Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Organic form

Installations at Traver and the Woolworth windows

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Dec 31, 2008
Pictured: "Transmutation a,b,c," metal sculpture by Catherine Grisez
Photo: courtesy Traver Gallery

The December snows are mercifully receding in memory, but the repercussions go on. The weather prevented me from seeing the shows I wanted to review for this week. If I had been able to make the rounds of galleries, I suspect the most interesting shows would have been at Traver Gallery and the Woolworth windows. I’m basing this on press releases and photographs of works currently on display — or in some cases images of other works by artists currently showing.

The show at Traver is called Dig. It is an exhibition of metal sculptures by Catherine Grisez. Her sculptures are enigmatic forms inspired by seedpods and root systems and other natural forms, which seem to relate not only to organic growth in the wild but also to the inner workings of the human body. A press release states with poetic flourish: “Each of Grisez’s pieces represents an experience in her life that has affected her deeply. By dissecting these symbolic organic forms scientifically, she hopes to uncover the underlying meaning of the emotional events of her life and connect them to a more universal experience. As a result, Grisez’s work communicates on a direct and powerful level — bulging seedpods strain to contain the life growing within them, precious stones spill out of a quiet, empty vessel and root systems float, exposed, in front of the viewer.”

She is not unique in sculpting organic forms. I’ve seen many abstract sculptures in glass, plastic, wood and metal that are based on similar forms, especially seedpods.

It is difficult to get the full effect of texture and scale from looking at images on the Web site (, but sizes and media are listed. The first image is called "Transmutation a,b,c." It consists of three sac-like pods hanging from big-head nails. Each is about a foot tall with the surface coloring and texture of redwood and filled with jewel-like seeds. This is my favorite of the images on the web site. It’s like a precious stone and at the same time almost creepily organic. Only her smaller works are shown on the site, but there are also some larger wall mounted sculptures and a site-specific installation of mixed media root systems suspended in the gallery’s steel framed windows. I look forward to seeing these larger works.

Speaking of root systems and organic forms, the press release for Tacoma Contemporary’s winter installations in the Woolworth windows contains a photograph of an amazing installation by Elissa Cox. It looks like the lair of the alien creatures in the movie Alien and like an organic labyrinth made of orange, red and brown thread. I say it “looks like” thread because the media is not identified. Still, it is a fascinating installation. The only problem is, it’s not what’s currently showing. It’s just a sample of Cox’s work. What she is showing is an installation created in collaboration with Tannaz Farsi and Petra Kralickova, which is described as an exploration of “the intensity and nuance of environments both dreamed or remembered. …” an abstract landscape of shapes, colors and forms (which) will both resemble the landscape of the body and a labyrinth.”

Also included in the press release from Tacoma Contemporary was a really nice looking installation by Ingrid Ludt made of what appeared to be crumbled white cloth and wadded mounds of red-orange thread. As with the Elissa Cox image, this is an earlier work and not the installation that is now showing, but it shows Ludt’s sensitivity to form and color. Her actual installation is described as “torn air filters, wire and rope that will hang from the ceiling. The wire will be used as thread connecting and knotting the pieces of torn material together in a large-scale sewing technique.”

Also included in the Woolworth windows are an "eco-highway" by Niku Kashef and a "Borrowed Landscape" by Shannon Conroy made of window decals.

[Traver Gallery, Dig, metal sculptures by Catherine Grisez, through Feb. 8, 1821 East Dock St., Tacoma, 253.383.3685]

[The Woolworth Windows, open 24/7, through Feb. 14, Commerce and Broadway at 11th, Tacoma,]

Friday, December 26, 2008

This ‘Carol’ doesn’t quite sing

Published in The News Tribune, Dec. 26, 2008
Pictured: Mark Peterson as The Ghost of Christmas Present and Ernest
Heller as Ebenezer Scrooge, photo by Dean Lapin.

Something strange happened at opening night of Lakewood Playhouse’s “A Christmas Carol.” And I’m not talking about ghostly apparitions. I’m talking about a sudden change in the tenor and pace of the play.

