Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Black clad and black hearted

L to R: Dylan Twiner, Nathan Rice

The Woman in Black at Lakewood Playhouse

reviewed by Michael Dresdner

If a classic ghost story rings your bell, Lakewood Playhouse has just the ticket for you, literally. The Woman in Black, directed by Beau M. K. Prichard, is an old style chiller that starts with a puzzling but innocent premise, and slowly unfolds to a decidedly upsetting conclusion.

Read the complete review

A note of explanation:Once in a while I feel that I need to explain to my readers why I am posting reviews by Michael Dresdner. When The News Tribune cut my column from weekly to monthly I announced that I would continue reviewing plays in Olympia on my blog but that I would not be able to review as many Tacoma area plays because of the cost of commuting. At that point Michael offered to review Tacoma shows for me. I've know Michael since I first began writing theater reviews, and I knew that he was knowledgeable and had discerning taste, so I gratefully accepted his offer. When he started his own blog I decided it would work better if we posted blurbs and linksw from one another's blogs. This way we are able to help each other have wider coverage of area theater and hopefully our readers will reap the rewards and the theater companies will get more butts in seats.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Glorious madness

The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged (revised) at TLT

from left: Alex Smith, Luke Amundson, Coleman Hagerman
reviewed by
by Michael Dresdner

With her unerring eye for humor and a truly amazing cast, director Suzy Willhoft has brought one of the stage’s funniest properties to a new and greater height of hilarity and lunacy. The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged (revised), now playing at Tacoma Little Theatre, is the update of a screamingly funny mishmash of all (yes ALL) of the Bard’s plays delivered not in warp speed, but rather in warped speed. Along with out-and-out mockery of Shakespeare, there’s wild physical comedy, bawdy jokes, malapropisms, cross-dressing, mondegreens, and plenty of sexual innuendo.

It may seem like an onslaught, but it’s only a three person cast; Luke Amundson, Coleman Hagerman, and Alex Smith, all of whom are well beyond outstanding.

Read the complete review.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Acataphasia Immortalized

Tacoma artist on new TV series "Immortalized"

by Alec Clayton
The Weekly Volcano, Feb. 21, 2013

Acataphasia Grey. Photo by Allan Amato/AMC
AMC's “Immortalized” may be the most bizarre new show on TV, and Acataphasia Grey may be the strangest and most fascinating artist in Tacoma. Put them together and you’ve got a half hour of televised art that Tacomans should not miss. 

Acataphasia, who goes by “Cat,” is a taxidermy artist. She sees what others may call grotesque — roadkill, for instance, and strange hybrid creatures —as beautiful. Tacoma’s art audience was first introduced to Grey when she did an installation in an empty building in Opera Alley called “Tea for Short  Expectations.” Seen through peepholes in the window were reworked taxidermy animals not found in nature, and stuffed animals with more than the normal number of eyes and limbs. “I created this installation so that you can see one of the secret places where mutant animals meet to drink tea, or wine, or whatever it is that mutant animals drink,” Grey said. 

She describes Immortalized  as being like “Iron Chef” but with taxidermy instead of cooking. It’s an unscripted reality show. Each episode features an Immortalizer (a traditional taxidermist) facing off against a Challenger (a non-traditional or “rogue” taxidermy artist). Grey will, of course, be the challenger. Her episode airs March 7 at 10 p.m. Pacific time.

Each contestant is given an assignment and a theme, and about five weeks to go away and create their rogue creature. The judges include Paul Rhymer, the head taxidermist from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History; a woman artist from L.A. who creates gallery artworks involving dead canaries; and a stand-up comedian.

Grey says she can’t divulge what the assignment was. We’ll have to tune in to see what kind of weird or provocative creature she may create. She was, however, allowed to tell us what the theme was: “Your Worst Nightmare.” She said that when she heard the theme she was waiting for someone to step out with a gun.

