Saturday, August 30, 2014

Beautiful quilts at American Art Company

Published in The Weekly Volcano, Aug. 28, 2014

“Pause,” quilt by Nancy Erickson
The “NW Contemporary Art Quilt Exhibit” at American Art Company is always loaded with beauty. This, the 12th annual installation, is no exception. Not only is almost every quilt on display of the highest quality, the manner in which they are displayed is excellent as quilts are grouped by color and style and even the sculptures on stands are placed near complementary quilts (both spellings of complimentary apply).

It seems to me that there are a lot more small quilts in this year’s show, and the smaller ones work well in the space.

In the front gallery purple and orange prevail — full-bodied, rich colors, with a predominance of geometric abstract designs. The modus operandi seems to be contrasting solid colors with delicate linear drawings in thread.

"Winter Silence" by Carla Dipietro
Barbara Nepon’s “Channels” is a grouping of four small vertical panels, each with four rectangles of contrasting colors, purple, gray, red and light tan, with sweeping lines that flow from one panel to the other, thus unifying the whole. Similarly, her “Barely Bauhaus” is a strong design of three interlocking bands of green, blue and red with white bars, all on a black back ground.

Jill Scholtens’ “Firewall” is similar in concept but with dramatically angular forms in tones of purple and orange on a black background.

In contrast to all the geometric abstractions in the front galleries is Nancy Erickson’s distinctive lioness in tones of purple and orange with line drawings of other animals stitched into the surface. It is cut into the shape of the animal and is a fierce counterpoint to all the restful geometric abstracts. I’ve been seeing Erickson’s work in Tacoma as long as I’ve been writing reviews, going back to the old Penny Lucas Gallery, and they are always distinctive in style.

The back gallery spaces feature mostly nature-based scenes in earth tones and a lot of bright yellow. One of the best of these is Ann Johnson’s “Between the Veins.” The “veins” are the stems of leaves in lyrical yellow line, and the blue and green leaves are like expressionistic swathes of paint applied wet-on-wet.

Melissa Lang’s “Stick Around” and “Walking Sticks” are made of dramatic bands of bright colors arranged in angular forms. In one they rest on fields of concentric circles made of fine green stitching, and in the other the stitching follows the shape of the negative shapes between the “sticks” in much the way Frank Stella’s  stripes followed the contour of his shaped canvases in his early stripe paintings.

Perhaps the most inventive works in the show are Carla Dipietro’s “Melting Glacier” and “Winter Silence,” both of which are three-dimensional with the glacier in one and snowflakes in a forest in the other depicted with tiny strips of cloth woven into a grid of fine thread above the surface where they cast shadows. These are strikingly lovely works.

Overall this is an outstanding show. Don’t miss it.

American Art Company, 12th NW Contemporary Art Quilt Exhibit, Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Saturday 10 am. to 5p.m., Third Thursday until 8 p.m., through Oct. 4, 1126 Broadway Plaza, Tacoma, 253.272.4327

Friday, August 29, 2014

Review: “Middletown” at Harlequin Productions

Published in The News Tribune

Alec Clayton

Bill Johns as John Dodge and Jenny Vaughn Hall as Mrs. Swanson in Harlequin's "Middletown"
Harlequin Productions’ “Middletown” is the surprise hit of the season. The play by Will Eno, which has been called absurdist and surrealistic and an “Our Town” for the 21st century, is brilliantly written and performed with style and sincerity by an outstanding cast on a minimalist set.

The set by Jeannie Beirne consists of simple drop-down windows and a few tables, chairs and beds that are unobtrusively moved about between scenes. Video projections by Amy Chisman cast scenes from the past to the future in small town America. The projected opening scene looks like an idyllic small town as painted by Edward Hopper, but this town is populated by citizens who could have been invented by Eugene Ionesco or Samuel Becket.

Right off the bat they break the fourth wall when Mike Dooly as a droll commentator in the “Our Town” mold welcomes the audience. It is unclear if what we’re experiencing is a curtain speech or a part of the play; what is clear, however, is that he is hilarious. And then the play-proper begins with Dooly again, now a drunk on a park bench being hassled by a cop (Scott C. Brown) who is frightening because he changes in the blink of an eye from friendly and down-to-earth to bully with gun and night stick.

