Monday, April 30, 2012

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940

at Lakewood Playhouse
reviewed by Michael Dresdner

Pictured, top: Melissa Thayer  and Blake York; bottom: Jen Akrum  and Joseph Grant. Photos courtesy Lakewood Playhouse.
The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 is a lush, beautiful tableau of dazzling costumes, an intricate set, and a spate of characters from the gritty yet glamorous pre-war era. As it opens, a maid is stabbed to death.

Gory, right? Nope. Hilarious. The victim, played by a master of physical comedy, creates a chuckle-invoking death routine, then keeps the laughs going as the murderer props and drags her contorting body hither and yon before taking it offstage.

You see, in spite of it’s name, this is far less a murder mystery than a complete comic romp; think “The Pink Panther” meets the Marx Brothers.  

Act one sets up the basic storyline. The personnel of a play, including actors, director, producer and composer, gather at the home of a potential backer, ostensibly to do a presentation of a musical. They soon realize that many of them are from a previous play closed due to a mysterious killer who knocked off fellow theatrical denizens, and that he or she is probably in their midst today. Sounds spooky, right?

Well, it’s not. In fact, now that you know the story line, you can forget it, because by the time act two gears up, we find that most of the characters are not who they say they are. What was set up as a straightforward murder mystery is quickly replaced with fast paced lunacy.

There are frenetically mimed instructions to control a befuddled woman trying to explain inconsistencies, a half naked struggle for a gun easily misread as an energetic bout of copulation on a desk, and a rash of comings and goings in a maze of tunnels accessed through a group of cleverly hidden secret doors. And through it all, there’s a steady stream of great set ups and comic one liners.  

But most of all there are characters who are…, well, complete characters.

We have the maid (Melissa Thayer), who in spite of having seemingly been killed, sticks around through the whole play, continuing to display the superb comic talent she opened with. The owner of the home and potential backer (Liz Tomski) introduces a cop (Mark Peterson) as her servant to the theatrical group of visitors. Said visitors drift in through a snowstorm and include an Irish (?) tenor (Blake York), a foppish, tonsorial director (Joseph Grant), an ingenuous chorus girl (Jen Akrum), a stand up comic (Matt Garry), a stuffy producer (Virginia Yanoff), a flamboyantly gay musical director (Jeffrey Weaver), and a histrionic lush of a lyricist (Jen Aylsworth).

You’ll notice that I didn’t bother with their character names, because too many change both names and personas before this is over. There’s also no sense calling out singularly superb performances, because this is a true ensemble piece, and they were all truly outstanding, both separately and together. In fact, part of what makes this work is perfect timing and delivery in both actions and lines, a tribute both to the actors and director James Venturini.

The support is no less. John Munn designed a beautiful and fiendishly clever set that expertly hides a wealth of hidden doors. Costumer Diane Runkle pulled out all the stops, dressing the cast in gorgeous and spot on period clothes. Even the wonderful props, by Karrie Nevin, get into the comic act.

By now you should be largely confused, convinced you know precious little about this play, right? Fair enough; I’ll clarify by telling you there are only two things you really need to know.

First, The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 at Lakewood Playhouse is a convoluted, high energy farce that will leave you laughing and delighted by the time the final curtain falls. Second, you should definitely go to see it. But get your tickets soon. This one will surely fill the seats once word gets out.

The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940
April 27 to May 20,2012
Lakewood Playhouse

Friday, April 27, 2012

Oh 'Sweet Freedom' through spring

The Harriett Tubman inspired show extends at B2 Gallery

Top: "HALLELUJAH SHORES": bottom: "NORTH STAR" Fiber artist Mary Johnson's woven works on display at B2 Gallery in Tacoma's Triangle District. Courtesy photo

B2 Gallery has extended the exhibition "Sweet Freedom's Jubilee" through June 9. The show features fiber artist Mary Johnson and sculptor Mar'zil Davis with works celebrating the 99th Anniversary of the death of Harriett Tubman.