It started out quite well, with a very convincing Scrooge played by Ernest Heller, a competent Bob Cratchit (Robert McConkey), an entertaining and likeable Nephew Fred (Luke Amundson) and perhaps the best Jacob Marley I’ve ever seen in the person of Christian J. Doyle.

The sets designed by Erin Chanfrau, who also wrote and directed this adaptation of the Dickens classic, were beautiful. The painted floor and backdrop are works of art – cobblestone streets with snow drifts and a city skyline almost totally obliterated by fog painted by muralist Steve Chanfrau. The ambience created by the set and by Scott Campbell’s sound effects and Kris Zetterstrom’s lighting provide a nice balance of mystery and holiday cheer.

The first ghostly effect was startling and beautifully done. An unseen figure behind what appeared to be a black door but was actually a curtain or scrim tried to push through as if attempting to break through from the other world. This, accompanied by dramatic lighting and sound effects, set the mood for what was to follow.

And then Doyle appeared, dragging his chains as the ghost of Marley, and the intensity of the performance kicked up a notch. His strange tics and spastic walk really struck at the heart of what Marley’s ghost would be like after carrying chains of guilt for seven years.

But then, just when things should have started getting really exciting, it fell flat. The Ghost of Christmas Past was emotionless, and his ghostly costume and makeup was uninspired – especially coming right after seeing Marley’s outstanding costume and makeup. And Young Scrooge (Robert Tobias) and his girlfriend, Belle (Emily Anderson) seemed to be reciting their lines by rote with no emotional investment.

And so it went throughout the visits of the three spirits and Scrooge’s visit to past, present and future. Everything seemed contrived and awkward with few exceptions (notably Mark Peterson’s magisterial Ghost of Christmas Present) until Scrooge finally woke up on Christmas morning.

One problem is that there are a lot of young, inexperienced actors who might be fine in a school production but need more seasoning before appearing on stage at this level.

And then the tenor changed again, and the Christmas morning scenes when Scrooge became a new and generous man were as joyful and as funny as one would expect.

Chanfrau deserves accolades for her writing, directing and sets. She said that she wanted to take a slightly different approach to the popular story, playing on the original subtitle, “A Christmas Ghost Story.”

“I wanted the show to be a little scary and lot of fun,” says Chanfrau. “I also wanted to keep the story short to provide the perfect holiday entertainment.” It runs a little under two hours including intermission.

Two other members of the ensemble cast deserve special notice. Kathi Aleman as a rag lady and as Mrs. Fizziwig, and Valerie Kirkwood as the second rag lady were funny and rang true to type with their broad gestures and heavy accents. Aleman really stood out. According to the program notes, this is Aleman’s first appearance at Lakewood Playhouse and her first in many years on any stage after taking a break from acting to raise a family. I certainly hope to see more of her in the near future.

To present such a well-known story as this without it seeming contrived or corny is a huge challenge. Doing it in the round is even more of a challenge, as a large part of the action had to take place off in a corner where sections of the audience had to crane their necks to see what was going on. I did not think this cast and crew succeeded as well as would be hoped, but there are certainly some entertaining moments.

WHEN: 8 p.m. today and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood
TICKETS: $22 general, $19 seniors and military, $16 24 and younger, $14 14 and younger
INFORMATION: 253-588-0042,

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

An evil mistress

Red Warner’s New Year’s message

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Dec 24, 2008
pictured: "Mockery," digital print by Red Warner

“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.”

This statement comes from Red Warner, a painter, a man possessed by demons, an artist who can no more not make art than he can stop breathing. Warner has a graduate degree in art and has spent a lifetime painting, but still he is filled with doubts about his own work. He looks at the paintings stacked against the walls in his loft and wonders if this physical evidence of a lifetime dedication to art is worth the effort.

OK, there is no real Red Warner. He’s a character I made up, the protagonist of my novel Until the Dawn. But he is, in many ways, the epitome of every halfway decent painter I have ever known. I know from reading biographies of many of the great artists of the past that the best of them harbored just the kind of doubts Warner expressed in this opening statement. I know Paul Cezanne did. I know Jackson Pollock did. And I know from talking to many contemporary artists here in the South Sound that they too are often wracked with the same torturous doubts and are obsessed with the same need to push themselves to become better and better and better.

