Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Incredible Undersea Trial of Joseph P. Lawnboy

Tacoma Little Theatre is doing Bryan Willis's amazing ecological musical fantasy (yes, I borrowed that phrase from the press release) "The Incredible Undersea Trial of Joseph P. Lawnboy."

I remember the first time I saw this play. It was a special Olympia Arts Walk presentation in the back room of an art gallery with the audience standing around in a circle and the performance in the middle. As well as I can remember, it was a non-musical production. I was amazed. I'd never seen anything like it. It dealt with critical ecological issues in a fantasy format. It was delightfully entertaining and highly innovative.

Undersea creatures put a young boy, Joseph P. Lawnboy, on trial for “crimes against the sea.” The audience becomes the jury and decides on Joe’s guilt or innocence.

It was written by Olympia’s Bryan Willis, with lyrics by Scott Whitney and music by Bruce Whitney. "Lawnboy" premiered with Olympia’s Harlequin Productions and ran for 99 performances during a two-year tour. It was subsequently staged over 500 times by various theaters including Seattle Public Theater, One World Theater (Seattle), Second Stage (Chicago) and schools in the Northwest.

Willis founded Northwest Playwrights Alliance, which has a long history of nurturing area playwrights. Area readers will recall that they used to present readings of new plays in the back room of Plenty Restaurant (now Cascadia Grill) in Olympia, and later moved to the Broadway Center in Tacoma, and then to Seattle Repertory Theatre.

The TLT production is directed by TLT Managing Artistic Director, Scott Campbell, and features Jerod Nace as Lawnboy, Darrel Shepherd as Fred the deep diving loon, Caresse Robertson as Greta the Fish, Betzy Miller at Darlene the mayfly larvae, and David Robertson as the Narrator.

March 5-14, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 PM and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 PM
Tickets are $15.00 each or $10.00 each when buying three or more. Call the TLT Box Office at 253-272-2281 to purchase tickets or reserve your seats online at

Friday, February 26, 2010

Funny, tragic affair

Tentative love: Acting is impressive but set changes slow down powerful play

The News Tribune/The Olympian, February 26, 2010
Pictured (top) Raychel Wagner and Dennis Rolly
(bottom) Katie Driscoll and Raychel Wagner
Photos by Elizabeth Lord

“Stop Kiss,” written by Diana Son and directed by Elizabeth Lord, is a contemporary drama ending a short run this weekend at The Midnight Sun performance space in Olympia.

As with life, this show is tragic, funny and messy. It examines the emotional lives of Callie (Raychel A. Wagner) and Sara (Katie Driscoll), single women living in New York City’s West Village who gradually discover they are romantically attracted to one another. Watching them circle each other is hilarious and touching, and it becomes downright absurd when Callie’s boyfriend George (Brian Jansen) gets in the act.

But the hilarity comes to a tragic and sudden stop when Callie and Sara finally kiss for the first time. They are viciously attacked by a homophobic bystander. Mercifully, the attack is not acted out on stage.

Although a precipitating event in the play, the crime is not what the story is about. It is about the growing and tentative love between two women. The story is told out of sequence in a series of brief scenes that alternate between moments prior to and after the assault. It is a cinematic method of storytelling viewers will recognize from TV shows such as “The West Wing,” for which the playwright was a staff writer.

“Stop Kiss” is an acting tour de force for Wagner and Driscoll, who bring the main characters to life. Chemistry is an overused term, but it’s there for sure. They are in turn funny, expressive, intense, bumbling, hesitant and sad. Every expression seems heartfelt and genuine.

Brian Jansen is a joy to watch as Callie’s boyfriend, who is OK with her attraction to Sara – stopping just short of a stereotypical prurient male interest in lesbian love. Jansen excels in comedic roles, and he portrays George as a slightly arrogant and sleazy doofus who dominates the stage, but when compassion is called for he plays it convincingly.

Dennis Rolly is cast in the unfortunate role of the tough, no-nonsense detective assigned to investigate the hate crime. Detective Cole’s grilling of Callie is written too much like that of a standard TV cop, and even Rolly’s considerable acting skill doesn’t lift this detective above the mundane. Good supporting roles are also turned in by Bonnie Vandver in the dual role of a witness to the crime and as a nurse, and Jon Tallman as Peter, Sara’s former boyfriend.