Johnson's woven tapestries are breathtaking. Her depictions of the lives of slaves, it almost goes without saying, touch the heart. Visiting this show is almost like - albeit on a much smaller scale - like visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. or like, I can only imagine since I've never been there, like visiting the Cape Coast Castle Museum in Africa where slaves were once held before being brought to America. The plight of slaves and the heroism of the Underground Railroad cannot but touch the hearts of any who visit this exhibition.

Johnson's tapestries have an intimate and homely feel. There is warmth of emotion even though the surface quality of her pieces has the crispness of a snowy winter morning.

Many of her scenes are in a long horizontal format, which creates the feeling of a story unfolding over time as in a scroll or stills from a movie.

In none of her works is the crispness I alluded to more pronounced than in "Following Harriett," a scene of Harriett Tubman leading a family to freedom. They are trudging through fields of scrub pines in the snow. The background is stark black and white, and only the figures of Harriett and the family are in color. Harriett carries a rifle, and she reaches back to halt the family - three adults and two babies - in a gesture indicating danger approaching. The tenseness of the moment is strong.

"North Star" is a picture of hope. An escaped slave wearing a bright red bandana on her head holds a child who is holding a rag doll. They stand in a field of tall grasses and reeds, beautifully pictured with rhythmical patterns in tones of blue and green, and look across a still river at the promised land of freedom on the far shore.

"Hallelujah Shores" shows the next step in the journey, but with a different family. Three men and two women have just crossed the river to the north and are stepping out of their little boat onto the marshy ground. The women still huddle together and the men step forward fearfully as if none of them can believe they are actually free. And as history tells us, many of them were not free or their freedom was short-lived as many were caught and sent back into slavery even after arriving in non-slave states.

The faceted way much of the background scenery is patched into this scene adds attraction.
Davis's sculptures are interesting as historic notes as they show the way many of the slaves lived, the tools they used and the way they dressed. But they are nowhere near as artistically satisfying as Johnson's tapestries. They look like typical porcelain figurines from an earlier era and - I hate to say it but it's true - they look so stereotypical and cartoonish that they would be seen as racist if done by a white artist.


Monday, April 23, 2012


I won’t dance; don’t ask me

Pictured at top: Elise Campello as Ariel and Kawika Huston as Ren
Pictured, bottom,  left to right: Devin Campbell, Katelyn Hoffman, Elise Campello, Katiedawn Leacy, and Gracie Reed
Photos by Dean Lapin

"Footloose" at Tacoma Little Theatre

reviewed by Michael Dresdner

Here’s my confession: I never saw the original movie, nor the remake, nor the play, so I came to Tacoma Little Theatre’s presentation of Footloose, the Musical with no preconceived notions or expectations. That’s fair, I figured.

Sadly, so was Footloose; fair, rather than great. However, that may be more the property than the presentation. After it opened on Broadway, the consensus was that the show itself was poor, but the music and talented cast made it entertaining. That’s still true.

The basic plot, in case you, like me, have been living under a rock, revolves around Ren (Kawika Huston), a high school student who deals with his job and life frustrations by dancing. He and his mother (Deric Tarabochia) leave Chicago and move in with relatives in dinky Bomont thanks to poverty brought on by a father who has abandoned them. The town, at the urging of the influential Reverend Moore (Jay Iseli), has abolished dancing. We eventually find out that’s because five years earlier, four high school students were killed in an alcohol fueled car wreck while returning from a dance. (No, they don’t ban driving or drinking; that would be too logical.)

Local slow-witted high school cowboy Willard (Carlos Barajas) befriends Ren and fills him in on the town’s back story and characters. There’s Ariel (Elise Campello), the Reverend’s rebellious daughter who secretly runs with Chuck Cranston (DuWayne Andrews), a boy from the wrong side of the tracks. There’s also a gaggle of girls led by Rusty (Antonia Darlene), who loves Willard but is blocked by his shyness and inability to dance, of all things.

