful light changes and recorded music, mostly British rock. What’s not to like about interludes listening to the Beatles and Queen?

If TV sitcoms were half as good as "The Love List" I would never leave the house.

WHEN: Thursdays through Saturdays, 8p.m., Sundays 2 p.m. through Oct. 22
WHERE: State Theater, 202 E. 4th Ave., Olympia
TICKETS: prices vary, call for details
INFORMATION: 360-786-0151;

Note: Harlequin’s production of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” previously scheduled for this time, has been postponed until a later date due to a serious actor injury shortly before rehearsals were to begin. Tickets for Cyrano will be honored for the “The Love List” without making any exchanges. Same seats, same performance.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Parkland is Burning

Art Chantry’s posters at Fulcrum

The Weekly Volcano, September 28, 2011

Fulcrum Gallery is packed with Art Chantry posters. Courtesy Fulcrum Gallery


"Art Chantry is a freaking legend."

That's the opening line from an article in the Portland Mercury.

Chantry practically invented the poster art and album cover art associated with grunge. He's done album covers for Nirvana and Hole, and posters for Hempfest. His art has been shown in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Museum of Modern Art, Seattle Art Museum, the Smithsonian and the Louvre - or so says Wikipedia, and who am I to question such an authority? Right now, under the title Parkland is Burning, you can see a large selection of Chantry's work at Fulcrum Gallery.

Don't let this opportunity pass you by.

Inside Fulcrum there are three rooms loaded with Chantry's posters, representing 40 years of his art. You've probably seen many of these posters before, but probably not all at the same time, and never grouped together like this. Unless you are a fanatical collector I can almost guarantee you'll see many of Chantry's posters in this show that you've never seen before.

The best of this show is the back room, which is usually set aside for performance events at Fulcrum and seldom for displaying art. In this room we see not only some great posters, but the mechanicals the artist used to create them. Here you will see a poster for Chantry's show at the Seattle Art Museum in eight stages, as each color was printed separately. And you'll see four versions of the same poster in black and white with images from various sources - trashy magazines, ads and so forth - collaged onto clear plastic sheets.

Chantry's art is all about finding trashy images that border on offensive, often with implied - but seldom explicit - sexual connotations, and combining them with words in startling and effective ways. But let's face it: when you're advertising rock bands with names like Nashville Pussy you don't have to stretch much to border on offensive.

Yes, many of Chantry's posters are offensive as hell. He's the John Waters of poster art. Yet I can't recall seeing a single image in this show that includes total nudity or explicit sex or violence.

Chantry's posters are rough and gritty. They're designed to shock and titillate. Like, for example, the poster for a rock show featuring The Gits. It's a grainy black and white picture of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, shirtless and arm-in-arm with black bands over their eyes, looking like a gay couple on a muscle beach. Or like what may be the most famous of all Chantry's works, the safe sex poster with a photo of a cop holding a condom and the legend, "I take one everywhere I take my penis!" Both are part of Fulcrum's current Chantry exhibit.

Blank staring eyes are a common theme in Chantry's posters, eyes that are sometimes reduced to a round gleaming light. Very strange and hypnotic, like in the Breeders posters on display that features not only the staring eye but a face with a wonderfully bizarre haircut.

Chantry's colors are lurid; the images and the lettering are crude looking. There is nothing in an Art Chantry poster than can be considered pretty or elegant in any classic sense of those words. But they are art, and provocative, entertaining art at that. Not to mention that seen in a show like this they offer a look at the history of the past half-century, with an emphasis on Northwest culture.
Parkland is Burning

Through Nov. 17, noon to 6 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and by appointment, artist talk Thursday, Oct. 20, 6 p.m., Fulcrum Gallery, 1308 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma, 253.250.0520

Blancmange a la mode

Photo by Kat Dollarhide

“Little Women” at Tacoma Musical Playhouse
Reviewed by Michael Dresdner

With “Little Women, the Broadway Musical,” Tacoma Musical Playhouse has managed to dress up a weak property with some outstanding singing, sporadic doses of good acting, and very respectable production values. Costumes are attractive and convincing, the set is both clever and effective, lighting is unobtrusive, and the music is solid and substantial, though it does wander into the realms of “too loud” and “out of tune” more often than is ideal. 