I also know that when these artists show their work in area galleries it is like stripping naked and standing in the spotlight for the entire world to see. They are putting not just their art on display; they are putting their raw, naked and very humanly blemished selves on display. Knowing this, how can I dare to criticize their works week after week? Who am I to say whether their work is worth viewing or not?

I could site my master’s degree in drawing and painting and my years of teaching art and making art, but let’s face it: that doesn’t really mean much of anything. When I express an opinion in writing — and it is just an opinion no matter how educated it may be — I am putting my reputation on the line just as much as the artists I am critiquing. That’s why I usually try to be very gentle in my criticism.

I hope my words have been and will continue to be educational and entertaining — and not too hurtful.

Best wishes for a wonderful and creative 2009.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

I get letters

I expected to get letters about my December 12 review of “Run for Your Wife,” which I criticized for its anti-gay slurs, and I did. Here are a couple of letters and my answers (names omitted). Please forgive the repetition as I made some of the same points in each letter by copying and pasting.

The first letter:

Thanks for attending and reviewing Run For Your Wife.

Having said that, I'm very surprised - astonished is not too strong a word - at your reaction to the play itself. As it seems churlish to me to say anything more, I'll merely ask if you'd like to discuss whether or not Run For Your Wife is offensive. I believe it is not, and would enjoy a mild debate via email. If not, we'll have to disagree without the discussion.

My answer:

I know how dedicated and hard working theater people are and wish them only the best. It pains me to criticize any play, but I write theater reviews. I have to state my honest opinion -- it is what I am paid for.

In the case of "Run for Your Wife," I don’t believe that the cast and crew meant to be malicious. I believe that they thought the gay jokes were in the spirit of good fun. I have seen plays and movies in which actors (usually but not always gay actors) make fun of gay stereotypes, and it can be funny when it is done right. But that is a tight rope to walk. Hank Azara and Nathan Lane's characters in "The Birdcage" comes to mind. The difference is those characters were written sympathetically. They are good people and the audience cares for them.

In "Run for Your Wife" there was one gay character who served no purpose in the script other than to poke fun at his stereotypical portrayal. We laughed at him, not with him. Plus there was an endless array of gay puns and innuendos that were juvenile at best -- tittery, childish uses of words like fag and queer. And again, while those words can be used in ways that are not offensive, that is a risky place to tread without crossing the line.

I am not alone in my belief that the play was offensive. I quoted a New York Times critic: "It is, however, one's responsibility to report that 'Run for Your Wife' also has so many potentially offensive references to homosexuality that it could set off a new wave of activism and protest against anyone who finds all that intolerable."

Similarly, the blog dandanaka.blogspot said: "If I had planned the play, I might have removed about 30 percent of the dialogues in each scene, and alltogether removed one homosexual character. Infact I would have removed all jokes relating to homosexuality..."

On a personal note, I am the president of the Olympia chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and a trainer with the Safe Schools Coalition. In both of these capacities I see the dire results of casual gay remarks and jokes that may or may not be specifically intended to be malevolent. I know. I lost a son because of gay bashing. He was 17 years old. He was attacked and beaten up because he was bisexual. He constantly heard anti-gay slurs. His friends were beaten up. He thought that was all he had to look forward to the rest of his life, so he ended his life. Knowing this, I hope you can understand why I have no tolerance for gay slurs, even if no harm is intended. The unintended consequences can be horrible.

I wrote the criticism you object to for two reasons. First – that potential audiences are forewarned so they can make an educated decision about whether or not to see the production, which I take seriously for every show I review. Second – that the company who produced the play, and other companies who might consider it, might realize that they do so with responsibility to their audience and to our community for what messages they send with the show they produce.

No, I don’t think your comments were churlish, and I would be glad to discuss it further with you. Just let me know.