Ren becomes a dancing renegade and rabble rouser, and with the help of Ariel, who is gradually falling in love with him, makes a pitch to the town council to allow dancing. They vote no, but he later wins over the Reverend, whose son was one of those killed in the crash, by showing him they both have suffered loss and thus share common ground. The Reverend changes his mind about the dance, which somehow miraculously overrules the town council.

Meanwhile, formerly clumsy Willard learns to dance with astonishing speed and alacrity. In the end, everyone dances, even the Reverend and his wife. Happiness reigns as Willard pairs with Rusty, Ren pairs with Ariel, Moore and his wife rediscover each other, and poor Chuck conveniently fades from view.

Got it? Good. Now let’s talk about the production.

In spite of some opening night rough edges that will almost certainly be smoothed as the run progresses, there was much to commend it. The large song and dance numbers are the best thing the show has going for it, and are quite good indeed. That’s not surprising, since director Chris Nardine is well known as an outstanding dancer and choreographer.

The leads and ensemble were good, with some excellent singing, some excellent dancing, and even some very good acting, but it seemed most of cast, most of the time, shone in only one or two out of three, at best. There were a few standouts, though.

The best of the bunch was Antonia Darlene as Rusty. She sings, dances and brings the sort of effervescent energy and stage presence that makes musicals great. Thanks largely to her lead, “Let’s Hear it for the Boy,” her love song to Willard, is the best song and dance number in the show.

Jay Iseli, a talented Tacoma acting mainstay, gave bombastic, imperious Reverend Moore all the gravitas he deserved, then went realistically through the play’s one convincing change of heart scene. Kudos also to Andrews as Chuck, who crackled and sparkled whenever he took center stage, but was sadly relegated to nowhere land as the script eventually writes him out of the action. We never do find out what happened to him.

The most notable weakness in the play was just that; weakness. All too often, during both songs and dialog, the cast failed to project well enough to be clearly heard. The poor acoustics of the deep TLT stage contribute to that. It’s hard to be heard on that stage from an upper level when you are behind the proscenium arch.
On the production side, the five piece band led by Wayne Hart was excellent, both by themselves and in their ability to guide and follow the actors without overpowering them. Because there are so many venues in the play, there’s no set to speak of beyond a couple of steps and a raised platform. Scenes were established with a few pieces of furniture backed up by huge, vivid background photos projected onto a rear screen. Together, they established when we were outside, in church, at the dump, in a house, or at a bar. The courthouse photo showed an American flag next to an Oklahoma flag, the only clue as to where Bomont is.

Costuming (Michele Graves) was interesting and varied. I understood the bright, almost trashy dance outfits in Chicago and in the dance scenes, but would have expected more sedate, conservative clothing on kids in school in such a repressive town. While costumes were eye catching, they did not, at least to me, firmly establish a time period when this play unfolds. Nor did anything else. There are cell phones, so I guess that means it is in the present, but some of the behavior and mores seemed at least three decades out of date.    

I suspect most of the packed house on opening night already knew the story. That’s a good thing. Perhaps the best way to appreciate this talented cast is to sit back and enjoy the lively song and dance numbers, then cheer for your favorites at curtain call. 

Footloose, the Musical
April 20 to May 20, 2012
Tacoma Little Theatre

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Getting Distracted at Olympia Little Theatre

review by Alec Clayton

Top: Quinn Hargrove and Kira Valandra
Bottom: Steven Vocke, Elizabeth She and Steve Lien
photos by Toni Holm

James Patrick seems to have found his niche in directing.  His latest, and only his second foray into directing, is Lisa Loomer’s “Distracted” at Olympia Little Theatre. In a program note he wrote that Loomer’s characters are an actor’s dream. Implicit in the idea of any character or characters being an actor’s dream is the notion of challenging roles that only the best of actors can master, and as the bard has said, Ah, there’s the rub.