The musical itself is a meringue; a sweet, light dessert with no real substance. You get two and a half hours of wallowing in very pleasant and unchallenging songs with little in the way of plot, set-up, resolution or much of anything that evokes emotional commitment. It is light fare in its truest sense.

The music consists of songs that sound more alike than different. In fact, they mostly reminded me of the song Belle sings as she breezes through town in the opening of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” This is not great or enduring composing, nor songs that wrench the emotions. On the other hand, it is certainly pleasant enough to listen to. Think of it as an “easy listening” musical. 

I trust you know the basic story; it’s Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Set both in Massachusetts and NYC during the latter half of the Civil War, it is less a progression of events than a window into the lives of women of that period. Told by the eldest, it is the story of the four March sisters coming of age and seeking mates, or in the case of Jo, a career. Surrounding them are their mother, their rich neighbor and his nephew, their wealthy aunt, and their various suitors.

As is often the case, it seemed the cast was chosen for singing ability rather than acting skills. Jo (Brynne Geiszler) is the eldest, a tomboy who’d rather become a writer than a prim lady or wife. She’s the main character of this tale and narrator of the ones she writes. Her singing is beautiful, pitch perfect and strong, backed by expressive and energetic movement. In short, she’s just about perfect on stage, until she stops singing. Unfortunately, her acting lines between songs are often delivered in an almost sing-song cadence, as if she can hardly wait to get back to singing. 

She and the supporting cast are at their absolute best when they sing and act out Jo’s fictional stories, which happens in both the first and second acts. As she belts out the story in song, she acts it out as well. Each of her actions is mimicked simultaneously with flawless coordination by actors portraying her fictional story’s characters. They are seen through a rear lighted scrim cleverly hidden in the center section of the set, an effect that gives the image of watching a dream sequence.

Jo’s other three sisters, Meg (Lindsay Hovey), Beth (Samantha Lobberegt), and Amy (Claire Idstom), follow Jo’s lead by being very accomplished singers with mostly adequate acting chops. There are exceptions, though.

Marmee, their mother (Nancy Hebert) and Professor Bhaer (F. James Raasch) both brought an impressive combination of top notch acting and equally good singing. Their neighbor Laurie (Bryan Gula) was also a better actor than most, though admittedly not as strong a singer. Then, of course, there is the redoubtable Sharry O’Hare, whose skilled acting and powerful stage presence, as always, burst forth at every entrance to create a perfectly crafted Aunt March. 

The set design by Will Abrahamse is particularly clever. Three separate rotating segments with various additions and furniture quickly create a range of simple yet convincing sets. Copious musical support is provided by a 13 member pit orchestra led by musical director Jeff Stvrtecky. Lighting (John Chenault,) including a clever gobo that projects the time period of each scene on a side of the proscenium, was well done and suitably subtle.

Bremerton Community Theatre and Marianne Taylor take credit for costume design, which was mostly very attractive and period appropriate, with a few glitches and anachronisms. Amy’s dresses, for instance, which at first were hand-me-downs, looked appropriately ill fitting, but did not get much better once she got her own stylish designer togs. Jo unzipped a dress on stage, blithely unaware that zippers would not be available for another 30 years.  

All in all, with some less than stellar acting and more than stellar singing, it’s a pleasant enough musical. You won’t go home humming any brilliantly catchy songs, nor exhausted from emotional release, but you will have spent an entirely enjoyable evening.

Little Women, the Broadway Musical
Sept. 23 through Oct. 16, 2011
Tacoma Musical Playhouse

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Elizabeth Lord and Lord Franzannian

Pictured: the cast from last year's show. 
Photo courtesy Elizabeth Lord (seen in red hat and coat)

Yesterday I posted a review of the 5th annual "Lord Franzannian's Royal Olympian Spectacular Vaudeville Show!" Today I'd like to share a little information about the show's producer and master or ceremonies, Elizabeth Lord.

When Lord was a senior year in high school in Las Vegas she made up her mind that she wanted to be a professional storyteller. She had studied acting in high school and dreamed of becoming a famous actress but realized she could never "make it in the hardcore acting world of TV and film" because she was "not skinny and 'cute' enough."

But where could a young woman just out of high school study to be a professional storyteller? Where else but The Evergreen State College? So at TESC Lord studied folklore, world mythology, world religion, folktales, orality vs.literacy, and theater arts.