The second letter:

Catching up on some back issues, I ran across this review. Your comments regarding the offensive nature of the humor would carry more weight if they included the infidelity and deceit material. Evidently you think this kind of stuff is funny and acceptable. Cheating and lying are not funny either and are horribly wounding to the people who are victimized by these behaviors. I myself cringe reading the so called funnies in the newspaper. If it weren't for Dennis the Menace and a couple of other strips which refrain from certain subject matter and maintain a modicum of innocence, I myself would find this a totally cynical, dreary world. If subject matter is going to disturb you, I suggest you redirect your career where you will not be confronted with undesirable and distasteful ideas.

My answer:

I’m not necessarily bothered by undesirable and distasteful ideas in drama or literature. Murder, deception and infidelity have been the mainstays of drama and comedy from Shakespeare to Hemingway to most of the stuff you see on stage, screen and television today.

There are huge differences between what people DO (lie, cheat, murder, steal, etc.) and what they ARE (fat, disabled, black, Asian, gay, etc.). In this play what I thought was funny was not that John Smith cheated and lied but how ineptly he did it.

I don’t believe it’s acceptable to ridicule people because they happen to be attracted to people of the same sex, and in "Run for Your Wife" the gay character, Bobby Franklin, served no purpose in the script other than to have someone to make fun of by depicting him as stereotypically campy. Plus there was an endless array of gay puns and innuendos that were juvenile at best – tittery, childish uses of words like fag and queer. While those words can be used in ways that are not offensive, that is a risky place to tread without crossing the line.

I’m not alone in my belief that the play was offensive for the reasons that I stated, and at the same time I don’t believe that the cast and crew meant to be malicious. I believe that they thought the gay jokes were in the spirit of good fun.

I wrote the criticism of this play for two reasons. First – so that potential audiences are forewarned and can make an educated decision about whether or not to see this production. I take this seriously for every show I review. Second – so that the company who produced the play, and other companies who might consider it, might realize that they do so with responsibility to their audience and to our community for what messages they send with the show they produce.

You wrote, “If subject matter is going to disturb you, I suggest you redirect your career where you will not be confronted with undesirable and distasteful ideas.” I believe that the arts, including theater, are able to confront and address “undesirable and distasteful ideas” in ways that make this world less dreary, which is one of the many reasons I love being a critic.

Alec Clayton

Friday, December 19, 2008

There’s comedy, method in ribald ‘Reefer Madness’

Published in The News Tribune, December 19, 2008
Sarah Jolley, Christopher Schiel, Dave Beacham (Ralph), Matt Posner (Jack), Lauren O'Neil (Mae), Heather Christopher (Sally)
Lauren O'Neil (Mae), Dave Beacham (Ralph), Rob Rostad (Jimmy), Heather Christopher (Sally), Matt Posner (Jack)
Rob Rostad (Jimmy) and Erica Penn (Mary)
Photos by Kim Holm

Theater Artists Olympia is an equal opportunity offender. The mad men and women of this offbeat theater company poke irreverent fun at every institution, class, race and icon imaginable. This is, after all, the theater company that produced “Cannibal the Musical,” “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” and a strange and ultra-sexy version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” set in hell.

TAO is renowned for highly stylized choreography featuring women in skimpy underwear and for blood baths that rival Monty Python’s comic gore.

If you might be offended by any of the above, do not see TAO’s production of the Dan Studney and Kevin Murphy musical “Reefer Madness.” But if you get a kick out of such shenanigans and are tired of the usual holiday fare, by all means, see “Reefer Madness” this weekend.

This musical is a satire based on the 1936 film of the same name, which was intended to warn kids away from the devil weed, marijuana, but which became a cult favorite of pot-smoking teens in the ’60s and ’70s. Set in the 1930s but with 1950s style bebop and doo-wop and a Tom Jones-style singing Jesus, the play is a timeless romp and a very contemporary musical farce.

The modern day Romeo and Juliet of this play are Jimmy Harper (Rob Rostad), an all-American straight-A student and his wide-eyed, bobby-soxer girlfriend, Mary Lane (Erica Penn). When Jimmy is enticed into the reefer den by a ’30s-style gangster named Jack (Matt Posner, who doubles as the rockin’ Jesus), all hell breaks loose. The tragically stylized and melodramatic story of how the devil weed entices first Jimmy and then Mary into a life of carnal lust and criminality is told by The Lecturer (Elizabeth Lord). The whole thing is presented as a backdrop to The Lecturer’s horrifying speech in a small-town high school.