The production company “started hearing about road taxidermy” in late 2010, Grey explained, and went online and found her website and contacted her. She didn’t think it was for real at first. She says she often gets calls from independent film producers wanting her to make some kind of stuffed animal, and even though she goes ahead and makes them the films never get made. “I almost crawled under the couch when I Googled them and found out it was a real network show.”

Taxidermists can buy forms for different kinds of animals. Upon these forms they build the animals using skins of dead animals. She uses roadkill. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to kill something just to use the skin,” she says. She loves animals, all kinds of animals dead or alive, and thinks they are beautiful. All her friends know to text her with roadkill locations, ask before throwing out a perfectly good rat or mouse, and they often bring her their pets when they die.
She was given the assignment for the “Immortalized” segment in mid-September, but she lost the blank animal form she was going to use, and by the time she got it back she had only a week left to complete it.

I highly recommend visiting Acataphasia Grey’s website before watching the show in order to get a bit of an idea what to expect and see why she has been called “The Queen of Morbid Chic.” And then mark your calendars for March 7at 10 p.m. to see her challenge an Immortalizer. 

Acataphasia Grey would like to say that she was raised by wolves, but in reality she was raised under a rock. Face-down. Growing up in Australia, where for some time her best friend was, in fact, a tree, she was the only person in her class to get the gestation period of humans wrong…by three months. After failing to be killed by a startling array of animals (and one plant), she moved back to the US where she moved up in the world, as evidenced by her new high-school best friend, a 2,000-pound boar named Maynard. Eventually she realized that you really can quit your day job and make art if you are willing to mostly live in other people’s basements and are good with plants.

Her first love and enduring art theme is animals: from the Mutant Stuffed Animal Of The Month Club founded by Neil Gaiman in 2002 to her “dry” taxidermy work, she simply adores them and doesn’t stop adoring them just because they have died. All her friends know to text her with roadkill locations, ask before throwing out a perfectly good rat or mouse, and they often bring her their pets when they die. She considers herself blessed.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Believe in Yourself:The Lena Horne Songbook

The Lena Horne Songbook at Centerstage

reviewed by Michael Dresdner

 L to R: Laurie Clothier, LaVon Hardison, Stacie Calkins
Three weeks ago I gave you fair warning that a delightful storm was on its way. I predicted that Believe in Yourself:The Lena Horne Songbook, a one-night-only Purple Phoenix production at Centerstage on February 16th would be both completely sold out and an absolute delight to experience.
I was right on both counts.  

Read the complete review on Michael's blog.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Pizza Man