The story, which is powerful and realistic in both its tragic and comedic moments, is mostly well written with a great ear for dialogue and sense of character, and the acting is outstanding.

The big drawback is there are far too many distracting scene changes. The audience is asked to play along with the deception that we’re watching events in actual lives in New York City, but it’s hard to play along when stage hands are moving furniture during 20 scene changes. Some of the scenes are actually shorter than the time between scenes. In a larger theater, such distractions could have been avoided; here the audience is asked to overlook these necessary mechanics.

When: 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday
Where: The Midnight Sun, 113 Columbia St. N.W., Olympia
Tickets: $12 available at and at the door. Seating is limited. Buy online to assure a seat.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

New at Matter

New artists at Olympia's newest gallery

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Feb. 25, 2010
Pictured: Bret Lyon's untitled sculpture at Matter

Sculpture by Bret Lyon along with functional furniture and other works by Sam Winters are among the latest additions to Matter in downtown Olympia.

Marcel Duchamp and Allan Kaprow erased the boundaries between art and life. Andy Warhol destroyed the boundaries between fine and commercial art. Matter in Olympia has wiped out the distinctions between art and crafts, functional and non-functional art, galleries and boutiques. Matter features works by some 85 artists - 22 from Olympia - who make objects both aesthetic and functional out of materials that have previously been used for other purposes. In other words, recycled materials.

Art from recycled materials is all the rage now, and that's a good thing for the environment, but it's not a new thing. It started with Picasso and Braque before anyone ever heard of recycling. Matter owner Jo Gallaugher understands that it takes more than choice of materials to make good art, and she chooses artists with an eye toward quality, whether the work be jewelry, furniture, sculpture or some other art form.

Lyon is an abstract sculptor from Tacoma who works with found and scavenged materials. For his latest work he has taken apart the inner workings of an turn-of-the-century piano. The showpiece in Matter is his untitled work created with cables and felt damper blocks from the piano and bent wood taken from, I was told, discarded pieces from another artist's work. The parts are connected in a circular configuration that can be interpreted as an octopus or a sea anemone or the open petals of a flower. It is quite beautiful and also intriguing in concept as it depicts delicate organic forms in hard materials.

Also by Lyon is a wall-hanging sculpture made from the felt blocks and more pieces from the piano. It is called Exercise No. 2, and it reminds me a lot of a totem pole or some kind of ceremonial staff. While not as striking as the untitled work, it is quite attractive. A similar fetishistic work is Surrounds, bronze, steel, and plaster, which has mask-like faces embedded in a solid oblong form surrounded by a coil spring.

Lyon's The Space Between is a circular form made of many small scraps of wood to form what looks something like a two-person swing sitting on the floor or an off-kilter yin-yang sign. The contrast of the smooth shape and the rough texture of the wood pieces is very nice.

Winter's chair and bench made from welded scrap metal pieces that he calls tubes (they look more like gold bars to me) are very attractive minimalist sculptures. I didn't have the nerve to sit on one of them, if that is even allowed, so I can't attest to how comfortable they are as functional furniture, but they're great to look at.

Another piece of minimalist sculpture is a small piece by Jude Manley called Substitute for a Missing Ingredient. This is a piece of bow-shaped found wood with two long black splits into which are laid small stalks of some kind of plant. It looks like turned wood but may very well be found art. I didn't ask for details.

Another piece I like is Tim Mulligan's Flag IV. Strictly speaking it is an assemblage of painted wood scraps - differently colored planks laid out in a vertical stripe pattern. Conceptually it is an abstract painting.

These are but a few of many new pieces in this constantly changing and expanding gallery.

[Matter, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, noon to 5 p.m., Sunday, Monday by appointment, 113 Fifth Ave. SW, Olympia, 360.628.0466]

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Last of the Boys

Staged reading of play by Pulitzer Prize-winning author at University of Puget Sound

Readers of my column will recognize the name Scott C. Brown. He's owned the Best Actor category in my annual Critic's Choice awards -- sharing it with other outstanding actors the past two years. Last year I gave the award to Brown and his co-actor Brian Claudio Smith for their work in "Sins of the Mother" at Harlequin Productions, and the year before I picked him for his Randel McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at Lakewood Playhouse. Sharing the award that year was Anders Bolang as John in “Shining City” at Harlequin. And the year before he was my best dramatic actor pick for Salieri in "Amadeus" at Lakewood Playhouse.