After graduation in 1995 she began "gigging" - getting paid to tell stories, and she's been doing it ever since. telling her stories for such organizations and groups as City of Olympia, Pierce County Library, Olympia School District, TESC, and many Washington State Agencies. She's built an impressive following for her original one-woman storytelling shows, including "Vegas Childhood," "Cheap Rent," "Smoking is Cool" and others.

She has also acted in, narrated or directed many plays for Theater Artists Olympia and Prodigal Sun, including "Stop Kiss," "Parallel Lives," "Reefer Madness," "Don Juan in Chicago," “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” and "Cannibal!! The Musical." And she manages The Midnight Sun Performance Space. She is nothing if not versatile.

In 2001 Lord and others created BigShowCity, an organization dedicated to raising money to support performance artists, and they put on what they hoped would be an Olympia annual festival. They created a three-day, multi-venue festival. It lasted only three years. The first year 20-plus people helped organize and fundraise; the second year it was only Lord and Erik Fabian; the third year it was just Lord with help from an Evergreen intern.

The festivals could not be continued, but Lord didn't give up. She decided to do a one-night, one-venue variety show. Vaudeville, the original variety show format, seemed like the way to go, so in 2007 she gathered some artists together and created the first show. The main collaborators were Lord and Mark Franzen, a former member of The Audition is Dead theater troupe. "We decided to go with the old school Vaudeville show poster format which always put the producers name first on the bill," Lord said, "And so we created a fictional producer name, which is a combination of our names, Lord and Franzen, and the fictional character Lord Franzannian (played by Lord) became a character in the show.

The rest, as they say, is history. The 5th annual "Lord Franzannian's Royal Olympian Spectacular Vaudeville Show!" continues through this weekend at The Midnight Sun Performance Space. It's a lively, bawdy, and entertaining show that includes song, dance, comedy, burlesque and more.

Recomended for folks over the age of 16.

September 30, and October 1, 2, 2011 (Fridays- Sundays)

Showtime 8 pm
Two Shows on the Saturdays 8 and 10 pm!

NEW! October 2 is the special Youth Audience Show! Starts at 4 pm (now folks 15 and under can come see some Vaudeville!)

All performances at the Midnight Sun Performance Space
113 N. Columbia St. in downtown Olympia

Tickets: $15 -25 Suggested Donation (No one turned away! Pay more if you can, less if you can't - don't sweat it)

Available at the door night of show or go to to reserve a seat.

Tickets $7 for those under 15 on October 2nd!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Lord Franzannian’s vaudeville show

This past Friday night was the muggiest night of the year in Olympia. The heat in the downtown Midnight Sun Performance Space was almost unbearable during the sold-out performance of Lord Franzannian's Royal Olympian Spectacular Vaudeville Show. The only thing hotter than the humid night air was the show on stage.

From Elizabeth Lord’s story of a milkman named Harvey – illustrated by fast-draw artist The Great Sylvester Simon – to Nani Poonani’s hot burlesque performance, to Lauren O’Neill’s reading of a letter of complaint to “Hmmmm Foods” – to the inimitable Vaude deVille, it was one hell of a show.

Earlier that afternoon I had mentioned to a friend that we were going to a vaudeville show, and my friend had two interesting responses: first, she said she didn’t know there was vaudeville in Olympia, and then she said, “I wish we had burlesque.”

Well guess what, Olympia – we have both. They’re both outstanding, and Lord Franzannian combines them in “his” fifth annual show. It’s a shame that only a handful of dedicated fans even know about this spectacular event. It should be more widely promoted and should fill major venues the likes of the Washington Center.

Lord Franzannian's Royal Olympian Spectacular Vaudeville Show is the brainchild of storyteller, actor and producer Elizabeth Lord. She came up with the idea years ago as a way to earning money to support local performing artists, and the host/master of ceremonies/ringmaster, Lord Franzannian, is none other than Lord in a fat suit wearing a big mustache and a bright red circus ringmaster suit.

From the press release: “Working in the tradition of vaudeville shows from the early part of the 20th century, this fast-paced variety show promises a little something for everyone. Dance, music, comedy, storytelling, burlesque, juggling, even feats of amazement! …Proceeds benefit working performers, and BigShowCity, a non-profit Performing Arts Organization whose mission is to help burgeoning artists realize their ambitions by providing financial and emotional support.”

Hardly anyone alive today remembers what vaudeville was like in its heyday, but some of us at least remember the Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen shows on television, and we remember George Burns and Gracie Allen and Jimmy Durante, and those are Lord Franzannian’s predecessors.