Pamela Arndt, Zoe Shields and Tim Samland

I enjoyed most of the first act and parts of the second act, but there was something disturbing about Darlene Craviotto’s feminist screed (if you can call it that) that I can’t quite sink my teeth into. Yes, that statement was a play on a line from the play: "Teeth are important for pizza, among other things."
What’s disturbing about it is not just that there are hints of violence or that we’re given a look into the darkest parts of the dark sides of two otherwise comical women Julie Rodgers (Pamela Arndt, who also directed) and Alice Meyerlink (Zoe Shields). It’s that Craviotto’s play can’t decide whether it wants to be a comedy or a tragedy. Granted, the best dramas nearly always have huge helpings of humor in them and contemporary life is rife with a heady mixture of melodrama and farce — as is this play. In Pizza Man there are no valid reasons, logically or psychologically, for the things Julie and Alice do. As a result, moments of insight are lost and many of the bits that should be hilarious fall flat.
Julie and Alice are failures in love and in their pathetic little jobs. Julie is at a point in her life where she is ready to explode. You wouldn’t be surprised if she decided to rob a bank or blow something up or become a stripper or run for Congress. Alice, on the other hand, is too much of a bubblehead to think of or do anything drastic. All she wants to do is eat and pine over the worthless boyfriend who dumped her and eat some more.
What Julie finally decides to do in order to vent, and what she coerces Alice into going along with, is to take their frustrations out on a hapless pizza deliveryman, Eddie (Tim Samland).
To say anything more about the plot line would be a spoiler.  Suffice it to say things start getting weird, and I for one found myself balanced on a precipice between loving it and hating it. Ultimately I decided that the script was on the verge of being well written but went off track. It could have used as least one more re-write.
Pizza Man appears to be set in the early ’90s, although if the time frame is explicit I missed it. Everything happens in Julie and Alice’s tawdry apartment — set designed and constructed by Arndt and Samland. There’s an uncomfortable looking couch with a pea green cover thrown over, piles of empty beer bottles, cheap wall paneling and cheap laminate flooring, and amateurish looking modern art on the walls painted by local artist and actor Brian Jansen, who is actually an excellent artist whose paintings have an intentionally clumsy look to them, making them ideal for this set.
It must be hard for an actor to walk onto stage and establish a convincingly unique character from the get-go without benefit of dialogue or interaction with other actors, but with nothing more than gestures, posture and by mumbling thoughts out loud, and to do it without it seeming staged. Arndt does this nicely as she wanders from kitchen or bedroom into the front room of her cheap apartment wearing a ratty old shirt with apparently nothing underneath. She paces the floor, swigs beer, answers a phone call from an irritating neighbor, shouts at him and then with her back to the audience she flings open her shirt and flashes him (he’s looking through her window from his adjacent apartment). In doing all this she is utterly believable and hysterically funny. She makes the audience love her.
Shield’s first appearance is not as well done. She’s on edge and hyperactive — too much so, but only in the first few minutes. Then she quickly settles into the role of an airhead who is undone because her no-good boyfriend has gone back to his wife. After her momentarily jittery entrance, Shields gets better and better until an unfortunately ridiculous scene well into the second act.
Samland’s character, the pizza man, is a little more believable than the two women — not exactly likeable, but a stereotype we can believe in, and Samland pulls it off well. He’s a good actor and he finds a good balance between reality and farce.
Craviotto’s script starts out smart and humorous, but it falls apart in the second act. Many of the jokes fall flat and motivations are muddied at best. The cast and crew did a great job, but it’s not possible to make a good play out of a bad script.
Promotions for Pizza Man warned that there was nudity. Maybe Julie really didn’t have anything on under that shirt, but if so I don’t think anyone in the audience could tell.
The show starts at 8 p.m. but I recommend getting there by 7:30 so you won’t miss  singer/songwriter Amanda Navarez performing songs she composed for this show.
Final weekend Feb. 21, 22, 23 at 8 p.m.
Where: The Midnight Sun Performance Space, 113 N. Columbia Street in downtown Olympia.
Tickets: $12.00 available at the door night of show or online at

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Slightly Surreal

Abstract - Representational Continuum at Evergreen

The Weekly  Volcano, Feb. 14, 2013

Dinosaur, Highway 80, Vernal, Utah, photograph by Steve Fitch
There is an excellent art exhibit in the gallery at The Evergreen State College. It is called An Abstract - Representational Continuum and it juxtaposes abstract art with slightly surrealistic photographs culled from the college’s art collection. Included are works by well-known West Coast artists and a few nationally-recognized artists. So many artists are included whose work should be seen that I could just list their names and say go see it and call that a review. For instance: Guy Anderson, a leading figure of the so-called Northwest Mystics; Diane Arbus, who startled America with her photos of circus freaks and denizens of the demi-monde; Judy Dater; Alden Mason; Royal Nebeker; Edward Weston, acknowledge master of modern photography; and William Wiley, the granddaddy of Funk… Get the picture?

Mason, who died last week at the age of 90, has become an icon of Pacific Northwest Art. His works are in the collections of most West Coast museums, including Seattle Art Museum and Tacoma Art Museum, and he is particularly well known for his mural in the Convention Center is Seattle. Included in this show is a work in oil pastel on paper called “Peachy Keen” that is well representative of his style, although a little more abstract than most of his works. 

