Thursday, June 30, 2016

Little Shop of Horrors at Harlequin

Photo – Seymour with the Doo-Wops, from left: Kristen Natalia, Brad Walker, Deshanna Brown and Amy Shephard. Photo courtesy Harlequin Productions

Published in the Weekly Volcano, June 30. 2016
The Doo-Wops, from left: Kristen Natalia, Deshanna Brown and Amy Shephard. All photos courtesy Harlequin Productions
I don’t want to be caught gushing like a pre-teen meeting Justin Bieber, but I can think of nothing but high-decibel superlatives when trying to write about the performances of Gretchen Boyt, Rich Garrett, John Serembe and Brad Walker in Harlequin Production’s Little Shop of Horrors. I remember seeing it 10 years ago at Capital Playhouse, and of course I remember the two movie versions. I remember that it was funny, but not this funny. What I did not remember is just how much it rocks out — thanks in large part in this production to the great Harlequin band led by Bruce Whitney and to the fabulous Doo-Wop Girls, Deshanna Brown, Kristen Natalia and Amy Shephard, who are so much more than backup singers. Shephard is also the choreographer, and it is a treat to see how energetically she throws herself into her role. She dances with infectious joy and excitement.
Seynour (Brad Walker) top, Mr. Mushnik (John Serembe) with Amy Shephard and Deshanna Brown.

Mr. Mushnik and Semour

Seymour with Doo-Wops

Semour with Orin (Rich Garrett)

Seymour and Audrey (Gretchen Boyt)
Serembe, who may be best known for multiple roles in The 39 Steps at Harlequin and as the monster in Theater Artists Olympia’s The Head That Wouldn’t Die (possibly the funniest character ever to appear on South Sound stages), plays shop owner Mr. Mushnik in a natural and realistic manner. He is loveable in a grumpy kind of way and funny but not outlandishly so until he teams up with the nebbish Seymour (Brad Walker) on the song, “Mushnik and Son,” which brought tears of laughter to the eyes of the opening night audience. Serembe’s rubber-faced expressions and his marathon of breath-holding is a comic bit to rival the best ever seen at Harlequin (meaning Jason Haws’s classic death scene in A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
Right up there with him on the top of the funny scale is Orin the motorcycle-riding dentist (Rich Garrett) who is like a combination Elvis and Marlon Brando in The Wild One singing “Dentist” with the Doo-Wops, followed soon by the outrageous “Now (It’s Just the Gas)” in a duet with Seymour aided by a fabulous contraption strapped to his back that feeds gas to a fish tank globe that encases his head (rented from the 5th Avenue Theater in Seattle). Garrett has been absent from Olympia theater for a long time. It’s great to see him back on stage.
Boyt’s take on the sexy, ditsy Audrey is a spot-on riff on the classic Marilyn Monroe dumb blonde, and she has a great voice that comes across strongly even with a comic Brooklyn accent.
As far as the plot, suffice it to say that Seymour is in love with Audrey and he discovers a strange plant that he names Audrey II, whose plant food is human blood. Puppeteer Maggie Ferguson-Wagstaffe makes her come alive. 
The set designed by Jeannie Beirne is marvelous, and costume designer Darren Mills is right on the money with his 1950s clothing.
The best laughs and the best songs come in the first act. There is a little lull in the second act, and then it picks up with the rousing final musical numbers with the voice of Christian Doyle as Audrey II and the Pods, and the finale, “Little Shop of Horrors Medley” with the entire cast.
The show is popular enough that buying tickets early should be prudent. The house was almost sold out opening night.
Little Shop of Horrors, Thursday through Saturday, 8p.m., Sunday 2 p.m. through July 24, Harlequin Productions’ State Theater, 202 E. 4th Ave., Olympia, ticket prices vary, call for details, 360-786-0151;