Many of the acts are bawdy, some are lovely and nostalgic, and some are downright insane.

Vaude deVille, one of the founders of and a performer with Wrinkles of Washington, does song and dance numbers in the old vaudeville style. You can almost imagine him performing two shows a day at The Palace. He kicks off both the opening act and the second act with his smoothly expressive singing and soft-shoe dance.

The singing duo Birds of a Feather entertain with sweet romantic songs.

Lester Crafty the Bearded Lady is… well, you just have to see her act.

O’Neill’s reading of a letter of complaint is hilarious and graphic and filled with over-the-top references to vomiting and defecating, but read in a very underplayed and sweet manner. If I hadn’t seen O’Neill act and sing in other shows I might have been tempted to think there was no acting involved at all in her performance -- that it was just a straight reading. Oh, but it was a performance all right, with pitch-perfect inflections to clue us in that there is something deliciously wicked underneath her Little Bo Peep demeanor. The letter was so original that I had to ask: was it an actual letter with only the name of the food company fictionalized or was it written for this performance? She said it was an actual letter written by a friend to “Hmmmm Foods.”

Nani Poonani’s burlesque was funny, acrobatic and sexy. She has – in addition of a fabulous stage name – a beautiful body filled with tattoos, none of which (that I know of) are hidden from the audience. A second burlesque number featuring Frida Fondle as Peter Fondle is an inventive and comical routine that begins with a woman in drag as a fat man and ends with the traditional burlesque tassel twirling. Both performers are members of Tush! Burlesque in Olympia.

One of the most astounding acts was Soren’s buugeng performance to the accordion accompaniment of Rheanna Murray. I had never before heard of buugeng and had to look it up.  It’s a curved wooden instrument associated with martial arts that is handled somewhat like nunchucks. The performance was hypnotic, combining elements of dance and juggling (without tossing things in the air).

There were a couple of less than stellar performances. Brent Blakley’s stand-up comedy act had some funny moments but fell flat overall, partly due to a self-effacing, deadpan delivery that didn’t quite make it; and although the Gotta Swing dance troupe was lively not all of the individual dancers were quite up to snuff.

Most but not all of the musical numbers were backed up by the four piece band, The Vaude Zannian Playerz, made up of Scuff Acuff (band leader) on guitar/washboard and kazoo, Alison Metheny on bucket bass, Ethan Rogol on mandolin, and multi-talented  Rheanna Murray on accordion (of whom I wrote in my review of Olympia Family Theater’s February 2011 production of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” in which "she plays Alice with dignity and grace...")

Acuff and Metheny also performed in duet on a song about a “tight, wet, pussy cat” which was fall-on-the-floor funny.

Lord tells a different in every performance, inviting the audience to supply major story elements including who the story is about and then totally improvising the story with accompanying fast-draw illustrations by The Great Sylvester. So she’s told stories about a milkman, a red rubber boot that leaves the closet and goes on adventures, a London prostitute abducted by aliens, and a badger who travels to Australia and goes to the opera. In a stroke of genius Friday night Sylvester gave Harvey the milkman a shirt that said “Harvey Milk.”

With its near nudity and a plethora of sexual content and double entendre, this show is without a doubt intended for mature audiences only, but there will be a special performance added for an all-ages audience October 2 at 4 p.m.

Remaining shows are:      
Friday September 30 @ 8 p.m.
        Saturday October 1 @ 8 p.m. and 10 p.m.
        Sunday October 2 @ 4 p.m.
Ticket Price: $15-$25 at the door (however, no one will be turned away for lack of funds).
Special Youth Ticket Price October 2, under 15, $7.

Tickets available at door night of show, or to reserve a seat buy a ticket online at
Where: The Midnight Sun Performance Space, 113 N. Columbia Street in downtown Olympia.

Border Songs

A Jim Lynch novel adapted for the stage by Bryan Willis has winner written all over it.

I’ve been a Bryan Willis fan since I first saw “The Incredible Undersea Trial of Joseph P. Lawnboy” in the back room of an art gallery with the audience standing around in a circle and the performance in the middle. That must have been close to 20 years ago. “Lawnboy” has been done by Harlequin Productions and Tacoma Little Theater and many other theater companies, and Willis’s plays have been performed all over the world -- off-Broadway, on the London fringe, throughout the U.K., Israel, and in theaters across the U.S. and Canada, including ACT, New York Theater Workshop, Seattle Rep, Milwaukee Rep, Unseam'd Shakespeare Co. and Riverside Studios in London. He is probably best known by South Sound theater goers for his traveling show about the life of Edgar Allan Poe.