For this show Patrick has assembled a troupe of actors with limited stage experience, and although they give it their best and are generally on target they don’t quite hit the bull’s eye. Their performances are slightly forced. Throughout, they broadcast that they’re acting. Even Elizabeth Shé, who is the most seasoned performer on stage and is a joy to watch in the lead role as Mama, seems ever so stilted in moments; and it is noticeable that the others are trying very hard. Even as I write this I feel a nagging sense that perhaps I’m being too critical. This is, after all, community theater and slight imperfections are forgivable, and I did very much enjoy this show.

Loomer’s script is wonderfully complex. She manages to convey what it is like for a parent to walk the tightrope between the exasperation of raising a child with what is diagnosed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and the joy of loving a child with special abilities; the frustration of dealing with doctors and teachers and neighbors who do not understand, and the farcical comedy of… well, of what I just described — raising a child with ADHD and having to deal with all of those well-intentioned but stupid people.

In the best of modern plays comedy and drama are so integral as to be unclassifiable, which is definitely true of “Distracted.” The term “dramedy” may sound as forced as bad acting, but it fits. Often the best of modern plays also break the fourth wall in clever and unexpected ways, and “Distracted” does this in spades. It does it often and hilariously, starting when Mama tries to explain to her son that it’s not okay to use the word “fucking.” She is reduced to telling him it’s okay at home but not on stage — indicating that yes, indeed, this is a play, not real life, and there are audience members out there who may be offended by that word.

Mama and Dad (Steven Vocke) constantly turn to the audience to explain what they’re feeling or to plead their case, sometimes to get the audience on their side in their arguments with one another or with their antagonists (the neighbors, doctors and their son’s teacher).

Concomitant with the breaking of the fourth wall is the way the actors move props about to change scenes. Normally I hate it when stage hands come out and move props in view of the audience. I understand that it is sometimes necessary, but it can be terribly distracting. But in this performance the distraction (intentional word choice) becomes part of the show. The family watches TV a lot. There are two monitors on stage which quickly switch from one thing to another — show to show and newscast to newscast including broadcasts from when the play is set during the Bush administration and images that are reflections of what is happening on the stage. Just as quickly the action jumps from their home to schools and doctors’ offices with actors picking up chairs and moving them as they go from one appointment to another. Both the moving of props onstage and the use of TV monitors were the notion of stage manager and set designer Susan Patrick, the director’s wife, who saw it done in a similar way years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Just as they move about as quickly as movie jump-cuts from scene to scene, so do they rush back and forth between frustration and anger to hilarity and to tenderness. Often their son’s ADHD causes rifts in their marriage. They are desperate and they don’t know what to do, but they handle it mostly with good humor, especially Mama, who gets most of the best lines.
The son, Jesse, (played by 10-year-old newcomer Quinn Hargrove whose previous acting has been two performances in Olympia Family Theater summer camp programs) shouts from offstage throughout the play. Unseen until the final scene, he nevertheless is believable as the hyperactive boy.

Shé, and to a lesser degree Vocke, carry the show on their shoulders. Seven other actors play multiple roles as doctors (including one who is also an actor with ADHD), nurses, a teacher, a neighbor girl who cuts, and others.

It is a play that deals with very painful realities in a manner that verges on farce. It easily holds the audience’s undistracted attention.

WHEN: 7:55 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 1:55 p.m. Sunday through April 29
WHERE: Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave., NE, Olympia
TICKETS: $10-$14, available at Yenney Music Company on Harrison Avenue (360-943-7500) or
INFORMATION: 360-786-9484,

Friday, April 20, 2012

Startling drama 'Terminus' undulates between good, evil

Nicole Lockett, Tim Hoban and Kathi Aleman star in “Terminus” at The Space. Photo courtesy Assemblage Theater

reviewed by Alec Clayton
Published in The News Tribune, April 20, 2012 

Director David Domkoski created Assemblage Theater specifically to produce a single play: Mark O’Rowe’s gritty and poetic “Terminus,” winner of a “Fringe First” award in the Edinburgh Festival. It is so dark and graphic that few American theaters are willing to produce it, but Domkoski said as soon as he read it, he knew he had to.

