Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Great new review

Our friend Steve Schalchlin recently posted a great review of Imprudent Zeal on amazon.com. He gave it 3.0 out of 5 stars and titled it "An original, rambling look at America."

Steve is a singer/songwriter and lyricist for the musicals "The Last Session" and "The Big Voice: God or Merman."

Here's his review:

From the idealistic would-be priest who gets tossed out of the seminary for "imprudent zeal" to the "wrong side of the tracks" musician and artist from Mississippi to the hooker's daughter in Seattle still looking for her daddy, Imprudent Zeal is filled with wide-ranging characters and the colorful specifics of their lives.

The rambling storyline felt comfortable and kept me smiling and watching expectantly to see where these peoples' lives would finally intertwine.

Alec has a nice feel for place and time. I could feel the suffocating heat in Mississippi and the bone chilling rain of a lonely man at a train station on Long Island New York. I also loved learning more about the art of painting.

If I had any criticism, it's that I wish he'd slow down the pace a bit and really plunge us farther into each individual person's heart. I felt sometimes that the narrative became a little too much of, "They went here. They went there. They went to another place" and occasionally I got the feeling I was still in the introduction, waiting for the story to begin.

Eventually, though, his compassion for these wayward souls comes through and the book slowly and finally drew me in to the point that it surprisingly became a page turner. I was racing to get to the end to find out how it would all turn out.

The central part of the story takes place in New York at a kind of "do it yourself" community center called "Everything For Everybody" run by the exiled would-be priest. Those scenes throb with reality and color, and the mix of characters felt bone real since it's based upon a real place. Worth the price of admission alone.

Alec has constructed a lovely book filled with warm, well-meaning people all trying to find a place in a world that makes little sense to them. I do recommend it.

Friday, April 25, 2008

TMP stages heart-rending ‘Miss Saigon’

Published in The News Tribune April 25th, 2008

Pictured: April Villanueva and Aaron Freed. Photos by Kat Dollarhide.

The musical “Miss Saigon” is among the saddest ever written. With the exception of two brief moments of comic relief provided by the Engineer (played with great style by Micheal O’Hara), this Tacoma Musical Playhouse performance is one of unremitting tragedy, longing and horror.

In its melancholy and its broad sweep – and especially in the tone and the power of the music by Claude-Michel Schnberg, with lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and Alain Boublil – it bears a striking resemblance to “Les Misérables” – so much so, in fact, that when the lovers Kim and Chris broke into song I thought I was listening to Eponine and Jean Valjean from the touring company of “Les Misérables. April Villanueva as Kim has Eponine’s beauty and vulnerability and a similar hauntingly stunning clear and sweet voice, and Aaron Freed as Chris has Jean Valjean’s vocal range and power, plus a whispery quality on the more tender ballads that is as gentle as the whimper of a hurt child.

Where it differs from “Les Misérables” is in its lack of heroic grandeur.

There are no heroes storming the barricades; rather, there are flawed human beings whose weaknesses have tragic repercussions.

The story is set at the end of the Vietnam War.

Kim is a poor girl who comes to Saigon after her parents are killed and her village is destroyed, and she has reluctantly turned to prostitution.

She is 17 years old, shy and afraid. She joins a group of bar girls who work in a club called Dreamland owned by the Engineer, a small-time hustler who, like all of his girls, dreams of a better life – his dream being escaping to America before Saigon falls to the Viet Cong.

Chris and his buddy John (Scott Polovitch-Davis) come to Dreamland, and John buys his buddy Chris a night with Kim.

Chris and Kim fall in love that night and cling to each other as they sing a classically tender duet, “The Last Night of the World,” which nods to the world swirling in horror around them and the love they believe can outlast it, and Chris promises to take her home to America with him.

But when Saigon falls and the Americans are lifted off the roof of the embassy into helicopters to be transported home, there is a mad and desperate scene with Vietnamese clamoring at the gates to get in.

Soldiers inside the embassy will not let Chris go out to get Kim, nor will they let her in.

Skip ahead a few years after the war’s end.

Chris is back home in America and has married Ellen (Julie Watts) after a long and painful adjustment to life in the United States; Kim is again trapped in the life of a bar girl, but now with Chris’s son, Tam (played alternately by Bryan Goodnite and Peter Belen); and John is working on behalf of the Bui-Doi children born to American soldiers and Vietnamese women during the war. (One of the most heart-rending songs in the play is John’s solo “Bui Doi,” sung to a backdrop of pictures of these children.)

Kim’s life with her child in Vietnam is hopelessly bleak. Yet she clings to the belief that Chris will do as he had promised and come back for her and the son he did not know about.

The comedic relief provided by the Engineer are the songs “If You Want to Die in Bed” and “The American Dream.” The former provides necessary transition with sly humor and the latter is a big Broadway-style production number sung with great panache by O’Hara and backed up by a chorus line of bar girls in stars-and-stripes costumes and a sexy Lady Liberty.