The role of The Lecturer was written for a man, but Lord, wearing a man’s suit, recasts this character as a stuffy, blue-nose woman who can barely contain her righteous indignation and horror. With jerky motions of her whole head and dramatic pauses, hers is a marvelous parody of a self-righteous and holier-than-thou person. Her comic absurdity is highlighted by dramatic spotlights that accompany her many appearances (lighting by Michael Christopher, who also appears in a brief cameo that is an extra-offensive surprise – be warned).

Lord also does a quick costume change near the finale for a great impersonation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a wheelchair.

Classically trained as a singer, Penn sings off-key and dances with exuberance as the oh-so-innocent Mary Lane. But, when she takes a toke of reefer, she changes into a lust-driven wanton tramp who later cavorts with a goat in hell.

Speaking of lust-driven, wanton women, Heather Christopher as Sally lives up to her billing as a “reefer slut.” She is like Mae West reincarnated with her big eyes, leering scowl, growling voice, hip-grinding dance moves and a sensuous body that is almost covered with a variety of slips and nightgowns. She also does great pratfalls and can’t walk up a flight of stairs to save her life.

Next to Lord, Posner is probably the best actor in the cast. He is suitably slithery as the dope pusher, Jack, and he really rocks out as a singing Jesus.

I wish I had space to write more about individual cast members. They’re all fine. I would elaborate on Christopher Schiel’s loose-limb dancing; Lauren O’Neil’s slatternly Mae; the Temptations-like trio of Jesus’ backup singers Rochelle Morris, Blythe Olson and Julia McAllee; and Dave Beacham’s hysterical laughter and overall performance as Ralph.

The one unfortunate drawback on the night I attended was a problem with the sound system that hopefully has been fixed. It was difficult to hear some of the dialogue and lyrics.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 19-21
WHERE: South Puget Sound Community College Center for the Arts, 2011 Mottman Road S.W., Olympia
TICKETS: $15 at the door or at
INFORMATION: 360-357-3471

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Holiday spirit

Fine crafts at Childhood’s End

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Dec. 18, 2008
Pictured: "Closed #3," oil on aluminum, by Rebecca Raven

The current exhibition at Childhood’s End Gallery seems well chosen for the holiday spirit in that the work on display is colorful and playful, and if you buy something from this exhibition as a Christmas present for your next door neighbors or your spouse or grown children who just bought a new home, it will probably be the most unique gift they have ever received.

None of the above is meant to imply that this is necessarily fine art; although I’m sure many people would certainly think so. As I’ve said many times, there is a fine distinction between art and craft. To my way of thinking, this is a crafts show — fine home d├ęcor that is unique and skillfully made. But none of it rises to or, I don’t believe, even aspires to the transformative experience that is art.

Having said that, the current show features batik paintings by Lisa Kattenbraker, oil paintings on aluminum by Rebecca Raven, and ceramic and metal sculpture by Robin and John Gumaelius.

Frankly, I’m not sure what to think about Kattenbraker’s batik paintings. I’ve been noticing them for about a week as I drive by and glimpse them through the gallery windows almost daily. They looked very intriguing from that distance, but not so good up close. They’re inventive, colorful and playful, but if there is any kind of theme or message, I don’t get it. And the designs and color combinations are somewhat bland despite being extremely busy. As with glass and encaustic, the technique of painting on fabric with wax-resistant dyes has an inherent surface beauty that is undeniable.

Kattenbraker paints faceless, bubble-headed figures and stick figures over intricate surface patterns, some of which look like Oriental or Indian designs. Her colors are bright and festive, and the figures carry well, which is why they look good from a distance. But I don’t think the figures and the background patterns work well together — neither harmonizing nor contrasting in visually exciting ways.

I think her best work is a little piece called "Blooms," which can be seen either as a field of flowers with big, round blossoms and long stems or a bunch of balloons on long ribbons. This is the only one of her pieces in which the figure and background are well integrated.