Brown has recently sent me information on a reading of "Last of the Boys" by Steven Dietz, which he will be in along with Bryan K. Bender from Seattle; Meleesa Wyatt, Seattle actor and theatre faculty at University Prep; and three very strong UPS theatre students, Jen Davis, Mitch Knottingham, and Bryan Sullivan. According to the notice Brown sent me, the play is "moving, darkly funny and pitch perfect in its treatment of two colorful Vietnam vets coming to terms with opposing perspectives on the war and their part in it. All five roles are deeply drawn and richly interwoven.

The staged reading at UPS is a collaboration between Northwest Playwrights Alliance and University of Puget Sound Theatre Arts, to benefit the Dragoon Raiders Soldier and Family Fund. 7:30pm March 3, Stonegate Club, 5421 S. Tacoma Way; 7:30pm March 4, Wheelock Student Center, (Rendezvous) UPS, 1500 N. Warner; 9:30pm March 5, Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 North I Street. Information: UPS Theatre Arts (253)879-3330.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Understated insanity swirls in Lakewood Playhouse comedy

More believable characters: Even after 74 years, comedy remains relevant and hilarious

Published in The News Tribune, Feb. 19, 2010

The Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy “You Can’t Take it With You” by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart has been sending audiences into paroxysms of laughter since it opened on Broadway in 1936.

It remains as relevant and as funny today as it was 74 years ago – its continued success a tribute to the writing talent of Kaufman and Hart.

The carefully constructed story line, which has served as a model for many of today’s situation comedies, has a wild assortment of kooks and eccentrics, denizens of the Venderhof/Sycamore household, living the kind of lives most of us wish we could live. Their message to us through the years has been a simple and universal one: Live life to the fullest without regard for riches because you can’t take it with you when you die.

This is the third time in three years I’ve reviewed this play. In the first two productions, the outsized characters were played almost as parodies of themselves with overly broad gestures and exaggerated quirks.

At Lakewood Playhouse, under the direction of James Venturini, their eccentricities are slightly underplayed. Rather than presenting the audience with crazy people doing crazy things, Venturini and cast let us see people we can relate to doing crazy things, which I suspect is what Kaufman and Hart had in mind.

Jane McKittrick plays Penny Sycamore as a very normal mother and wife who just happens to have been writing unfinished plays for eight years – because a typewriter was accidentally delivered to their house. Michael Griswold plays Grandpa with the shuffling walk and slight tremor of an old man, but does not exaggerate his twitches and quirks. His eccentricities lie in what he does (collecting snakes, going to commencement exercises, and foiling the IRS), not in the way he acts. And he is absolutely believable.

The only actors who play their roles in a more comedic/slapstick fashion are Michael Dresdner as the Russian ballet teacher Boris Kolenkhov and Nicole Lockett, who is masterful in the duel roles of Gay Wellington, a sexy but over-the-hill alcoholic actress, and Olga Katrina, a grand duchess before the Russian Revolution now working as a waitress. Seldom have I seen anyone play drunk so well or combine haughtiness and modesty so convincingly. As for Dresdner, as the imperious dance instructor, he always is himself – charming and blustery and lovable – no matter what character he is playing.

As the loving and relatively normal couple around whom all of the insanity swirls, Joe Kelly and Kat Christensen play the young lovers Tony and Alice as down-to-earth and self-controlled but real and fallible people. Christensen, a 17-year-old student at Tacoma School of the Arts, has been outstanding in a number of performances at Lakewood Playhouse, most recently as Becky Thatcher in “Tom Sawyer.” She makes the audience fall in love with Alice Sycamore. It’s hard to believe she’s only 17. Kelly plays Tony as a young man with intense passion and determination.

One other actor deserving of special attention is Jack House as Donald. His is a small throwaway role, but House makes Donald sparkle.

The one regrettable bit of casting is Katy Shockman as Essie Carmichael. She’s a talented actor. I loved her as a witch in “Macbeth” and as Shelby in “Steel Magnolias.” But she’s not right for Essie. Essie is an incompetent dancer. To dance badly and make it hilarious, as it should be, requires an excellent and athletic dancer. Shockman approaches her dance moves with the tentative stances of someone who has never taken a lesson, and it just doesn’t work.

Another thing that doesn’t work is the end of act two, which literally goes out with an explosion of fireworks but metaphorically fizzles while actors freeze in place and special effects fireworks go off for way too long.