The costumes by Joan Schlegel are nicely done, especially the Engineer’s bad-taste ’70s outfits, and the set transitions are smooth and unobtrusive.

“Miss Saigon” is a long play at two hours, 30 minutes plus a 15-minute intermission, and it is emotionally draining. With adult language and themes of prostitution, it is not recommended for children under the age of 13. There are helpful parental guidelines on the Tacoma Musical Playhouse Web site for those parents who may be undecided about taking their children.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through May, additional performances at 2 p.m. April 26 and May 3
WHERE: The Narrows Theatre, 7116 Sixth Ave.
TICKETS: Adults, $23; students/military, $21; children 12 and younger, $16
INFORMATION: 253-565-6867, http://tmp.org/

Thursday, April 24, 2008

199 supplicants

Kader Attia installations at the Henry Art Gallery.
Published in the Weekly Volcano, April 24, 2008

Pictured, "Ghosts," aluminum foil artwork by Kader Attia on loan from the Musee d’Art National in Paris.
Photo: Richard Nicol

Kader Attia, featured artist at the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, presents work that is equally effective in terms of idea, form and emotional impact. He expresses deep sympathy for the human condition through artworks that are inventive and classically solid in design.

Massive architectural forms fill one large gallery. Called Rocher Carrés, this installation is based on a seawall made of giant blocks of concrete that lean seaward at odd angles (pictures of which are included in the exhibition). Row after row of huge white boxes made of drywall sheets fill the room. All lean dangerously to one side (apparently, not actually dangerous). Visitors can walk through as though through a labyrinth. The effect is disorienting. Some people may feel at risk of being crushed. People with vertigo probably should not enter. You feel the weight pressing down and become aware of contradictory feelings of fullness and emptiness.

The adjacent large gallery is filled with an installation called Ghosts — 199 kneeling figures positioned in rows of military precision, all facing in the same direction and bowing like Muslims in prayer. These figures are life-size. They wear hooded robes that drape open in the back as well as around nonexistent faces. The only indication of gender is the curve of their lower backs, which appear to be female. They are made of tinfoil. Seen from the front, their open hoods reveal emptiness. What does this installation say about the human condition?
Does it say we are all hollow inside? Empty supplicating robes? Does it speak to our vulnerability and longing? Does the multiplicity of almost identical figures indicate that we are programmed drones?

Both Rocher Carrés and Ghosts epitomize the artistic dictum variety within unity. They are unified through repetition of almost identical forms and through color harmony. One is all white, the other all silver. In Rocher Carrés, which is all white, even the white gallery walls and light fixtures become part of the installation. Both can be seen from many viewpoints, including a bird’s-eye view from a balcony above the galleries.

In a smaller gallery there is another installation using empty grocery bags to represent poverty. The empty bags look like empty women’s strap blouses (the handles become shoulder straps). A wall text explains that this installation was inspired by watching poor people in line at a food bank holding their empty bags. A written description cannot explain the affect of these few empty grocery bags sitting on tables.

Two other pieces in the show are an untitled stainless steel sculpture and a DVD projection video called Oil and Sugar #2. The sculpture is a giant camera aperture. The video shows what happens when oil is poured over a stack of sugar cubes. I won’t explain it further (it would be too much like giving away the plot twist of a movie). Suffice it to say it is very surprising and a powerful image.

Also showing is Seattle artist Dawn Cerny’s We’re all going to die (except for you), an installation including small drawings, bunches of little paper doll figures and even stuffed owls — plus Victorian mourning dresses and contemporary T-shirts — all of which, according to a press release, encourage viewers to “meditate on American attitudes toward death, trauma, and war in the past and the present.”

This weekend will offer the last chance to see Cerny’s installation, which runs only through April 27.

Also showing are: Jean-Luc Mylayne, photographs, through April 27, and Josiah McElheny: The Last Scattering Surface, through Aug. 17. Mylayne’s photographs are large-scale studies of birds in desert landscapes in clear, bright colors. They fill two large galleries. McElheny’s Last Scattering Surface is an almost room-sized glass chandelier. Also shown are preliminary drawings and a related video.

[The Henry Art Gallery, Kader Attia: New Work, Tuesday through May 25, $10 general admission, $6 students and seniors, members free, 15th Ave. N.E. and N.E. 41st St., Seattle]

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Cure at Troy

The Seattle Repertory Theatre’s performance of “The Cure at Troy” is absolutely amazing. It is a retelling of an ancient and little known Greek play by Sophocles written by Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney and directed by Tina Landau.

On the voyage to Troy the archer Philoctetes is bitten on the foot by a poisonous snake and the stinky and festering bite refuses to heal, so Odysseus puts Philoctetes off on an abandoned island where he lives in exile and constant pain for 10 years.

But Odysseus cannot totally abandon Philoctetes because Philoctetes has in his possession the magical bow of Hercules, and the gods tell Odysseus that the only way to guarantee a victory over the Trojans is by using the bow and arrow of the god Hercules — a weapon that cannot miss its target. He sends Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, to fetch Philoctetes and the magic bow. What transpires between Philoctetes and Neoptolemus, and later between Philoctetes and Odysseus, is raw, stunning and awesome.