Raven is showing a group of portrait heads under the series title "Open, Away, Closed" with individual pieces carrying titles such as "Open 2" and "Away 1." I have no idea what the titles mean or how they relate to the portraits, but they are beautifully painted in a photo-realist (or perhaps neo-Renaissance) manner in oil on aluminum. Technically, they are flawless. The faces are all of attractive young people with smooth skin, perfectly coiffed hair and an inner glow. Not a brushstroke can be seen unless you look very closely at the reflections in the subject’s wet eyes.

The unique thing about these, individually and as a set, is the position and point of view. Each model is lying down, and the artist’s point of view is directly overhead looking straight down at their faces. Each head is oriented differently in relation to the frame — some at an angle, some upside-down, and so forth. This aspect works best when viewing the set of six paintings as a whole. If you bought one of these and took it home you’d lose that effect.

John and Robin Gumaelius, husband and wife, are showing, among other pieces, half a dozen stoneware birds with very decorative and highly intricate surface decoration, which looks like painting but is obviously fired in as a glaze. I don’t understand the technique, but it is highly effective. These are joyful, playful and quite beautiful.

[Childhood’s End Gallery, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, call for extended holiday hours, open Christmas Eve 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Dec. 31, 222 Fourth Ave. W., Olympia, 360.943.3724]

Friday, December 12, 2008

Lame gay gags hurt ‘Run for Your Wife’

Published in The News Tribune Dec. 12, 2008
Pictured: Matt Garry and Teri DeShon in 'Run for Your Wife'

The British farce “Run for Your Wife” playing at Encore! Theater in Gig Harbor would be hysterically funny if it were not for two big problems – one of which cannot be excused.

Written in 1983 by Ray Cooney, it is a contemporary adult comedy about a taxi driver named John Smith (Matt Garry) who is a bigamist. He lives with wife No. 1, Mary (Teri DeShon) in an apartment in Wimbledon and with wife No. 2, Barbara (Jaycee Brown) in Streatham. Neither wife knows about the other.

When John has an accident and is brought home from the hospital by a policeman, his secret is in danger of being divulged because his carefully timed schedule (pronounced in the British way, minus the C) is thrown off kilter. He confesses his bigamy to his neighbor, Stanley Gardner (Mike Jones), whose bumbling attempts to help him cover up grow ever more insane. Two policemen get involved, one of whom thinks there are two John Smiths, one of whom is Stanley; and wife No. 2 thinks Stanley is a crazy farmer (a play on Gardener). When it finally becomes necessary for John to explain why he has two apartments, he “confesses” that he and Stanley are lovers and the second house is their love nest.

From here on, what was a well-constructed and outlandish comedic plot devolves into a litany of offensive gay slurs. The script takes advantage of every imaginable opportunity to use derogatory terms and introduces a new character, Barbara’s upstairs neighbor, Bobby Franklin (Chris Riker), whose sole purpose seems to be to prance about in an exaggerated parody of a stereotypical gay man.

A number of critics have concurred that this is offensive, such as New York Times critic Alvin Klein, who wrote: “It is, however, one’s responsibility to report that ‘Run for Your Wife’ also has so many potentially offensive references to homosexuality that it could set off a new wave of activism and protest against anyone who finds all that intolerable.”

The other big problem is there is no satisfactory solution to the complex problems that are introduced. John and Stanley construct progressively layered lies until there is no way out – I won’t give away the end.

The set design by Jim Cave is effective and clever, combining two apartments into one in such a way as to eliminate set changes, and the timing and movement of the actors effectively create the illusion of two sets in one. The opening scene in which the two wives simultaneously call the police to report their husband missing is a masterpiece of comic timing that is handled almost like jazz improvisation.

As for the acting, DeShon, in particular, displays a great range of outlandish emotions, and when her character takes a bottle of happy pills, she falls and stumbles with admirable comic dexterity. Jones is also outstanding. When he first appeared on stage, I pegged him as being overly histrionic, but the character of Stanley Gardner calls for nervousness and being overly excitable. Garry is also good, although he shouts too much. It would be better if he’d tone it down a notch.