Nathan Barnes and Barlow Palminteri at Tacoma Community College

Photo: “Frantic,” mixed-media painted assemblage by Nathan Barnes, courtesy Tacoma Community College
A monumental display of brilliance
Published in the Weekly Volcano, June 30, 2016
“Frantic,” mixed-media painted assemblage by Nathan Barnes, courtesy Tacoma Community College
I have followed the work of Barlow Palminteri and Nathan Barnes for quite some time, and have written laudatory reviews of each separately, but never have I seen their paintings shown together or in such a huge show as in the current exhibition at The Gallery at Tacoma Community College. To say this is an impressive show is a great understatement. It is a monumental display of brilliance.
Palminteri’s paintings of friends and neighbors in both interior and exterior settings, many in mural-size diptychs and triptychs, are in the tradition of a kind of realism somewhere between that of Philip Pearlstein and Edward Hopper. In his paintings of artists in the studio — many of which are self-portraits or recognizable portraits of well-known local artists such as Ron Hinson and Dale Witherow — he integrates the figure into the interior in a complex manner. Typically among the many variations on the same theme, the artist is shown standing in the studio in front of a self-portrait on an easel with the same figure depicted in similar paintings stacked around the wall so that the viewer sees images within images in a funhouse arrangement. M.C. Escher meets Pearlstein meets RenĂ© Magritte.
In paintings with exterior settings Palminteri’s figures separate from the background in ways that at first are less satisfying than the integration of figure and settings in the interior scenes; they separate in ways that are oddly disorienting, but they grow on you. His soft-focus paint handling and burning orange and violet colors are simultaneously muted and intense. Individual leaves and blades of grass are painted with a halo effect.
The back wall of the gallery is dominated by a triptych titled “Tarzan and the Romans.” It is a mesmerizing monstrosity of comic book impressionism. In the central panel, Tarzan is fighting a lion. In the dead center of the composition the artist’s face appears within a circular inset, and his facial expression mimics Tarzan’s. Side panels depict battling Roman soldiers in intricate compositions including, in each, a circular inset of the artist painting a nude model.
How can any other artist hold his own next to these works? Well, it helps if the other artist is Nathan Barnes. His pop-surreal painted mixed-media constructions are nightmarishly inventive. Each includes portrait heads of family members or friends. These portrait faces are hyper-realistic, calling to mind the technique of pop artist James Rosenquist, but they have multiple eyes and gargantuan open mouths within which can be seen weird electrical contraptions with cut-out and assembled wood and other materials including such things as an actual electric cord that comes out of a red heart and dangles down with a plug on the end hanging next to one of the gallery’s electrical outlets; or an explosion of multicolored balls on the wall all around one portrait head-within-a-head.
There are 13 of these modestly-sized assemblages in the show, plus one long frieze that stretches a little over 19 feet across one wall (231 inches by 19 inches). Called “Moon Temple Frieze,” this painting has images of faces, folded cloth, hands with interlaced fingers, and sumo wrestlers in space. As with all of Barnes’ paintings, there are complicated symbols and personal references that the casual viewer may never figure out, but they are fascinating, disturbing or funny, depending on your mindset; technically marvelous; and beautiful.
This may very well be the best show I’ve seen this year.
The Gallery at Tacoma Community College, noon to 5 p.m. Monday-Thursday, through Aug. 11, Tacoma Community College, Building 5A, entrance off South 12th Street between Pearl and Mildred, Tacoma, visitor parking in Lot G. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Naturalist