There doesn’t seem to be any story arc at first, as we go from scene to scene viewing the citizens of Middletown from a range of perspectives, from that of a librarian (Walayn Sharples) to stereotypical, photo-shooting tourists (Josh Krupke and Lorrie Fargo) being given a tour by Elex Hill, to an astronaut viewing the town from outer space. But gradually a sweet and sad story begins to emerge as a budding relationship develops between a newcomer to town, Mrs. Swanson (Jenny Vaughn Hall), and a handyman named John Dodge (played brilliantly by Bill Johns). John Dodge is a sad misfit. Mrs. Swanson, whose working-out-of-town husband we never see, is friendly and loveable, but underneath her charm also lies a deep sadness. Sparks between these two are evident from the moment they meet.

I cannot praise the acting in this play enough.

Johns, in his first role at Harlequin, comes to the Olympia stage from Seattle, where he has performed in “The Adventures of Kavelier and Clay” and “Frankenstein,” both at Book-It Repertory Theatre. He has a way of quickly changing expressions that reminds me of Tim Conway from the old Carol Burnett show. He goes easily from comedy to tragedy in what may well be the best acting I’ve seen this year.

Also exceptional is Dooly as the mechanic who comments wisely on the absurdities of life in his drunken manner and who also touches the hearts fellow characters and audience alike.

Hall is charming and expressive as Mrs. Swanson. Like Dooly and Johns, she touches the heart and makes the audience want to root for her.

I’ve been following Brown’s career since I first saw him as Salieri in “Amadeus” and as R.C. McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at Lakewood Playhouse (I chose him as Best actor in my annual Critic’s Choice for both roles). No matter what part he plays, he becomes the character. As the cop in this show he starts out as an almost demonic bad guy but becomes a real softy by the tragic end.

“Middletown” is as funny, as intelligent, and as heart wrenching as any play can be. Eno’s writing is rife with sharp observations on the human condition, but is never pedantic. The philosophy and psychology, the pathos and humor, is all served up in the words of everyday people who are absolutely believable.  I highly recommend this play.

Check Alec’s blog at for reviews of other area theatrical productions. Watch for a review of “Blithe Spirit” at Olympia Little Theatre and “And Then There Were None” at Lakewood Playhouse.

SIDEBAR: Middletown
WHEN: Thursdays through Saturdays, 8p.m., Sundays 2 p.m. through Sept. 13
WHERE: State Theater, 202 E. 4th Ave., Olympia
TICKETS: prices vary, call for details
INFORMATION: 360-786-0151;

Mind Drumming

A long time ago I was a drummer in a country and western band called the Southern Playboys, and after that in a kind of Lawrence Welk type quintet. The leader of the band played accordion. I kid you not. I also used to be a painter. I have a master’s degree in art and spent most of my life making art. But then I quit that, too.
I still make art in my head, and in bed at night I sometimes have lucid dreams about painting. As for drumming, I constantly drum with my fingers on my thighs or a table top or the steering wheel when I’m driving—to whatever song is in my head at the time. Sometimes I wake up about four o’clock in the morning and start drumming in my head. I will visualize sitting at a drum set with sticks in hand and playing a masterful solo.
When I make art in my head it can be as frustrating and as fulfilling as making an actual painting. You see, I remember that when I was actively painting I would often—more often than you can imagine—screw it up; and the more I tried to fix it the worse it got. When this happened (notice I put that in the passive voice: it just happened; I had nothing to do with it) I often had to scrape everything off and start over. You’d think I could avoid stuff like that when I’m painting in my head, but I don’t.
Drumming in my head usually goes better. I do things I was never able to do when I was actually drumming. I’m talking like things only a Buddy Rich or a Ginger Baker can do.
You’d think that if I do all this painting and drumming in my head I’d want to pick up a brush or a pair of drumsticks and do the real thing, but I really have no desire to do either. I have a pair of drumsticks that sit by the TV. I often think about picking them up but, you know, I’d have to get up and walk across the room.
The thing is, doing these things in my head is just as satisfying, if not more so, than doing the real thing. I know I can never be as good as Michelangelo or Jackson Pollock or Phillip Pearlstein, but in my mind I can. Besides, painting is messy. As for drumming, do you have any idea how physically demanded drumming is? At my age and as out of shape as I am I could never last through a couple of rock songs, and I know I could never be another Ginger Baker.
But in my mind . . . damn I’m good.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