I attended a Sunday matinee. The house was almost empty, but the few audience members there laughed heartily throughout. Apparently none of them thought the multitude of gay slurs and double entendres were offensive. But I cringe at the thought of a closeted gay person in the audience who may be struggling with his or her identity. What would it do to fragile self-esteem to hear audience members laughing at gay slurs?

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Encore! Theater, 6615 38th Ave. N.W., Gig Harbor
TICKETS: $15 general; $11 for military, seniors and teens; $8 ages 7-12; $6 for younger than 7
INFORMATION: 253-858-2282

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Portraits and interiors

Sweet and bitter images at SPSCC

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Dec. 11, 2008
Pictured: "Woman with pearl necklace," charcoal, collage and acrylic by Gail Ramsey Wharton.

Two very different women artists fill the art gallery at South Puget Sound Community College with images of many more women — plus a couple of boats and families and urban life.

Gail Ramsey Wharton does fascinating acrylic, collage and charcoal portraits and interiors that seem to be a strange marriage of 16th-century Dutch painting and Romare Bearden collages. Lining one wall of the gallery are a dozen Wharton interiors, each of which has a single figure (a woman) in a room with various items ranging from ironing boards to rabbits. Everything is black and white except for one item in each picture that is in color.

Examples: "Ponder" depicts, in shades of gray, a woman standing in an archway. On a back wall is a portrait with a bright blue background, the touch of blue being the only color in the picture. "Swan" pictures a woman holding a swan — again, in black and white. But she has red stripes on one sleeve of her dress and similar red stripes on her collar. In "Carrot," another black and white picture, a woman stands on a table and holds a carrot that is carrot orange. And then there’s one with big, bright red lips and yet another with a green chair. There are many surrealistic details in these pictures that are easily overlooked because of the startling use of limited color; yet, nothing seems out of place. It’s "Alice in Wonderland" meets Max Ernst.

On the opposite wall is a suite of portraits by Wharton with odd distortions of facial features. They look just real enough to be unsettling. Collaged eyes and noses are mismatched — too large or too small or out of balance. The woman in "Woman with Cherry" has a large nose as seen in profile, but her face is pictured in three-quarter view. Very much like some Picasso portraits. And the disturbing image in "Woman with Blue Hands" is a woman with one eye much larger than the other and puppet hands, blue of course, with wooden sticks for arms.

The intriguing thing about her figures is the balance she strikes between realism and surrealism. They are eerie, verging on horrific. And the tortured, crumpled, rubbed, and scratched surfaces enliven the images.

Suzana Bulatovic’s acrylic and oil paintings are not as strong as Wharton’s portraits. A few are excellent, but a lot of them are too sweet for my taste. Some of her paintings are very loose and energetic while others — mostly the whole back wall — are too tightly controlled, almost as if colored in, and look too much like illustrations. The exceptions are the two largest paintings in this group. One in particular, called "Studio," is an excellent kind of 21st-century update of Impressionism. A woman in a bright pink dress sits by a window in an artist’s studio. Behind her are the accouterments of a typical studio, complete with sculpture bust and a large pot, all painted in a semi-Cubist manner. The things that make this painting work are the sunny color, the energy of the brushstrokes, and the way figure and background lock together on the surface. The same elements can be seen in two little acrylic paintings called "In a Red Dress" and "Return" at the front of the gallery.

Two other Bulatovic paintings that work well are "Rainy Day" and "Yellow Gloves." "Rainy Day" is a moody little painting with three silhouetted black figures in the rain holding colorful umbrellas. The soft and subtle colors in this one are lovely and jewel-like. "Yellow Gloves" pictures a woman who is severely cropped in the manner of a Toulouse Lautrec poster.

I wish Bulatovic had more works like these little jewels and fewer of the more contrived works that fill the back wall. All in all, it’s an impressive show.

[Kenneth J. Minnaert Center, Suzana Bulatovic and Gail Ramsey Wharton, noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, through Dec. 27, South Puget Sound Community College]

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Pat Boone spouts off

This is not a political commentary blog, but some things can't be ignored.