The Space is bare with black curtains and an empty stage. There is nothing on the stage other than three black boxes in front of floor-to-ceiling windows that open onto a view of Tacoma’s industrial waterfront that includes a group of tower cranes. It’s an appropriate backdrop for a play in which a woman falls from a construction crane only to be saved from death by a demon made of worms. A demon who makes love to her. Tenderly. And surprisingly so for a play full of graphic language depicting sex and violence.

“Terminus” is written entirely in rhyme and is presented through a series of overlapping monologues by three actors, superbly directed by Domkoski. The characters take turns stepping forward to tell their personal stories directly to the audience. When not sharing tales, they sit silent and almost frozen on the black boxes. Their stories seem random and unconnected but gradually begin to overlap and connect. The characters are: a volunteer at a crisis line whose empathy leads her into and out of unexpected savagery, a young woman who is set up by her best friend to be seduced or raped by the best friend’s husband, and a serial killer with a poetic soul who is betrayed when he makes a pact with the devil.

The actors are Kathi Aleman, Nicole Lorayne Lockett and Tim Hoban. They are each outstanding. Aleman conveys emotions so intense, it is hard to take it when she stands downstage and shouts at an audience within whispering range. And then she suddenly changes from shouting to a whisper that forces audience members to sit up and listen harder.

Lockett is genuine and sweet in her portrayal of the woman who falls from the crane. Her descriptions of lovemaking are lovely and lyrical.

Hoban is the killer whose spirit speaks to express a roller-coaster range of emotions that make the audience flinch and cringe and embrace one after another.

The verbal pictures painted by these actors are harsh, gritty and doggedly realistic; and yet the play is lyrical. The language is like a melding of Stoppard, Mamet and Shakespeare with Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange.” Everything is told in rhyme, but not in any conventional meter. The rhyming words do not always fall at the end of lines but seem rather random, conversational and sometimes startling. Often O’Rowe will string together two, three or more rhyming words in succession to build to an emotional crescendo, and he alternates between short, staccato sentences and long, flowing ramblings.

There is a contrast between surprising changes in rhythm and pacing, and a regularity of structure. The actors take turns with their monologues in a predictable pattern: Aleman followed by Lockett followed by Hoban and then repeat and repeat, each monologue about the same length and each overlapping for a few seconds as one actor sits down and another rises to the accompaniment of original violin music composed and performed by Stanley Williams.

This complex meditation on good and evil is ultimately about redemption and spirituality. Close attention must be paid because the poetic style of the play can easily lull you into listening to the music of the words to the point of possibly missing the meaning.

I would suggest bringing a cushion to ease the discomfort of sitting on hard folding metal chairs for 110 minutes with no intermission.

Drinks and snacks are sold. Because of language of a violent and sexual nature, no one younger than 17 will be admitted unless accompanied by an adult.

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday through April 28
Where: The Space, 729 Court C (Opera Alley), Tacoma
Tickets: $14.50 available at and at the door

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Fulcrum’s Creatures

Contemporary ceramics on the edge

By Alec Clayton 

Published in The Weekly Volcano, April 19, 2012

“Burdon of Need”: Ceramic sculpture by Spencer Ebbinga. Photo courtesy of Fulcrum Gallery

Fulcrum Gallery has joined other area galleries in celebration of the 46th annual NCECA ceramic conference by presenting the show Creatures of Habit: Contemporary Ceramics - On the Edge with ceramic artists Heather Cornelius and Spencer Ebbinga. Each artist explores human and animal consciousness through the creation of anthropomorphized animals (or, in the case of Cornelius, animal-morphed human beings).

The gallery press release says: "Heather uses her smooth visual language to articulate messages of feminine ideals and iconography. Similarly Spencer opens up his subconscious to us by extracting his surrealistic visions from the dream state and giving them physical form." The description of Ebbinga's work seems pretty accurate to me, but I fail to see how Cornelius' figures relate to feminine ideals and iconography.