Finally, accolades must go to the director and set designer Venturini for doing an excellent job at both. His set is warm and welcoming. The collection of artifacts, photos, musical instruments and other assorted objects that hang on the wall of the Sycamore house, including a boxing glove and a scythe, is as odd as the people who live there. And his ability to keep so many people on stage without falling into sheer chaos is laudable.

“You Can’t Take it With You” is a three-act play with one 15-minute intermission and one 10-minute “stretch break.” It runs about two hours and 20 minutes.

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 28
Where: Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood
Tickets: $13.50-$21.50
Information: 253-588-0042,

Thursday, February 18, 2010

10 to watch

Up and coming South Sound artists

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Feb. 18, 2010
Pictured: "Tracks" 40" h x 47.5" w x 2.5" w latex paint on salvaged wood by Julie Haack

Here’s a list of South Sound visual artists to watch for in the coming months and years. Some have already made quite a splash on the scene, others are just beginning to emerge, and I can almost guarantee their success will grow. So file these names in memory, and when you hear that one of them is showing in an area gallery, check them out.

1. Jeremy Mangan - winner of the 2009 Foundation of Art Award Winner. What more need be said? He was also my pick as best artist in the Weekly Volcano’s “Best of Tacoma 2009.” At that time I described his paintings as surrealistic with a “brittle quality.” He even does ice sculpture. Can you beat that? See Mangan’s art at

2. Holly Senn - installation artist and used book sculpture. I’ve watched Senn’s art expand and mature in bursts of creative energy over the past few years. Working mostly with old books scavenged from libraries, Senn creates sculptures that comment on history and the environment and which often reflect back on themselves. Her work is intelligent, environmentally conscious and well crafted. Learn more at

3. Sean Alexander - graphic artist. Tacomans know Alexander as the co-founder of the Helm, which for a short time was a showcase for emerging young artists and the happening place in downtown Tacoma. His drawings are edgy, biting and sensitive with a great touch for balancing objects spatially. Lately he’s had shows at Victrola Coffee in Seattle and the Fontanelle Gallery in Portland. I can’t find a Web site or any listing for current shows, but I’m sure he’ll show up around here again.

4. Tim Kapler - drawings/doodles. It’s been a mere two months since I discovered Tim Kapler. I reviewed his show of drawings at the Swiss. Kapler is young and self-taught. His inventiveness and skill belie his lack of formal training. I think Kapler has a good chance of making a name for himself.

5. Randy Hayes - Southern expatriate. Not once, not twice, but three times in the past few years a painting by Seattle artist Randy Hayes has been the one of many in a group show at Tacoma Art Museum to make a lasting impression. Combining painting and photo-montage, Hayes makes pictures that tend toward but transcend illustration. It doesn’t hurt that Hayes is an expatriate Southerner like me and that a lot of his paintings reflect that heritage. Call them Faulknarian. But it’s much more than that. Check out his painting Dying Light in Venice #1 in the show A Concise History of Northwest Art now showing at TAM, and see more on Hayes’ Web site at

6. Kathy Gore Fuss - reemergent artist. Kathy Gore Fuss was the second artist I met in Olympia when I moved here in 1988. She was good then. She recently went back to college to get her BFA in drawing and painting from the University of Washington, and now she’s even better.

7. Chauney Peck - I first reviewed Chauney Peck in a 2003 article called “Sexy Fish.” Since then her career has skyrocketed, and her work keeps getting better. Her more recent works are oddly shaped and relatively flat paintings on vinyl. See for yourself at

8. Julia Haack - sculpture. Julia Haack’s wood sculptures have a similar look to Chauney Peck’s paintings on vinyl and cut-out plywood forms. Like Peck (I’d love to see the two of them in a combined show), her sculptures are mostly flat and work more like paintings with interlocking patterns within self-contained forms. They’re really beautiful. See examples at and at the Helen S Smith Gallery at Green River College in Auburn.