Boris McGiver as Philoctetes expresses emotions as raw as the festering wound on his foot as he hobbles and crawls about the rocking island in one of the most physically demanding jobs of acting I’ve ever witnessed. (A stage hand told me that McGiver has injured himself repeatedly during performances, which is not at all surprising.)

The traditional Greek chorus is used in a manner that is highly inventive and thoroughly modern while honoring the ancient tradition of the chorus as narrator and commentator.

The chorus consists of Guy Adkins, Ben Gonio and Jon Michael Hill. The three of them sing beautifully, and their choreographed movements are astoundingly beautiful (kudos to movement consultant Geoffrey Alm).

Odysseus is played by Hans Altwies and Neoptolemus by Seth Numrich.

The set by Blythe Quinlan and lighting by Scott Zielinski are breathtaking.

This is a very unusual play that combines poetry and dramatic storytelling with highly abstract and stylized movement. I highly recommend it. It runs through May 3. For more information, go to www.seattlerep.org

Read OffBook: The Cure at Troy, a publication of Seattle Repertory Theatre (PDF format)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Cool ‘Cat’ gets new life at TLT

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" at Tacoma Little Theatre

Published in The News Tribune, April 18, 2008
Pictured: Peter Punzi as Brick and Stephanie Leeper as Maggie, photo by Jason Ganwich

Peter Punzi made me sit up and take notice. Punzi plays the part of Brick in Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at Tacoma Little Theatre.

I’ve seen many productions of “Cat” on film, television and in community theaters from Mississippi to Washington state, and in none of them have I ever seen Brick Pollitt interpreted the way Punzi and director Nyree Martinez interpret him. Actors ranging from Ben Gazzara to Paul Newman to Tommy Lee Jones have played Brick as angry and defiant. And in many versions – especially Newman’s – I have had a hard time seeing past the larger-than-life Hollywood glamour boy to the hurt and confused man inside.

Not so with Punzi’s portrayal of Brick. He plays him as gentle, sweet, scared and damaged man whose pain was palpable. That is the way, I suspect, Tennessee Williams saw him. But when Paul Newman played Brick in 1958, audiences would not have been willing to accept a leading man who was not only sexually conflicted but as gentle and damaged in a way that might have been perceived as casting aspersions on his manliness.

Punzi doesn’t have the smoldering good looks of a young Ben Gazzara or Paul Newman, but he is a handsome man with a stocky body that is easily believable as that of the aging football hero he portrays, and he handles the Southern accent well.

Elliot Weiner also approaches his role as the blustery patriarch Big Daddy in a way that is different from what is usually expected of the role. In a play filled with exaggerated characters, Big Daddy is typically portrayed as the most outsized of them all. It’s hard to even visualize Big Daddy without picturing Burl Ives. But Weiner downplays and quietens Big Daddy, which results in a more believable and sympathetic character.

The other larger-than-life character is, of course, Maggie the Cat – memorably played as an outlandish Southern sex kitten by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Kathleen Turner. Actresses who play Maggie inevitably overact. In this production, Stephanie Leeper plays Maggie. And yes, she appears to be an outlandish parody of a clichéd Southern sexpot. But that is way the character was written, and if she is a cliché, we must remember that this is the character upon whom the cliché was built.

The story by now should be familiar to theatergoers. It is Big Daddy’s birthday. The family has just received word from the doctor that tests for malignancy came back positive. Big Daddy is dying of cancer. But the family tries to hide it from him, making up the lie that the tests have shown that he suffers only from a spastic colon.

Meanwhile, the second son, Gooper (Bill Read), and his baby-machine wife, Mae (Amber Rose Johnson), are conspiring to inherit Big Daddy’s vast plantation holdings and Brick and Maggie’s marriage is being ripped apart by his alcoholism and by the ghost of Brick’s best friend, Skipper. Both Maggie and Big Daddy suspect there was a homosexual element to Brick and Skipper’s friendship, but Brick denies it: “One man has one great good true thing in his life. One great good thing which is true! I had friendship with Skipper. You are namin’ it dirty!”

The set designed by Chris M. Roberson creates the sultry and decadent feel of a Southern plantation on a scorching night with storms approaching both inside and out. The effect is beautifully highlighted with Jason Ganwich’s lighting design and props by Penny Clapp and David Jerome.

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is a modern classic written with superb dramatic structure and a master’s ear for language. It runs two-and-one-half hours with two intermissions. With strong adult language and themes, it is recommended for ages 14 and older.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through May 4; ASL performance May 2
WHERE: Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N. I St., Tacoma
TICKETS: $16-$20
INFORMATION: 253-272-2281, www.tacomalittletheatre.com

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Inconsistent patterns

I like the titles and descriptions TaCo sent out in announcing the latest Woolworth Windows installation:

“Issei Watanabe — Possibility of Inconsistent Patterns featuring duct tape geometry; Kelsey Parkhurst, Dana Brownfield, and Melissa Balch — What To Wear featuring absurdly altered articles of clothing; Justin Hahn — untitled installation featuring lots of polymeric material; Celeste Cooning — Milk and Honey II featuring an artificial paper forest.”