Last night Keith Olbermann quoted Pat Boone on his "Worst Person in the World" segment.

Boone said: "Look around. Watch your evening news. Read your newspaper. Have you not seen the awful similarity between what happened in Mumbai and what's happening right now in our streets," Boone asked referring to the Proposition 8 protests at Mormon churches as "riots."

Wow! I helped organize one of the thousands of Prop 8 protests. I guess that makes me a terrorist. But gee whiz, Pat, I didn't kill anyone. I swear I didn't.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Surrealist impulse

Two big little shows at the Tacoma Art Museum

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Dec. 4, 2008
Pictured: Claudia Fitch, Two Chandeliers with Milk Drops, 2003. Ceramic with glazes, oil paint, gold leaf, and brass fittings, dimensions variable. Tacoma Art Museum, Museum purchase with funds from Shari and John Behnke and Greg Kucera and Larry Yocom.

Along with the big shows at Tacoma Art Museum — Oasis: Western Dreams of the Ottoman Empire and Don Fels: What is a Trade? — there are a couple of smaller but interesting shows from the permanent collection: The Surrealist Impulse and Speaking Parts (I eliminated the wordy subtitles from both). As is typical of shows culled from museum collections, the works barely fit the show title. In the Surrealist exhibition, for example, there are works that are not really surrealistic but that are by artists who are associated with Surrealism. On the other hand, there are works in the Speaking Parts exhibition that could easily fit in the other show. And some of the artists are in both shows.

But categories and what fits where are irrelevant. What matters is that both shows include works by both famous and little-known artists from here in the Pacific Northwest — including usual suspects such as Morris Graves and Marc Toby and new stars such as Scott Fife, the sculptor who did the big cardboard dog that sits in the museum lobby — and internationally famous figures such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, whose The Two Sisters is fabulous, and Salvador Dali, who was the most overrated artist in the Surrealist movement but whose series of prints illustrating passages from a book of the Old Testament in this show is much better than a lot of his more showy and gimmicky paintings. Wow! That was a mouthful.

Fife’s "Dresser with Drapes and Landscape" is one of my favorite pieces in the show. It is something of a precursor of his later and better known portraits of famous people in his use of archival cardboard. It is a semi-realistic dresser with drapes attached to the wall in such a way that it looks like it is coming out of the wall much in the way the train engine comes out of the fireplace in Rene Magritte’s "The Son of Man." The partially opened drawers in the dresser are high enough that most people can’t see inside them. I’ve been told that there are rumors of things inside and that viewers get on their tip-toes and stretch to try and see what’s there.

Another intriguing work is "Some Say She Lost Her Head," a video by former Tacoman Jared Pappas-Kelley. I don’t want to say too much about this film other than yes she does lose her head, and it is funny and macabre, more post-modernist than surrealistic, perhaps, but shot in a grainy black and white that pays homage to early 20th-century movies of the Surrealism movement.

Also more post-modernist than surrealistic are Claudia Fitch’s "Two Chandeliers with Milk Drops." These are playful and decorative hanging chandeliers crafted from ceramic with glazes, oil paint, gold leaf, and brass fittings. They are kind of modernist rococo, silly and decadent with gold and white eyeball balls and white teardrops and upside-down hanging Buddha clowns. Imagine a decorative chandelier by Jeff Koons, he of porcelain white Michael Jackson fame.

In Speaking Parts: Conversations between Works in the Collection (now you have the full title), works by Northwest artists are paired for comparison sake with works by international artists. Among the Northwest artists are Ambrose Patterson, Guy Anderson, Sally Finch, Toby, and Graves. Famous American artists from the other side of the country include George Luks and Robert Motherwell. I love Motherwell’s "Open No. 176."

During the holiday season when visitors come from out of state and want to see the sites, take them to Tacoma Art Museum. There’s no better way to introduce them to our rich cultural heritage. These two exhibitions from TAM’s permanent collection show our rich art history and connect it to the larger history of art from around the world.

[Tacoma Art Museum, Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Third Thursdays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m., 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253.272.4258]