I’ve been a Jim Lynch fan since he released his first novel, The Highest Tide, a wonderful story set in Olympia about a young boy who knows more about ocean creatures than almost anyone.

Now Bryan, with director David Quicksall, has adapted Lynch’s second novel, Border Songs, for the stage, and it is being performed by Book-It Repertory Theatre in Seattle.

Quicksall most recently directed his critically acclaimed adaptation of Moby-Dick, or, The Whale, a Seattle Times Footlight Award winner. 

Border Songs is the story of Border Patrolman Brandon Vanderkool, a 6-foot-8, dyslexic, bird-watcher who discovers by accident that he has an uncanny ability to catch the bad guys. It was a wonderful novel. I liked it even more than his more famous first novel.

Performances are at 2:00 for matinées, or 7:30 for evening shows. Post-play discussions are will follow the Sunday matinees on September 25 and October 2.
Box Office 206.216.0833, Tues. through Fri., Noon – 5:00 p.m. (Wed. – Sat. during production)

305 Harrison Street, Seattle

Monday, September 26, 2011

Full of grace

"Late Night Catechism" at Centerstage
by Michael Dresdner

Photo courtesy Centerstage
Let’s start with a disclaimer. I’m not Catholic (in fact I was raised Jewish), but that in no way diminished the pleasure and hilarity that “Late Night Catechism” at Centerstage offered me. It was a delightful experience from beginning to end, an absolutely laugh-out-loud funny evening.

Skillfully written in 1993 by Maripat Donovan and Vicki Quade, “Late Night Catechism” is technically performed as a one woman show. However, it’s done as a catechism class, though in the spirit of hilarity rather than stern seriousness. The “Sister” who teaches it uses the audience as the class attendees, and thus as part of the cast, in a sense. That means lots of interactive improv on her part and lots of audience participation, usually willingly, on ours.

Because Sister is responding to and working with the audience, the play will be different each time you see it. Personally, I’d love to go back and have another round, and I’ll bet you’ll feel the same way.

Catechism holds the distinction of being the longest running comedy in several cities, including Seattle. There’s good reason for that. While the actor, ostensibly a Catholic nun and garbed accordingly, pokes fun at Catholicism in the guise of explaining its rules and peculiarities, it’s done so gently and adroitly that no one, least of all the Catholics in the audience, takes offense.

This Centerstage iteration is not community theatre, what we usually review here, but rather a traveling professional show from Entertainment Events, Inc. The nun in this run is played by Nonie Newton-Breen, and it is hard to imagine anyone doing a better, funnier job of it. An Irish Catholic herself, she’s an alumnus of the famed Second City Theatre as well and boasts a host of other live and screen credits.

The simple but effective set is a typical 1960s classroom at a Catholic school, replete with blackboard (which she uses), pictures, a ruler (of course) and even a dunce chair (which she also used the night I was there.) She conducts class in the normal way, asking the students (audience) questions, and providing, as is appropriate, answers, asides, jokes, stories, explanations and even some supercilious chiding when she’s lucky enough to tap into inappropriately dressed “students,” lapsed Catholics and those benighted souls who think they actually know their catechism. Newton-Breen is so very good at this that she manages to tweak the withering nun demeanor into something hilarious, even for her victims.

There’s only one thing I’d have changed. After the intermission (recess?) she opened the class to any questions they had about Catholicism. The ensuing exchanges are delightful, but it is obvious she knows the real answers. Without advance warning, many of us responded like deer in the headlights, and only thought of great questions after it was too late. It’s a pity; her skill would have made superb comic fodder out of even the most arcane or intentionally disruptive questions. She’s that good.

Come see “Late Night Catechism,” but come prepared with good questions for the second act. You will thank me.

Now say three Hail Marys and two Our Fathers as penance for having missed opening weekend.