9-10. Shannon Eakins and Marc Dombrosky - The last two artists to watch are well known in Tacoma and almost impossible to categorize. Conceptual-performance-identity artists Eakins and Dombrosky, who often show together, do a little bit of everything. Their most recent show together in T-town, Phantasm Chasm at Fulcrum Gallery, featured a bullet-shot portrait of John Allen Muhammed. What more can you say? See and

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

End Days added matinee

Harlequin Productions has added a matinee performance of "End Days" Sunday, Feb. 21 at 2 p.m. This show has been selling out so call first or buy tickets online while they last at

Scroll down to see my review.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Stop Kiss

I don't usually post anything about a play before I review it, but I'm operating not as a theater critic now but in my other role as president of PFLAG-Olympia and the father of a child who was the victim of a hate crime. The play I'm going to see tonight is a play about homophobia and a hate crime.

Prodigal Sun Productions in Olympia is producing "Stop Kiss" by Diana Son.

Here's the description from Wikipedia:

"It focuses on the touching story of friends-turned-lovers, Sara and Callie, who are assaulted for kissing. The story is centered around a hate crime that is a direct result of homophobia.

"Sara and Callie are walking through New York City's West Village, when they share their first kiss. This leads to a vicious attack by a angry bystander, in which Sara is horribly injured. She falls into a coma, which becomes one of the major subjects of the play. George, Callie's good friend, tries to help with the situation, but there is little he can do. Peter, Sara's boyfriend from St. Louis, comes to help nurse her back to health. Throughout Stop Kiss, relationships are explored, formed, and even ended. Diana Son elaborates on the depths of human emotion and compassion in this play.

"The story is told out of chronological order: alternating scenes take place respectively before and after the assault, which is not shown onstage."

The show features Raychel Wagner as Callie, Katie Driscoll as Sara, Dennis Rolly as Detective Cole, Brian Jansen as George, Jon Tallman as Peter, and Bonnie Vandver as Mrs. Winsley.

What: Prodigal Sun Productions presents the play STOP KISS by Diana Son
Directed by Elizabeth Lord
When: February 12-13, 18-21, 25-27, 2010
Special "Pay-what-you-can" performance Thursday February 18.
Showtime: 8:00 PM for all dates.
Doors open at 7:30.
Where: The Midnight Sun Performance Space 113 N. Columbia St. in downtown Olympia
Tickets: $12.00 available at the door night of show, or online:
Pay-what-you-can on Thurs. February 18th.

More info: go to or telephone 360-250-2721

My review will appear in The Olympian and The News Tribune Feb. 26

Friday, February 12, 2010

‘Dreamcoat’ exudes energy at Capital Playhouse

The News Tribune/The Olympian, Feb.; 12, 2010
Pictured: Ryan Tunheim as Joseph and Kevin McManus as Pharaoh. Photo by Glenn Raiha.

“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice went through many incarnations before ever making it to Broadway and, eventually, community theaters. When first performed in a school in England in 1968, it was only 15 minutes long. When the music was first released it was billed as a sequel to “Jesus Christ Superstar” (also by Webber and Rice) even though “Joseph” was written first and had very little in common with “Superstar” other than they were both based in Bible stories.

Capital Playhouse did an amazing production of “Superstar” last year and is now doing “Joseph,” which is not in the same class as “Superstar” or as spectacular as some of Rice and Webber’s other musicals, but it is highly entertaining and you tend to forget the other shows once the singing and dancing starts – which is immediately because this show is all singing.

The performers at Capital Playhouse could sing random pages from Webster’s and bring audiences to their feet.

The set by Bruce Haasl and lighting by Matt Lawrence are wonderful. The set consists of a series of risers and doors that are created as if seen from a worm’s eye view (distorted perspective).

The doors are mostly blue with tan door frames, but the colors change from blue to violet to green and from red to orange with changes in the light. One of the doors swivels down to become a stairway and another becomes a series of props ranging from the desk on which Potiphar counts his money to palm trees in a desert.

The whole thing looks like a 1960s “Hullabaloo” or “Laugh In” set.

And you simply have to see the Sphinx that looks a little like Snoopy and a little like Elvis – like Elvis because it is a portrait of Pharaoh, who, in this play, is an Elvis doppelganger.

Adding immensely to the pleasure are the colorful and inventive costumes by Audra Merritt, from loin clothes and robes to a tuxedo with short pants to a 1920s-style almost see-through flapper dress, and finally to Joseph’s fabulous many-colored robe.

The cast, with the exception of Jeff Kingsbury hamming it up as Jacob and Potiphar and Melissa Backstrom musically narrating with a sultry voice that shakes the rafters on the high notes, is mostly pretty young.