How well those titles and descriptions match what is actually in the windows varies.

Facing the windows on the Broadway side, let’s start with the windows on the far left. First up is Celeste Cooning’s Milk and Honey II, two windows filled with cut-paper floral patterns. The decorative and elaborate cut-paper leaves cover the walls, hang from the ceiling and cascade down to a bed of leaves on the floor. In all but one small section, the paper is snow white and has the kind of sparkle in front of its bright blue background that we might associate with paper snowflakes — pretty and fanciful. In the second window, however, there is a little section on the floor where the leaves are spray painted with multiple colors, the overall affect being the colors of autumn leaves on the ground partially covered with a layer of snow. That sounds much more pleasing than it actually is. I think the addition of color hurts more than it helps. (And what’s with the ladder lying on the floor? Is it an intentional part of the installation, or was it accidentally left there by a worker?)

Next up is Justin Hahn. Stretched across large sections of windows are piles of what look like purple and green latex sheets. Imagine blown sections of tire retreads painted a milky purple and green and stacked two to three feet high in a long ribbon. There is a kind of unity and design integrity to this that I can appreciate. But in the middle is something jarringly out of place: two green and yellow-green figures that look like little creatures from a horror movie rising from a pile of bloodred human or animal organs. It’s very creepy.

Next comes the Parkhurst, Brownfield and Balch installation (Brownfield’s name is included in the announcement but the window labels mention only Parkhurst and Balch, and it is hard to tell who did what). This installation consists of small pop art paintings of shoes and other items that might be found in a woman’s closet. There is a dress hanging on a coat hanger that hangs from a painting of a coat hanger, and there are scattered shoes and an oversized jacket and a dress woven from some kind of plastic material, and a few round white balls on the floor. The white dress has a nice form to it, but the rest of it seems random and uninteresting.

The most inventive work is Watanabe’s Possibility of Inconsistent Patterns in the Commerce Street windows. It’s fascinating and makes good use of the available space. I first noticed it while driving up the hill of 11th Street. I saw groups of vertical stripes — clusters of black stripes and clusters of multicolored stripes. As I drove past, the relationships between the stripes began to change because they were on different levels, and depending on my point of view, different groupings of stripes became visible. This peekaboo effect became more pronounced when I walked down the hill and looked through the windows.

The stripes are made from tape on the windows and on the walls behind the windows. The window stripes are all vertical and are spaced about an inch apart. Most of them are black except for one cluster of brightly colored stripes. The window stripes almost completely block the view of the other stripes on the back wall, which are more colorful and create opposing patterns — a triangular pattern in silver and stair steps in rainbow colors. The “possibilities of inconsistent patterns” seem almost endless as you peer between the vertical stripes at various places.

[Woolworth Windows, 24hours/7 days, through May 31, Broadway at 11th and Commerce at 11th, Tacoma]

Monday, April 14, 2008

You're missing a great show

Unless you are the other couple in the audience last night at the Midnight Sun, you're missing a great show -- "The Ascetic," produced by Theater Artists Olympia in conjunction with The Northwest Playwrights Alliance and Prodigal Sun Productions and starring Pug Bujeaud, Tim Hoban, Tim Scott (aka Tim Samland) and Paul Gisi.

I saw this play first in rehearsal a couple of weeks ago and then again Sunday night. I wrote a preview article for my weekly column in The News Tribune (scroll down to see it). It is a wonderful play, well written (by Philip Atlakson), well acted, and well directed (by Dennis Rolly).

There was a grand total of four people in the audience Sunday night, and I was told that there were only two people in the audience opening night. My God! Such lack of support for hard working and well known local theater people is disgusting. Get off your asses, people, and buy your tickets at buy olympia.com. Tickets are a mere $12.

And tell everybody you know.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Paint splattered

While painting our bathroom cabinets today I was reminded of something that happened a long time ago. I took a break from painting (pictures, not cabinets) and ran to the 7-11. The clerk noticed my paint-splattered clothes and asked, "Are you a house painter or just an artist?"

Writing, acting make ‘Ascetic’ emotionally intense

Published in The News Tribune, April 11, 2008
Pictured: Tim Samland as the ascetic and Pug Bujeaud as Sara. Photo by Marc Bujeaud

Theater Artists Olympia, the “fringe” company that produces some of the more challenging theater in the Pacific Northwest, is bringing Philip Atlakson’s play “The Ascetic” to the Midnight Sun performance space beginning tonight.

TAO boasts of “untamed theater,” which implies something that is less than polished, but this play is thoroughly polished both in the writing and in the production. The story may be improbable, but the writing is literate and beautifully structured.