Late Night Catechism
Sept. 23rd through Oct. 9th 2011
Centerstage Theatre

Friday, September 23, 2011

Burnt offerings

"Out of the Embers" at The Telephone Room

The Weekly Volcano, September 21, 2011

Allison Hyde's art speaks eloquently of time and place and memory, and sadly of deterioration and destruction over time. Her site-specific installation, Out of the Embers, in The Telephone Room consists of serigraphs with ash and charcoal on mylar, burned furniture, burned jewelry boxes and sound.

(There is no sign that says "Don't Touch," so I picked up one of the prints that sits loose on a shelf and got soot on my finger. So maybe you shouldn't touch.)

The room itself is bright, cheery and pristine; while the objects inside are dark, broken and coated with charcoal. The chair next to the telephone is a half chair, broken and burnt. The boxes on the shelves are charred. Some of the mylar prints are scattered on the shelves, and others are framed and hung on the walls.

There is recorded sound talking about the house, the objects in it and the people. Verbal lists of objects.

I paid little attention to the words, but let the sound wash over me, amplifying the mood of the room as I examined the prints. Perhaps the recording answered essential questions about the people who occupied the room, but I didn't want the mystery solved. I wanted to walk away wondering who these people were. Were they destroyed in the fire? Was it an accident or was it arson?

The installation is haunting. There are people in the pictures, dark and murky photos out of an old picture album, like negatives of photos taken in insufficient light. You can barely make out the few figures: a child, a man sitting in a chair, a standing women, a few chairs, in one sequence a bunch of what appears to be party balloons. Was there a birthday party for the child? And there is one precious sequence of a child unrolling toilet paper. (I use the term "sequence" because the prints are still images taken from video sequences.)

Hyde's work is described on The Telephone Room's blog as seeking to "explore ephemeral moments, and our notion of emotional loss associated with personal pasts ... she examines the subtleties of fleeting moments and the nostalgia related to recollections of memories."

The Telephone Room is promoted as the world's second-smallest art gallery at 12 ½ square feet. In order to best utilize this tiny space, Hyde framed the prints stacked tall in vertical frames. The arrangement of prints and objects reminds me of the precision and balance of an Ellsworth Kelly painting.

The Telephone Room is located in a private home in Tacoma. The address isn't listed publicly, presumably out of caution about making a private home address too public. Only an email address is listed. The Telephone Room is open by appointment only. The Allison Hyde installation is scheduled to be on display through Sept. 30, but may be extended through October.
Out of the Embers

Through Sept. 30, by appointment, The Telephone Room,

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Imagine I’m a writer - Part 1 Until the Dawn

Imagine I’m a writer and you’re a reader, and you have questions about my books.

Actually I do that quite often. I imagine I’m at a reading or a book signing and I wonder what kinds of questions people might ask. It helps me be prepared when I really do have a reading, although nobody ever asks the questions I imagine they’ll ask.

OK, so what about my very first book, Until the Dawn? I imagine you might want to know how I came up with the idea, how long it took me to write it, if Travis and Marybelle were based on real people, and if the guys really painted Chuck’s dick red on his wedding night.

I started working on it in about 1984 or ’85. The first amorphous idea was to write a story about a good man who did something bad. I was vaguely thinking about forgiveness, thinking maybe I could illustrate through fiction why people should not judge other people too quickly. So I needed to imagine some bad thing this good man did. Murder? Rape? Bearing false witness? It took me months of trying out different ideas before I figured out what it could be and how it could have happened.

I began to imagine who the main character could be, and as I brought him into focus I kept in mind that all too often the hero of a first novel is the author himself, thinly disguised; i.e., disgustingly obvious. I wanted to make sure my protagonist was nothing like me. I didn’t want readers asking, “Did you really do that?” So I made my main character a big bruiser of a guy (I’m a tiny little man) and to make him unique I decided to make him talk like Neal Cassady, the model for Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On the Road. I named him Travis after a brother-in-law, but he was nothing like that Travis. I wanted to give him a noticeable physical characteristic too, and I thought of a friend whose index finger had been cut off at the first knuckle. Once I described him as having a missing finger I thought, “Oh shit! Now there has to be a reason why his finger is missing,” and the mystery of how he lost that finger became a central part of the plot.

These were the days before personal computers. I wrote it on an IBM Selectric typewriter. Cut-and-paste was not an option. If I wanted to change something I had to rewrite whole sections from the beginning, which I did over and over. I moved the opening scene to the back of the book, I eliminated some characters and reinvented others, I changed the narrative voice half a dozen times. I tried writing in the third person with an omniscient narrator. I tried letting Travis be the story teller. I tried having multiple narrators. And finally I decided to let a minor character tell the tale.