Her work consists of busts of human figures, some with animal parts - her take on Minotaurs and chimera and the like. They are fired but unglazed ceramic busts of men and women. They're slightly larger than life size. There's a male-and-female couple, nicely done but not particularly interesting, and a bearded man with heavy chest hair and ram's horns on his head and hooves instead of hands. There is a black ram's head on the wall that relates to a real ram's head in the way Warhol's Brillo boxes relate to real Brillo boxes. Sort of, but not so effectively. And finally there is a piece called "Like Mother," which is her only visually exciting piece. It is a nude woman (from waste up, the definition a sculpted bust) with a duck's head. The figure is the natural red-dirt color of clay. The head is white, and the duck has a black bill. What's exciting about this is the contrapposto of the body as it relates to the arms and head. (And if there are purists reading this I know I've been liberal with the definition of contrapposto, but she does in this figure something akin to what Michelangelo did so masterfully with his "David.")

Of the two, and acknowledging the exception of Cornelius's "Like Mother," Ebbinga is by far the better artist. He is showing a series of six small sculptures of turtles carrying heavy burdens. They are metaphors for the human condition, and they are skillfully made and have the patina of ancient metal sculptures. They can easily be seen as brass icons discovered in an archeological dig. Through his turtle metaphors Ebbinga comments on slavery, the myth of Sisyphus and the degradation of our environment.

For example, his "Burden of Need" depicts a turtle dragging bottled water like slaves pulling stones to a pyramid site. The artist said it was inspired by a trip to China, where lack of potable water is severe. "It speaks to how we tax our natural resources and how we seem to treat them without regard to their long-term viability," Ebbinga said.

Another piece called "Spare Parts" expresses similar concerns by way of a clever pun. A slave turtle drags behind him a sled loaded with spare turtle parts. The spare parts are, of course, turtle shells.

Ebbinga's sculptures are finely crafted little jewels in copper, twine and ceramics.

Fulcrum Gallery, Creatures of Habit, through May 12, noon to 6 p.m. Thursday–Saturday and by appointment, 1308 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma, 253.250.0520

Fiction, a play

Fiction at Capital Playhouse

Reviewed by Alec Clayton

Pictured left to right: Megan Kappler, Brian Tyrrell and Jana Tyrrell

“Fiction” at Capital Playhouse is a wonderful little play by Steven Dietz. It is directed by Peter Kappler and Brian Tyrrell and features a three-person cast consisting of Megan Kappler, Jana Tyrrell and Brian Tyrrell. I call it a little play not because of its length — it runs a little under two hours with one intermission — but because it feels intimate and has a small cast and no set changes.

Linda Waterman (Jana Tyrrell) and her husband, Michael (Brian) are both fiction writers. Michael has become exactly the kind of successful hack writer he disdained in his youth, and Linda is a one-hit wonder who has milked her one successful novel into a career teaching fiction writing. Abby (Kappler) is another writer whose life intersects with theirs at various points over the years. Their stories are told though dialogue and reminiscences that bounce back and forth in time and place, from when Michael and Linda first meet in a little café in Paris to Linda’s college lecture hall to a writer’s retreat and the Watermans’ home much later in their life.

The set by resident designer Bruce Haasl is simple but clever. There is a small table for the Parisian café, a kitchen table for the Waterman home and a desk to represent a writers’ retreat. The walls are the cover and pages of a room-size journal. Scene changes are accomplished by simply moving from one spot on the stage to another. 

The story is witty, touching and real — and the cast is terrific.

I was put off briefly by the first scene which I did not care for as it unfolded but which was revealed as a much better scene as later scenes shed light on it. The reason I didn’t like it at first was because I thought the writer (Dietz, not the “writers” in the play) was being facile and trying too hard to be clever. Michael’s quips were pretentious, and Linda’s emotional outbursts when arguing about rock music seemed overblown. But in retrospect it became clear that they were both nervous and trying overly hard to impress one another I realized that both the writing and the acting in this scene were spot-on —right down to Michael’s false cheeriness. I imagine that anyone who has ever had a first date or a chance encounter with someone they’re attracted to could see the rightness of that scene.