Capital High School sophomore Ryan Tunheim pulls off the starring role of Joseph, and Kevin McManus does the hard-rocking Elvis look-alike Pharaoh with panache.

The large ensemble cast sings and dances to songs that range in style from country and western (with choreography reminiscent of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”) to a beautiful and haunting dirge sung by Joseph in prison, to a rousing Calypso number.

There’s a lot of rhythmic and athletic movement in this very small venue.

To pull it all together, Capital Playhouse brought in a professional choreographer, Richard J. Hinds, associate choreographer for the Broadway musical “First Wives Club.”

Hinds has choreographed “Naughty!” and “The Happy Embalmer” for the New York Musical Theatre Festival and Disney’s national and international tours.

The one thing that doesn’t work is the motorcycle, which is featured in the lobby display for sponsor Northwest Harley-Davidson. The Hog was slowly and clumsily pushed on stage at one point.

On a bigger stage with lights and the motor running, it could have been a great surprise, but here it is both expected and disrupting.Everything else is quite enjoyable.

This is a show that can be enjoyed by youths and adults alike, although there are some mildly erotic dance moves that might go way over the heads of small children but could make some parents uncomfortable about seeing it with the kids.

With all three matinee performances and several others on a waiting list after opening weekend, remaining tickets are going fast.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 21
Where: Capital Playhouse, 612 East Fourth Ave., Olympia
Tickets: $31-$37 adults, $26-$32 for seniors (60 and older) and youths (16 and younger)
Information: 360-943-2744,

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Essential form

Michael Johnson’s sculpture at Kittridge

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Feb. 11, 2010

The current show at Kittredge Gallery features sculpture by Michael Johnson, associate professor of sculpture at University of Puget Sound. Johnson’s sculptures are inspired by, but not imitative of, common objects such as bottles and bowls. There is one that looks like a pestle or maybe a butter churn and another that looks like a life raft but is called something else — I didn’t make a note of the title on that one, but frankly it doesn’t matter; these sculptures are about essential form, texture and color, not about the objects they vaguely resemble.

An artist’s statements begins with “First and foremost, I am a maker of objects.” How’s that for telling it like it is? It’s a slap in the face of post-modernist fashion. Shallow and trendy folk think that object-making is passé. They also frown on beauty. Johnson makes beautiful objects.

He goes on to say: “My identity is that of a builder, a fabricator, employing materials and processes akin to methods of manufacturing and technical engineering. This activity defines me, connects me to my past, and will play an invaluable role shaping my future. I find the ordinary to be extraordinary. I am drawn to common elements that make up the contents of my expansive personal landscape. From ordinary domestic implements to rural and urban structures, these images serve as symbols, marking my place in this world and when translated into minimal form, refer to the familiar yet retain a degree of autonomy.”

Johnson builds his objects out of plywood. They are gigantic in scale, meaning they look much larger than life regardless of actual physical dimensions. Imagine Claes Oldenburg’s gigantic sculptures of everyday objects if they were stripped of all identifying marks and reduced to simple abstract shapes, and made of wood.

Johnson’s objects look very heavy and solid. The walls or skins of his vessels are about three inches thick. Surely they are hollow, but they look like they are carved out of solid wood. The surfaces are made from strips or squares of plywood that are burnished and painted (typically with sanded and polished edges) to create sometimes startling and often subtle changes in color and texture.

One of the oldest of design principles is variety within unity. Johnson’s sculptures have this in spades. Each object is a simple, shape. In most of them there is an inside and an outside, which is why I refer to them as vessels, and there is a strong color contrast between the two. The outside surfaces are all natural wood finishes with very subtle textural and value changes, and the inside surfaces are painted to look like various industrial metals such as painted steel or burnished copper, or natural stones such as marble.

The one exception to the natural wood on the outside is the piece I described as a pestle or butter churn. It is painted black and looks ominous and super heavy. The surface is made of strips of plywood that are painted various shades of black and gray, with sanded and burnished edges that glow with the natural wood color.
To be truly appreciated, these sculptures need to be studied carefully from many angles to note the various patterns in texture and color.