Atlakson heads the Dramatic Writing Program at Boise State University. He has written, directed and acted in numerous plays and movies, including the off-Broadway production of “The Ascetic.”

A co-production with The Northwest Playwrights Alliance and Prodigal Sun Productions, this play was presented in a Playwrights Alliance reading a few years ago under the title “The Ascetic of Lincoln County,” but this will be its first full stage production. I saw it in rehearsal without costumes, sets or theatrical lighting and with actors still on book. Even under those rough conditions, I thought it was great theater.

A holy man has made the news by standing on a rock in the basalt desert of Eastern Washington for 300 days, apparently without food or water. A married couple, Jerry and Sara, travel to the desert to see this phenomenon for themselves. Immediately upon arriving on the rock in the desert where the holy man stands with his prayer rope, Jerry takes his picture, and then he asks his wife to take a picture of him standing by the holy man, treating the ascetic as if he is not a man at all but some kind of prop set in the wilderness.

Sara is skeptical. She thinks the holy man is a sham. He’s in it for the money (although she can’t figure out how he can make money out of it). And he must be sneaking food and water, stashing it somewhere among the rocks, because it is not possible to survive 300 days without food or water.

But Jerry believes the holy man is for real, a link between past and present, East and West – “our link to how unlinked we’ve become,” Jerry declares with a kind of circular logic that becomes more and more nonsensical as he tries to defend the holy man. He employs the same kind of circular reasoning in criticizing his wife with statements such as “You say things as a way of never saying anything at all.”

The presence of the holy man brings about strange reactions from both Jerry and Sara. They do things they normally would never do. Sara even seduces her husband into making love right in front of the ascetic in a scene that pushes right up to the boundary of good taste without crossing that boundary – an acting challenge that Pug Bujeaud as Sara and Tim Hoban as Jerry handle with grace, intensity and playfulness.

The ascetic challenges their reason, their marriage, their faith and ultimately (possibly) their very lives.

“I have to say, as an actress, it is the most challenging role of my life,” Bujeaud said. It is both physically and emotionally demanding. In the hands of a less skilled actor, Sara would be unbelievable, but Bujeaud’s performance seems convincingly authentic, as does Hoban’s.

The only other actors are Tim Samland as the ascetic, in what might well be the most understated job of acting ever seen in the South Sound, and Paul Gisi in a brief appearance as the sheriff.

“The Ascetic” was described in a press release as a black comedy, which may be at best a semi-accurate description. It is an intense, thought-provoking drama with moments of absurdity. I found myself wishing for a more comedic approach, especially in Gisi’s portrayal of the sheriff, but director Dennis Rolly probably made the right decision in having his actors play it as straight drama.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays through April 26
WHERE: The Midnight Sun, 113 N. Columbia St., Olympia
TICKETS: $12 at buyolympia.com and at the door day of the show

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Street art

Group show at Black Front Gallery

Published in the Weekly Volcano, April 10, 2008
Pictured: untitled figure by Diane Kurzyna(pictured in downtown alley, now on display at Black Front Gallery)

The terms “cutting edge” and “street art” are tossed around a lot. The current show at Black Front Gallery is the real thing. These artists are like feral cats brought inside and trained — only everybody knows you can’t really train an alley cat.

OK, I exaggerate. Only some of these artists are real-deal street artists. Others are establishment artists who might have been influenced by street artists. Like Diane Kurzyna, aka Ruby Reusable. She’s been making art out of recycled materials for as long as many of us remember. And frankly, up until now, her art has tended to be more cute and entertaining than profound. She started out making silly little dolls and various clever tableaux out of Wonder Bread wrappers and other discarded materials.

Eventually she moved into making life-size and relatively realistic figures out of plastic bags and placing them in various “real life” locations such as park benches, a city bus and perched atop dumpsters in downtown alleys — all of which lends to her art a kind of gritty street cred it never had before.

Kurzyna fits right in with the “real” street artists that are showing at Black Front, some of whose names I can’t even mention because the cops are on the look out for them. I’m talking guerilla artists with tags such as "Sine," "Baso," "1+1=3," "Veks" "Slutz," "Jeans," and others. I’m talking graffiti painted directly on the gallery wall with dedications to certain other graffiti artists whose identities are known only to the select (plus — and I was glad to see this — a “tag” dedication to longtime Olympia gay rights activist Mike Cook who died of cancer a few years ago). This work is touching, colorful, vibrant, and at least some of it is gut-wrenchingly real.

Back to Kurzyna. Her figure, which sits in the gallery window, is made of reused black plastic bags from Radio Shack, Hot Topic and Metropolis. She’s wearing a red plastic-bag teddy and red "Danger Do Not Enter" shoes. On her head is a beauty queen tiara made from aluminum pop tops and wire based on E from Slutz crew (known for work on the free wall behind the Capitol Theatre in Olympia). This is the best work Kurzyna has done to date. Even the clear plastic shoes hanging overhead look much better here than when last seen in an installation inside the Capitol Theatre.