Such truthfulness continues throughout the play as Michael and Linda change, as they argue, as they love each other, and as they discover secrets about one another. 

There’s a saying in theater that there’s no such thing as a small part. This is certainly true for Kappler’s Abby. She has numerous brief scenes, and each scene she is in is pivotal. She plays a complex character with dignity and emotional control. 

Doing non-musical shows at Capital Playhouse is a new experiment (although I was recently informed that in their early years they did non-musicals). The audience the night I attended was about half that of their average musical show. I hope that will change, because the two non-musicals they have done this year, “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and this one, were excellent. I’d love to see this theater be able to successfully continue their Stage II non-musicals. 

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through April 22
Where: Capital Playhouse: 612 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia
More information: 360-943-2744,text

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Art for Art's Sake


I'm becoming a softie in my old age, reevaluating some long-held ideas about art. For instance, I've always been a formalist in the Clement Greenberg mold and have resented the trend toward content over form that has dominated the art world since the 1970s. It irritates the crap out of me when I read review after review after review in Art News and Art in America and Art Forum and all they talk about is the message, personal identity, symbolism, the ideas expressed by contemporary artists (often cleverly hidden in metaphor and symbol) - whether those ideas are clever or earth-shaking or banal and older than the malfunctioning heart they took out of Dick Cheny - and they never once mention color, harmony or line quality or texture or balance and contrast of form, the visual elements that make art art.

OK, I take it back. I'm not such a softie after all. I still hate that, and furthermore, I've quit reading all those magazines; they never have anything worthwhile to say. But I have to admit that a few shows I've seen lately have made me start thinking that content in art may deserve more attention than I've been willing to give it. The HIDE/SEEK exhibit at the Tacoma Art Museum is a prime example. I can marvel at the edge quality in Marsden Hartley's paintings and the play of shadows in Alice Neel's portrait of Frank O'Hara, but without the messages inherent in so many of these works of art the show would suffer. Likewise, content is all-important in Lynn Di Nino's work at Flow, which I recently reviewed.

Read the complete article on the Weekly Volcano blog Spew

Friday, April 13, 2012

Horses and Chinese dolls

A vibrant show by Becky Frehse and Jane Kelsey-Mapel 

The Weekly Volcano, April 12, 2012

Top: Seeking Center
Bottom: Trick Rider

"Reconfigured - a Collaboration" is an awesome little show featuring the artwork of Becky Frehse and Jane Kelsey-Mapel. Frehse, a longtime Tacoma artist, is well known in the South Sound. Mapel, from Phoenix, Ariz., is not familiar to area gallery-goers. The two worked together on this show — winters in Phoenix and summers out here. And it would take someone very familiar with their work to tell which parts Frehse did and which parts Mapel did. 
But here’s a hint: Frehse is primarily a painter. Although she has done some three-dimensional work, she approaches her art from the standpoint of a painter, composing as for a flat format and painting with energy. She tends to be not exactly exacting but more slap-dash and expressive. Mapel makes ceramic sculptures. She is more exacting and detail oriented. 

The works in this show — at the risk of oversimplifying my description — are painted ceramic dolls with bodies and clothing and props made from, among other things, Styrofoam that is coated with gels or plaster or paper mache and painted. There are a lot of horses in this show and a lot of Chinese figures. The dolls are, for the most part, funny. Some grotesquely so.

I mention their different methods of working because they complement each other — Mapel’s meticulously detailed ceramic work setting off Frehse’s more expressive painting style. Mapel made the dolls’ heads. Frehse made most of the bodies and some of the backdrops, but they worked together on these. You can’t separate out who did what. 

A few of these dolls are aesthetically exciting. Particularly the figures in “Conversation No. 1” and “Bather By A River” and the doll in front of “Seeking Center.” The others would probably be interesting but not terribly exciting if presented as stand-alone figures, but they come alive when combined with all the other elements.