In the back gallery is an exhibition called "Shadow" by Ted Vogel. The title piece is an arrangement of red flower petals with scattered white feathers on the floor in the shape of the shadow cast on the ground by an airplane. The shape is lovely and sensuous and displays a keen observation of the shapes of cast shadows “flying” over the ground. In a wall statement Vogel relates this work to the burnt shadows after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

[Kittredge Gallery, "Forty Years," Monday-Friday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday noon to 5 p.m., through Feb. 20, 1500 N. Warner St., Tacoma, 253.879.3701]

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Best friends

I'm envious of people in New York. Not because they get to play in the snow, but because they get to see "PEARLSTEIN/HELD: Five Decades" at Betty Cunningham Gallery.

I first heard about this show when I skimmed this morning's art section in the New York Times and read "Friends for Whom Space Was the Place" by Roberta Smith.

Smith's article was fascinating and the Times' slide show of selected works from the exhibit was wonderful, despite the images being very small. (If you think art as reproduced on a computer screen can be anything more than a tease to get you to see the real thing, you're sadly mistaken, which is why I envy people in New York or those anywhere else who are rich enough to hop on a plane and fly to NYC.)

In their heyday, Al Held and Phillip Pearlstein were polar opposites. Or so it seemed back when each in his own way departed from Abstract Expressionism to paint classical studio nudes (Pearlstein) and pure geometric abstraction (Held). Today their paintings look surprisingly similar, as Smith points out and the Betty Cunningham exhibition shows. Held doing with geometry exactly what Pearlstein does with the figure.

They were best of friends, and both were giants in post-painterly art. If you can see the show, I recommend that you do so; if you can't, at least check out the links I've provided to the gallery and the Times article.

Friday, February 5, 2010

With talented cast and crew, 'End of Days' is a delight

The News Tribune
The Olympian

Amy Hill as Rachel Stein and Robert McConkey is Jesus

Rian Wilson as Nelson

photos by

End Days” at Harlequin Productions is two hours of hilarious weirdness featuring the strangest yet almost believable extended family you’ll ever fall in love with.

The Steins are nonreligious Jews who escaped New York City for the peace and quiet of the suburbs after 9/11. Arthur (Scott C. Brown) escaped the collapse of the twin towers, but 65 of his co-workers were killed. He has been severely depressed since then and can do nothing but sleep. His wife, Sylvia (Ann Flannigan) has found Jesus. Literally. She sees Jesus (Robert McConkey) and talks with him. Their 16-year-old daughter, Rachel (Amy Hill in exaggerated Goth garb and makeup) is now visited by Stephen Hawking (also Robert McConkey), whom no one else can see, and by their neighbor, teenaged Nelson Steinburg (Rian Wilson), who is infatuated with Rachel and is unable to function without wearing his white Elvis jumpsuit.

Sylvia is convinced that the rapture is coming soon, and she cajoles Jesus into telling her when – and he lets it be known that it is coming Wednesday.

A creation of playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer’s fevered imagination, “End Days” could easily come across as too artificial and absurd, but in the hands of Harlequin Productions’ cast and crew it is absolutely delightful. Much credit must go to director Linda Whitney and to each of the cast members for honing the peculiarities of their characters – Arthur’s disconnect with reality, and his underlying sweetness; Sylvia’s desperation and her love for her family; Rachel’s justifiable anger and rebellion; Nelson’s wide-eyed wonder at just about everything – especially Rachel and scientific theories; Hawking’s sly humor and Jesus’ charm. This cast, individually and in their interaction, makes these absurd characters as real as your next door neighbor.

Brown’s performance is an object lesson in the art of acting. He makes the slightest of expressions tell a lot about his psyche – the weariness in the way he props his head in his hand or picks his head up as if it weighs a ton and drops it back to the table. Nobody can fall asleep across a table the way he does. Nobody sleeps so entertainingly or so constantly, and Brown makes it laugh-out-loud funny and absolutely real.

McConkey does an imitation of Stephen Hawking that is as spot-on as Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, and he plays a mostly silent Jesus as maybe not too bright but very accommodating. It is their subtlety that makes Brown’s and McConkey’s acting so effective.

By contrast, it is passion and energy that stand out in the work of Wilson, Hill and Flannigan. As just one of many examples is the strange way Rachel kisses Nelson. Such a kiss has perhaps never been seen on stage. It is simultaneously passionate and mechanical, like the kiss of a love-starved robot – it seems to be an act of the possessed. Wilson is palpably confused and excited. Sylvia’s seemingly unbalanced belief that her world and the people she loves will end may or may not be literally true by the end of the play, but Flannigan brilliantly portrays a fervor that is grounded in the character’s need to keep her people safe and whole.