But the real star of this show has to be Adie Janci, a street artist from Chicago. I don’t know anything about this artist other than what is posted on the gallery wall. In fact, there are works in the gallery that I assume to be by Janci because of their grouping with her other works, but which, in fact, may be by some anonymous street artist. I am speaking here of the unidentified stenciled images on the left wall as you enter the gallery. These figures remind me a lot of work by Bansky, possibly the most celebrated street artist in the world (if you don’t know him by now, that’s why God invented Google). The most outstanding of these figures is a stenciled picture of two little girls sitting on high stools — and I’m talking really, really high, almost ceiling high. The girls are dangling a baby on puppet strings. There is a graphic quality to these images that is hard to describe but which I find fascinating, and the combination of sinister imagery with childish innocence is powerful.

In a wall statement, Janci says her street art in Chicago consists mostly of long, white legs that she cuts out of paper and attaches to walls. There are a few of those here, attached at ceiling level. There are also two walls filled with little drawings and paintings that feature these same long white legs, many in combination with yellow bicycle wheels and one large group of circus-motif paintings.

I don’t believe Janci is a self-taught outsider. This is art that shows a highly trained touch with line and color and a sophisticated feel for distribution of space.

Set against the back wall are two pieces by Joe Penrod, who has shown at Black Front previously. Penrod places real items next to walls and “paints” their cast shadows with blue masking tape. Here he has two stools stacked one atop the other and a bucket filled with wood scraps, both with long blue cast shadows. They are striking images.
The smaller back room gallery features an installation by Laura Sharp — three walls densely packed with drawings, paintings, photographs, and various found or handmade items all interspersed with dated news clips. It is like a scrapbook of a young life lived in difficult times.

Also showing are works by singer/writer/artist Skie Bender.

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

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Yer Killin’ Me

Published in Art Access, April 2008
pictured: "and God Bless" by Dominic Rouse, courtesy Benham Gallery

The latest show at ArtsWest is “Yer Killin’ Me,” curated by Deborah Paine, curator for Seattle Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs and former Microsoft curator.
This show features:
• Samantha Scherer in an installation titled “These Are Their Stories”: 50 to 60 beautifully rendered watercolor images of victims from the opening sequences of the TV show “Law & Order.”
• Chris Crites’recreations of criminal mug shots and other images from the 1890s to 1950s in acrylic on paper bags.
• Susan Seubert, a Portland artist whose black and white photographs depict bucolic landscapes where people have been murdered.
• Maggie Orth, Seattle artist, technologist and entrepreneur who creates and invents interactive and electronic textiles and who is considered a pioneer in the emerging field of electronic textiles, interactive fashions, wearable computing and interface design.
• Dominic Rouse, whose bizarre, macabre and surrealistic photographs are all about death and destruction.
• And Randy Nichols, who expressively recreates the portraits of personalities bordering on the edges of iconic.

Scherer’s installation is not extremely large as installations go, the full installation is 26 inches by 65 inches and consists of some 40 to 50 evenly spaced individual watercolor paintings, each of which is a mere 2.5 inches square. The black-and-white images look more like ink wash drawings than watercolors. The wet-on-wet paint soaks into the paper in blobs with delicate control of shadows and minimal modulation of tone. Scherer explains: “Underneath each drawing, the season and episode number pertaining to the victim is handwritten on the wall in pencil, so it ends up being a kind of catalog of victims.”
As viewers of the “Law and Order” series know, each show begins with someone finding a dead body, usually by complete chance. It is these bodies – their faces to be specific – that Scherer paints. Most could easily be interpreted as peacefully sleeping rather than dead, but at least one of the images is of a survivor in a hospital bed with a black eye and oxygen hooked to her nose. This is a painful image. There is also at least one image of a highly recognizable actor, in this case Joe Seneca, one of those character actors that everybody immediately recognizes but can’t remember by name.
Rouse appears in the show courtesy of Benham Gallery. Images seen on his Web site at http://www.dominicrouse.com/ are macabre in the extreme, with rotting corpses, skeleton heads with bodies sliced in sections and sewn back together. A photograph called “and God Bless” pictures a bare room like a monk’s cell minus the religious iconography or a prisoner’s cell with an old dresser of a type one can’t imaging being in a prison cell. There is no body in the cell, but the tops and bottoms of striped pajamas pray beside the bed – the top hung on the wall like a crucifix. Other Rouse photos in the show such as “Vacancy” and “The Survivor” are even darker and more horrific.
Nichols’ paintings are decorative and sweet, and similar to Scherer’s in style, only with more color and less detail. Described as iconic, it seems that description has more to do with the subjects than with the look of the paintings. The subjects include Princess Diana and the recently martyred Benazir Bhutto, both of whose violent deaths play right into the “Yer Killin’ Me” theme.
It is Crites’ mug shots on brown paper bags that are iconic in presentation. Each face is that of a criminal or suspect taken from the San Francisco Police Department, Golden Gate precinct, in the 1940s. The artist does not know their identities. They are identified by crime: “Arsonist,” “Assault,” etc. Harsh, seen from a straight-forward viewpoint and painted in flat planes of few colors, they are reminiscent of some of Andy Warhol’s silkscreen portraits – and due to subject matter also bring to mind Warhol’s electric chair series.
Orth’s interactive and electronic textiles almost defy description. Until interacted with, her abstract patterns are not unlike paintings by Stuart Davis or Marsden Hartley or traditional patchwork quilts, but when touched, the colors and patterns change. These works are technologically inventive, and the patterns are quite attractive, but I do not understand why they were included in a show in which everything else adheres to a death theme.
Seubert’s photographs do not appear to fit with that theme either. They are quiet landscape photographs in black and white, comfortable nature scenes with no hint of humanity – no people, no cars, and no buildings or telephone wires overhead. But each photograph is of a murder scene. Titles and captions complete the photographs by explaining the settings. For instance: “1000 Acres. On 31 August 1992, Clarence Wayne Richards’ body was found in 1000 Acres Park. He died of numerous stab wounds to the neck and chest. His pickup truck was found in SE Portland. On 30 January 1990, the body of Tony Alverez was discovered sitting in his truck with two gunshot wounds to the head. He was a long haul trucker. There is no suspect in the case.”
“When asked if I would be a guest curator for the ArtsWest Playhouse exhibition space,” Paine said, “my first question was to inquire about the play they would be presenting during this exhibition. ‘The Dead Guy’ production turned out to be a wonderful title to play with in terms of finding imagery that would segue from the play to the exhibition space.”
Paine described the works in the show as “an eclectic mix of tongue-in-cheek playfulness and serious imagery” that “deals with death in an obvious and hopefully humorous way.”
“Yer Killin’ Me” runs April 6-May 3 at ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery, 4711 California Avenue SW, Seattle.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Word pictures