The stand-out pieces are a large painted construction called “Seeking Center,” the circus rider that dominates the center of the gallery, and a series of six wall-hanging boxes with dolls and constructed and found objects called “Conversation” (numbers one through six). 

“Seeking Center” is a painting in the vein of Robert Raushenberg’s early combines but more decorative with dense and elaborate patterns of flowers and paper lanterns and white doilies with brilliant orange and green colors, birds suspended above and a grotesque pink doll on a black ironing board in front. This is a magnificent work. Nothing new, mind you, nothing that Raushenberg didn’t do half a century ago, but it is gritty and colorful and intense, and I love it.

The “Conversation” pieces are like Joseph Cornell boxes only more expressive. Two of them have wonderfully expressive little clay dolls that look like a blend of Matisse and de Kooning sculptural figures.

The circus rider is pure kitsch. A big-butted cowgirl in jeans and boots stands astride two galloping horses. The texture of the girl’s clothing and the fluid painting on the horses is great, and the whole thing is exuberant and funny and almost overwhelming in its large scale relative to the small space of the gallery.

[Gallery 301, “Reconfigured - a Collaboration,” Saturdays 1-4 p.m., Third Thursday 5-8 p.m., and by appointment through April 30, 301 Puyallup Ave., Tacoma, 253-380-1293.]

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Views from Within

Angela Wales Rockett and Karen Utterat Hanforth Gallery

The Weekly Volcano, April 5/ 2012

Top: Topiary 3 by Karen Utter
Bottom: Guest House by Angela Wales Rockett
Photos courtesy Handforth Gallery

It’s a nice little show — paintings by Angela Wales Rockett and pastels by Karen Utter at the Handforth Gallery in the Tacoma Main Library. Rockett and Utter share a studio and share sensibilities about art. Both create works that are pleasant to look at. They are solidly designed and display a good feel for color, texture and mark making.

My only complaint is they’re too safe, too comfy. I want to see them stretch a little. Having seen previous works from each and having perused their works online, I know they’re capable to stretching more.

Rockett paints what she calls “evocative inner landscapes” in acrylic. The paintings are abstract landscapes reduced down to atmospheric fields of color, mostly blues with red and orange accents. The paint application is loose and brushy creating the feel of stormy clouds and water. There is some layering and paint build-up, and I wish there was more. Within these fields of color she draws with other media, not listed on the wall labels but apparently pencil and pastels or crayons of some sort, and she scratches delicate lines into the surfaces.
Her color choices relate to nature without mimicking mature. In most of the paintings in this show the colors are dull, although there is one glaring exception, a brilliantly hued painting on the back wall that is the first thing you see upon walking into the gallery. It is titled “The Guest Hours.” The color scheme is the same as in most of her other paintings but kicked up in intensity. The blue of this painting is luminous and certainly attracts attention, but I think I like the duller ones better.

When viewing Rockett’s paintings be sure to go around to the back hall area where a few other paintings are displayed, including some from a series of tree paintings that are harsher in form with scratchier marks and the one other one that breaks from her typical color scheme, “Flames of Autumn,” which, as the title suggests, is on fire with orange.
Utter’s works are small topiary landscapes in pastel. They are much more colorful than Rockett’s landscapes and more fanciful, looking like illustrations in a children’s book of topiary gardens with trees that are shaped like long, thin footballs balanced on end and clumps of leaves that are solid spheres. 

One of the best is “In the Still of Night 2 AM,” which features green hedges on either side of a dark blue gate with an imposing blue building centered behind the gate and spherical clumps of leaves that look like bounding balls in the air. 

These paintings are playful and full of joy and light. Her drawing is energetic and lyrical.
Another favorite (which is marked as sold) is a tiny picture called “Sudy IV.” Three spheres of orange march along the horizon outlined with a midnight blue halo on fields of brilliant blue and violet.

 [The Handforth Gallery at Tacoma Main Library, Views From Within, through April 30, 1102 Tacoma Ave. S, Tacoma]