Beyond a strange and humorous script and fine acting and directing, there are moments of inspired presentation (such as the afore-mentioned kiss) that were surely not in the script but were dreamed up by Whitney or her cast and crew. I don’t want to describe the best of these because they are better when you don’t see them coming, but I’m sure most audience members will recognize them: the way a particular set piece is brought on stage and the brilliant choice of a particular prop.

Kudos also must go to Jill Carter for the fine video projection used throughout to ease us through scene changes.

“End Days” is a bittersweet comedy about how real people cope with real tragedy and an apocalypse that may or may not be actually looming. It pokes fun at Jews and Christians, and especially believers in the rapture, without being disrespectful to any of them.

As of press time two of the Saturday shows were almost sold out, so I highly recommend getting tickets as soon as possible.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 20, pay what you can Feb. 6 at 3 p.m.
Where: State Theater, 202 E. 4th Ave., Olympia
Tickets: $22-$33, rush tickets $12-$20 12 hour before curtain
Information: 360-786-0151;

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Native art

Preston Singletary blends old and new at Museum of Glass

Published in the Weekly Volcano, Feb. 3, 2010
Pictured: "Raven Steals the Sun," blown hot-sculpted and sand-carved glass by Preston Singletary (2001. Courtesy Museum of Glass

Preston Singletary's mid career retrospective exhibition at Museum of Glass blows the lid off many of my theories about glass and contemporary Native American art.

There is much to admire about traditional Native art - the symbolism, the reverence for heritage, the mystery and power of the imagery. But I am usually left cold by contemporary artists, Indian or white, who make their own versions of traditional totems, masks and baskets. And doing it in glass doesn't make it any better; it's still imitation.

There are exceptions. Joe Fedderson, for instance (recently featured at Tacoma Art Museum) creates thoroughly contemporary prints that are inspired by Native art, but which are patently his own.

Preston Singletary, on the other hand, makes traditional art with blown and cast glass. Not more contemporary art inspired by traditional art (despite claims to the contrary), but just the same stuff his ancestors made only with more modern methods and materials. According to my own often-expressed feelings about that sort of thing, I should disdain his work. But I have to admit his big show at MOG is mind-boggling. Perhaps it's the lighting and the size and variety of the show that is so impressive. The walls are dark and each artwork is individually and dramatically spotlighted. The overall impact is powerful and magical, and most if not all of the individual pieces are beautiful.

The best pieces are the most reductionist, the ones that are simple, clean and stark, such as "Raven Steals the Sun" and "Raven Steals the Moon." These are identical other than the objects held in the raven's mouths. Each is a highly stylized head of a raven with its open beak reaching upward. The colors are black and fiery red. "Sun" holds a red sphere in his beak; "Moon" holds a white disk with a carved frowning face. It is the simplicity and elegance of form that makes these works outstanding, and the better of the two is the "Sun" because it is simpler. The carved face on "Moon" detracts from the purity of form and makes it the less beautiful of the two. Or "Canoe Dishes," three very simple canoe-shaped dishes in translucent green, orange and blue. These are stunningly beautiful.

By contrast, the works I enjoyed least are the more elaborate designs such as some of the more complex masks and the large house front screens. There are stories and traditions behind these that may be fascinating, but the narrative overwhelms the visual impact, making them more enjoyable to think about but less enjoyable to look at than some of the simpler and purer forms. For example, the various pieces titled "Transference" illustrate one of many stories from Tinglit culture about Raven, but to understand the stories you would have to read the catalog or research Tinglit culture and history. Coming at it without knowledge of the stories, you see only a somewhat comical image of a man with a long tongue sitting on the back of a raven.

Many of the images, most especially the masks, are both comical and scary. Overall I was very impressed with the show, and I imagine if I studied the culture more I would enjoy it even more.

[Museum of Glass, Preston Singletary: Echoes, Fire, and Shadows, through Sept. 19, Wednesday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Third Thursdays 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m., general admission $12, 1801 Dock St. Tacoma, 866.4MUSEUM]

"I think Alec always let's the art get a hold of him, and then gives it a chance to see if it can hold on." He is very honest about how the art works or not, both from a academic, and a visceral point of view." - Paula Tutmarc-Johnson, Two Vaults Gallery - Read my column Visual Edge in the Weekly Volcano.