This is from the latest review of my novel posted on amazon.com.

"...while I can't say I always like his choice of topics, I do enjoy his writing style. His characters are vivid but above and beyond that, the settings are like scenes on a theater stage. He paints word pictures in all his work...

The Wives of Marty Winters is an escape from reality to reality and provides a venue for development of personal imagery. I encourage you to see for yourself." - Margaret Ward.

If you're reading this, MW, thanks for posting a review. I'll try and paint even more vivid word pictures in my next one. Click here see all of the customer reviews on amazon.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Music and movement tell an island love story

Published in The News Tribune, April 4, 2008
Pictured, top: Jamelia Payne as Asaka; bottom: Ashley Jackson as Ti’Moune. Photo by Dean Lapin.

The Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens musical “Once on This Island” at Lakewood Playhouse combines Caribbean folk tales with a love story reminiscent of “Romeo and Juliet” told through song and movement.

Unlike the majority of contemporary musicals, there is almost no dialogue; the story is presented in an abstract and symbolic manner, almost like ballet or opera.

All movement is dance in this production, which has the feel of an elaborate musical on a grand scale despite the intimate in-the-round space and simple props and sets.

This is Julie Halpin’s directorial debut at Lakewood Playhouse. She comes to this production after almost 40 years heading the drama departments at Washington and Curtis High Schools and brings with her experience in dance, choreography and mime. I mention this because it shows in the choreographed movement of the actors wherein even the most insignificant movement away from the central action is presented as a kind of stylized mime performance (credit also choreographer Katie Stricker). Unfortunately, with so much attention to movement, some of the less choreographed jockeying for positions between scenes becomes a distraction. But that’s a minor quibble.

The multi-layered story exposes wounds in the island society to which we in the United States can easily relate. There are severe class and racial divisions on the island. The light-skinned descendents of French settlers and their slaves who live on one side of the island consider themselves more civilized than the darker-skinned and more primitive peasant natives who live on the other side of the island and worship native gods.

Island legends and the love story of Ti’Moune (Ashley Jackson) and Daniel Beauxhomme (Adrian David Robinson) are told by a chorus of island storytellers (many of whom play double roles) and by the native gods and goddesses: Agwe (Eddie James), God of Water; Asaka (Jamelia Payne), Mother of Earth; Erzulie (Tena DuBerry), Goddess of Love; and Papa Ge (Jeffery Brown), Demon of Death.

In the beginning there is a terrible storm that kills many of the island inhabitants, but the gods save the young child Ti’Moune (played by six-year-old Jade Cooper) by placing her in the top of a tree. Her adoptive parents believe the gods have saved her for a reason but they don’t know what that could be. Years later when Ti’Moune grows up and prays for love, the gods bring her Daniel, son of Armand (Alex Domine) who comes speeding through her side of the island and wrecks his car, and is almost killed in the accident. Ti’Moune and Daniel fall in love – to the shock of her parents who are afraid of the taboo they would break by being together, but he abandons her, returning to his side of the island even though not yet recovered from the accident. Against the advice of her parents, Ti’Moune sets out to find Daniel, nurse him back to health and recapture their love in an adventure that becomes a pitched battle between love and death.