It took me a couple of years and many re-writes before I thought I had it ready to send to an agent. Luckily, my wife had connections with a great agent, an old family friend who was willing to take a look at it. But she said it wasn’t saleable. She said she didn’t like the main character, so I did some more re-writing to make him more likable. She also said a couple of things that, frankly, pissed me off. First, she said there were no such things as cypress knees. Travis fished among the cypress knees, something I had done many times on Lake St. John in Louisiana. And she criticized me for using the expression “back in the back,” an expression I’ve heard all my life. It’s common in the South at least, and that’s where the book was set. So there, Miss Know-it-All literary agent.

Anyway, she was not willing to take it on. I tried sending query letters to a few other agents and publishers, but nobody was interested, and I gave up and put the book away for a long time, finally digging it out again in 1989 or ’90 after we had moved to Olympia and bought our first computer. I re-wrote it once more and found an agent in San Francisco who said she was willing to represent me but strongly suggested one more major re-write. Instead of telling the story chronologically – it covered three generations of Travis’s family, beginning with his grandfather in the1920s and ending in the 1980s -- she wanted me to jump back and forth between New York in the present and Travis’s home town of Tupelo, Mississippi in the early years.

It was the best suggestion anyone ever made. Making that change made the novel come alive. But the agent then dropped me, and I couldn’t find another, so I ended up self-publishing.

So, what’s the book about?

Travis Earl Warner was an artist. He was famous in the 1980s. He lived a wild life. Hard drinking and drugs and sex and frantic work alone in his SoHo loft.

From the opening of Until the Dawn, an excerpt from Travis’s journal:

Painting can be an evil mistress. She can love you tender and she can love you raunchy, and she can rip your guts apart.

When you put that last stroke on your canvas and you know you've done it right, and you step back to look at what you've done, a deep sigh comes all the way up from your loins and you say “Yes! Yes, by God, I did it.”

But it can also be like a cramp in the pit of your stomach that wrenches your intestines and won't let go; because to make a painting you have to reach deep down inside and pull it out, and when it doesn't come it's like the dry heaves. And the loneliness of it! The loneliness is unbearable. You're all alone in a huge loft and you're slinging paint with concentration so intense it's exhausting, and when you finally set your paint bucket down and step back to see what you've done there is not a soul to share that moment with, be it ecstasy or be it loathing; because you've experienced a rape or a battle or the most tender of caresses, and it was all between you and that goddamn canvas; and suddenly you get this memory flash from back when you were in art school and your professors ripped your work apart, and you look at your painting and you can't even see it. You haven't the slightest idea whether it's art or crap. So you grab the freight elevator down to the street and you walk to the corner bar and get gloriously drunk.

There was a wild party in Travis’s loft that ended with him lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Everyone panicked and fled, all but one mysterious woman who stayed behind to nurse him. Travis was never again seen in New York. Neither was the woman. As far as the art world knew, he just vanished after that party. An old friend, Johnny Lewis, goes in search of Travis, and as he travels to their old home town in Mississippi he tells the story of Travis and his family—his mother, Marybelle, who escaped from her abusive husband while she was still pregnant with Travis; the banker and his wife who took her in and helped her raise her son; and Travis’s sister, Cassie, who dreamed of being a dancer. Through Johnny’s eyes we relive Travis’s life through his teenage years in the ‘60s and his rebellion against his home town and everything it stood for, through his years as a famous artist, and finally up to that party in his SoHo loft.

When Johnny finally finds Travis and the woman who vanished with him,  he discovers what happened at that party and revealed, along with the identity of the mystery woman.

To answer those hypothetical questions I posed at the beginning of this essay:

Travis and Marybelle were not based on real people. Travis was totally imaginary.  In the creation of Marybelle I borrowed character traits and looks from two or three women. Some of the scenes involving her abusive husband were based on events from when my wife and I ran a shelter for battered women. The only other characters who were based on real people were Travis’s aunt Janet, based on my sister, and Marybelle’s second husband, who was based on an uncle I never knew but had heard stories about.

And what about the dick painting? Ah yes, a brother-in-law told me that his friends planned on doing that to him, but it never happened. I had a lot of fun describing how they got the paint off.

More information, including reviews and excerpts can be found at