An Improbable Peck of Plays 3D

TAO is at it again with the third installment of one-act plays at the Midnight Sun. This one’s called “An Improbable Peck of Plays 3D.” Supposedly a peck indicates how many plays, but a peck is not that kind of measurement. It is a dry measure of eight quarts; the fourth part of a bushel, equal to 537.6 cubic inches (8.81 liters). I looked it up. There are eight one-acts in this evening’s festivities, so maybe they equate the number of quarts with the number of plays. Anyway, that seems just the right amount. All eight are so short as to seem more like skits on a television variety show — like something by Sid Caesar and Imogene Coco or Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman. I’m not sure why they call them improbable unless that refers to the main plot points to most of these plays.
Debbie Sampson and Ryan Holmberg in “Guido in Therapy”

Stephanie Kroschel and Bobby Brown in “Second Wind”
Imagine this if you can: Pygmalion, the Greek sculptor who fell in love with the statue of the goddess Galatea, who comes alive and turns out to be a feminist who berates the sculptor for lusting after her body while ignoring her mind and her spirit. Yep. Pretty improbable. But if a statue of a goddess could come to life in the 21st century, I can imagine it might happen something like this. Novelist, actor, director and playwright Christian Carvajal made this the premise of his play An Imperfect Galatea, directed by Pug Bujeaud. Cheyenne Logan is delightful as the beautiful and headstrong Galatea in this philosophical comedy, and Bobby Brown is equally enjoyable to watch as the bumbling, not-a-clue Pygmalion.
Logan plays a similar part in Narcissus and Tiresia by Sammy Scott, directed by Morgan Picton, in which Narcissus (Sam Johnson) hates everyone in the world because people are ugly but Tiresia has an improbably cure for his condition.
These plays are all locally written and produced. The writers are associated with The Northwest Playwrights Alliance, which was founded right here in Olympia by Bryan Willis and now operates out of the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

For another comedy based on a totally improbable premise, look no further than the first play of the evening, Second Wind by Dan Erickson, directed by the duo of Vanessa Postil and Mark Alford of Harlequin Production’s improve comedy troupe Something Wicked. Valerie (Stephanie Kroschel) is a woman who goes to her doctor (Debbie Sampson) for a checkup. Her tests all come back showing she’s in good health, but the doctor is worried about something else, to wit, there is a man in a swivel chair attached to her by a rope tied around her waist. Apparently the cure needs to be something more than simply untying the rope. I will not spoil it any further by divulging who the man is other than to say that he is famous. Bobby Brown plays the man in the swivel chair and Dennis Worrell plays another character named Tuttle who is rather disruptive to say the least.
Improbabilities stack up with skits about people in therapy, or who should probably be in therapy. For example: Amy (Sara Geiger). Amy believes she is living in a Broadway musical. Or, more accurately, a life comprising songs from many musicals. This one was written by Andrew Gordon, is directed by Mark Alford, and also features Jodie Chapin, Maxwell Schilling and Worrell again. 
My choice of the most hilarious play of the evening is Guido in Therapy by Beth Peterson and directed by the team of Alford and Postil. This one features Aaron Bredlau as the therapist, Sampson as the patient, Beth, and the unconquerable Ryan Holmberg as Guido. Beth is in therapy because she has an inappropriate relationship with her cat. She takes pet love to a whole new level. Guido is the cat, and Holmberg has the cat moves down perfect — the scratching, the licking, the grooming. I may never see another cat video without thinking of him.
Other one-acts filling out the evening are Next Stop: Reckoning by Marcy Rodenborn, directed by Elizabeth Lord; Temperature on Mercury by Bryan Willis, directed by Christian Carvajal; and Scent of a Man by Solomon Olmstead, directed by Pug Bujeaud.

Aug. 28, 29,30,31 and Sept. 4, 5 and 6 at 8 p.m., Sept. 7 at 2:30 p.m., The Midnight Sun, 113 N. Columbia St.
Tickets: $12.00. Available at door night of show or online at