It is a dark story that does not end well in the time of the telling, but which sets the stage for happier times of healing in the future, as exemplified by the uplifting final anthem “Why We Tell the Story” – a song of hope and healing reminiscent of “We Are the World.”

In the lead role as Ti’Moune, Ashley Jackson stands out primarily for her acting and graceful movement, and Robinson’s energetic dance movements simply take the breath away. Physically they are perfectly cast as the beautiful and tragic young lovers, but they are neither the best singers nor the most dynamic characters in this play. Those honors go to the gods and goddesses played by Payne, DuBerry and Brown.

One of the strongest singers is Payne, a grand Mother Earth. She spends much of the evening standing on rocks in front of a waterfall wearing a majestic headdress and singing with powerful bell tones. Her comforting song, “Mama Will Provide” is one of the solo highlights of the play. The second of the strongest voices is that of DuBerry as the Goddess of Love. Her solo on “The Human Heart” is one of the more haunting moments in the play.

But the most undeniable presence on stage is that of Brown as the big-voiced, menacing Demon of Death.

Also outstanding in this production is Domine, a senior at Steilacoom High School who (as storyteller and father to Daniel) already looks like a seasoned professional actor.

Filled with darkness, mysticism and death, it is hard to believe that this musical was based on “The Little Mermaid” and was written by the creators of “Seussical.” But it was, and despite some of the heavier moments, it is essentially light entertainment.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through April 27
WHERE: Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood
TICKETS: $22 general admission, $19 senior and military discount, $16 under 25, $14 under 15
INFORMATION: 253-588-0042, www.lakewoodplayhouse.org

art everywhere

Overlooked public art in Tacoma

Published in the Weekly Volcano, April 3, 2008

Watch out when you’re walking, you might step on the art. It’s all over the place, more often than not hidden in plain sight. Sometimes hidden by virtue of being overly familiar; your eyes just take it in and spit it out without ever processing it through the brain. Like the tiles inset in the sidewalk on 11th Street between Broadway and Commerce that were installed with great fanfare a few years back but which not just get stepped on.

Or like Buster Simpson’s Parapet Relay at the UW Bookstore downtown. Simpson is an internationally known installation artist and sculptor whose works include major public installaltions in Seattle, Bainbridge Island, Walla Walla, Boston, Kansas City and many other cities. Tacomans might remember Simpson’s grand rooftop sculpture that graced the Museum of Glass from 2002 to 2006. But how many even notice the ghostlike image of enigmatic words along the parapet of the UW Bookstore? This is art that was designed to vanish in plain sight; art that only those who are willing to take the time to look and think ever notice. The words STORAGE, LABOR, GATHER, IDEA & WISDOM in block capital letters wrap around the parapet, but not all can be seen from any given angle. As you move around the building looking at it from different viewpoints, the words appear and disappear. They refer to the site’s original industrial function morphing into its current educational function. Take a look. I wonder how many people pass by every day without noticing.

On the other hand, there is some public art that becomes so ubiquitous around here that it’s a good thing it goes unnoticed. I’m talking about salmon. There are salmon sculptures all over Tacoma and down in Olympia, too. They’re everywhere, and they’re boring, boring, boring. In Olympia they had a contest about 10 years ago and practically every artist in town submitted a salmon, and they were placed in public locations all over town, but eventually had to be moved into public buildings because people were desecrating them (who can blame them?) and stealing them (who would want to?).

And then there are Larry Anderson’s 19th century-style figures all over T-town, most noticeable perhaps in Fireman’s Park and in front of Union Station. I’m glad that this style of public sculpture is no longer popular, or at least no longer as popular as it once was, but I have to admit there is a kind of working-class charm to Anderson’s sculptures that I enjoy. That guy with his suitcases in front of Union Station looks so damn happy to be catching a train out of town.

Speaking of Union Station, the Chihuly glass there is among his better work, especially the two oval windows. These are much better than the work on the so-called Chihuly bridge of glass that connects the Tacoma Art Museum with the Museum of Glass.

Another often-overlooked work that I’ve always enjoyed is Kurt Kiefer’s Washingtonia Domus on 26th Street near the Tacoma Dome. Simultaneously delicate and airy and heavily industrial, Domus is a row of potted palm trees — a tricky bit of false Tropicana in the dreary Northwest.

And then we have God in the clouds in two locations, two wall paintings with imagery borrowed from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, both of which are so bad they’re good. One is the Grandfield’s mural (artist unknown) behind the store at 20 Broadway, and the other is the Youth for Christ mural at 201 N. I Street, which is actually well done but is unbelievably corny.

A terrific bit of public art is the pop-icon Oakland/Madrona fence art by Eddie Hill at 3818 Center St. These flat cut-outs of workers are quite striking.

Discovering public art by accident can be a lot of fun. But you can also find a virtual tour online at http://www.tacomaculture.org/arts/publicart.asp
with photos, descriptions directions and maps.