Anderson, is represented with a small untitled woodcut and mixed-media piece that pictures an isolated figure styled like a coastal Indian carving. It’s a strong image with nice subtle texture.
Steve Fitch’s “Dinosaur, Highway 80, Vernal, Utah” is a photograph taken at night of one of those strange highway oddities everyone photographs, this particular roadside attraction is a large dinosaur standing across the road from a motel. It’s just a photograph, but wow, you’ve got to see it.

I’ve always loved Wiley’s art. His piece in this show is a takeoff on ’60s underground comic artist Robert Crumb’s famous character “Mr. Natural.” Wiley’s character is called “Mr. Unnatural.” It is funny and beautifully drawn with some amazingly energetic mark-making.
There are a couple of really nice drawings by Jay Steensma and Joseph Goldberg that I reviewed years ago in another show at TESC and which definitely warrant a second look. The same is true of two photographs by Arbus: “Boy with Hand Grenade in Central Park” and “Albino Sword Swallower at Carnival.”

There are a couple of very bizarre surrealistic photographs by Jerry Uelsmann, and artist I probably should be familiar with but am not (is bizarre-surrealistic redundant?). These photos walk a tightrope between naturalistic/realistic and fantasy.

There are some beautiful nude figures, one by Norman Lundin called “I Am Beautiful-1” and one by the great Edward Weston with darkened contours on a washed-out figure. There are also not just one but two signs on the wall warning that the show contains some images of nudes. Really? In an art gallery in 2013 they feel the need to post such a warning?

I love the three little porcelain sculptures by Ed Blackburn.

Perhaps my favorite piece in the show is a black and white photograph by Paul Caponigro called “Reflected Stream.” At first glance it is a typical shot of a pretty little stream, but upon closer examination there is something magical about it. The stream runs forward until it is almost stopped by trees and rocks that jut out from each bank and then suddenly it is not a running stream but a deep, still pond with trees reflected in the moonlight. It is dreamy and not quit real looking. Perhaps more than any other piece in the show it epitomizes the continuum between the abstract and the representational.

[The Evergreen State College, An Abstract - Representational Continuum, Monday-Thursday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., through March 13, 2700 Evergreen Parkway NW, Library 1st floor, Olympia]

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Southern Gothic or Whatever

People ask me what kind of books I write or what my books are about, and I stammer and stumble and don't know what to say. My wife says I should figure out a brief answer to have at the ready. All of the advice columns for writers say you should be able to write a one- or two-sentence description — something I’ve never been able to do well.
One reviewer compared The Backside of Nowhere with Pat Conroy, and I have been compared with Eudora Welty and Carl Hiaasen (who are nothing alike, and, by-the-way, I’m flattered but can’t see the similarities). One person called my books a new kind of Southern Gothic. I like that but I'm not sure how accurate it is.
Here’s how Wikipedia defines Southern Gothic:
“Southern Gothic is a subgenre of Gothic fiction unique to American literature that takes place exclusively in the American South. Common themes in Southern Gothic literature include deeply flawed, disturbing or disorienting characters, decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or coming from poverty, alienation, racism, crime, and violence. It is unlike its parent genre in that it uses these tools not solely for the sake of suspense, but to explore social issues and reveal the cultural character of the American South, with the Gothic elements taking place in a magic realist context rather than a strictly fantastical one.”
Other writers who have been identified as Southern Gothic are: William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, Erskine Caldwell, Tennessee Williams, Harper Lee and Barry Hannah. I hardly consider myself in the same league as any of them.
I guess my novels do have flawed, disturbing or disorienting characters, and they do sometimes deal with issues of poverty, alienation, and racism, and they sometimes explore social issues and reveal the cultural character of the American South — but they do not dwell on the grotesque, and they’re far from magic realist. Plus, I think I write with a much lighter touch than those writers listed above, and the settings are not always Southern (Reunion at the Wetside was wholly set in the Pacific Northwest). 
I’m glad that my books are not so easy to categorize, but my wife is right when she says I need to know how to answer that question. When people ask me about my books and I stammer like a fool, I probably lose potential book sales. So when I pose this question here and on other public sites I’m seriously asking my readers for suggestions about how to characterize my books. Please do comment.