Exploring Abstract Landscapes at B2 Fine Art
Published in the Weekly Volcano, June 23, 2016
"Autumn landscape Golden Grove,” painting by Gerard Collins, all photos courtesy B2 Fine Art Gallery
For six years B2 Fine Art Gallery has offered Tacoma a smorgasbord of art from emerging locals to established international art stars. And now they offer up their final show before packing up and moving north to the Emerald City.
The current show, slightly misnamed an “exploration of abstract landscapes,” features Olympia painters Jeffree Stewart and Becky Knold with some of their better works to date, along with sculptures by Alan Newberg and paintings by Gerard Collins and Nina Mikhailenko (I say “slightly misnamed” because some of the paintings are not abstract in the least).
"Pond's Reflection" by Becky Knold
Gallery owner Gary Boone says nobody captures the Northwest light the way Knold does. I would say nobody captures the blues of clear water the way she does in her paintings “Pond’s Depth” and “Pond’s Reflection,” especially the former. Known for minimalist abstracts with very few delineated forms on fields of layered color, Knold shows more variety in this show than I’ve seen in any of her previous shows. “Pond’s Depth” has marvelous areas of cool aqua blues and greens with yellow accents and some surprising areas of flat, dull blue in three corners. I like the unexpectedness of the dull blue corners and the way they highlight the subtle changes in the rest of the painting. There is more complexity in “Pond’s Reflection” than in her usual, and a nice faceted glass-like surface.
"Hidden Zone Lahare" by Jeffree Stewart
Stewart’s paintings come as a surprise to me. Although they show some similarities to earlier works I have seen from him, they mostly represent new directions and are the best of his paintings I have seen to date. They are stylized and highly expressive landscapes painted with long strokes of intense color, often with swirling spirals and sweeps like those seen in Van Gogh’s famous “Starry Night.” There are two paintings in beeswax and gouache that are intense and have an air of mystery to them. One of these pictures a silhouetted figure in a boat in the ocean in front of a rocky shore. There is a lot of white in this that sparkles like sunlight, but it is a cold, cold white light.
Mikhailenko’s paintings are not abstract, but are traditional landscapes with softly blended paint application and a welcoming glow of muted color. The best of these is a painting of waterfalls that is like a blend of Monet and Whistler. Nicely done but derivative.
Newberg’s sculptures are imposing works in wood that exploit the natural properties of the material to great effect. Two of them are freestanding sculptures that stand seven or eight feet tall and have a monumental feel to them. A third is much smaller but is equally monumental in concept if not in scale.
Collins, whom I was told studied under the great Gerhard Richter, is showing a variety of paintings, most of which are abstract but clearly based on nature, and two of which are a Pollock-like overall pattern of black marks on white canvases. On the far back wall is a Collins painting of tangled limbs in a dense forest painted with overlapping staccato brushstrokes with a small band of sky showing across the top. In this sky are white clouds that look like areas where the canvas was left blank but which can be seen as painted upon a closer inspection. This painting brings to mind the latest works by Olympia painter Kathy Gore Fuss, but it has a rougher, rawer quality.
Tacoma will miss B2.
The Naturalist, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, till 9 p.m. Third Thursdays, through July 30, B2 Gallery, 711 St. Helens Avenue, Tacoma, 253.238.5065.


Into the Woods at Dukesbay Theater

 fractured fairytale
Published in the Weekly Volcano, June 23, 2016
Clockwise: Arwen DeweyNick ClawsonNiclas Olson, Deanna Martinez and Tasha Smith. Photo courtesy New Muses Theatre Company.
New Muses Theatre Company’s Into the Woods at Dukesbay Theater is the third version of this popular Stephan Sondheim musical I have reviewed, and it is quite different in some important ways, primarily in that it is scaled down with a much smaller set in a smaller space with fewer actors, and those actors are physically much closer to the audience. I like the closeness and the scaled-down set with cheap but highly inventive props (a flock of origami birds dropped by a rope pulley operated by actors on stage in full view of the audience, a white chair on rollers as a cow, and a picture frame as a harp; I only wish the babies had been equally inventive objects instead of baby dolls).
Sondheim and book writer James Lapine cobbled together a cast of well-known fairytale characters into a dark fantasy morality tale set to music.
A malevolent witch (Brynne Geiszler) cast a spell on a baker (Nick Clawson) and his wife (Arwen Dewey) making them infertile. She tells them the only way they can break the spell is to go into the woods and get a milky white cow, a blood red cape, hair the color of corn, and a slipper as pure as gold. Finding these items is a snap, but to get them they have beg, buy or steal them from their owners, who are reluctant to give them up. The cow is the property of Jack from “Jack and the Beanstalk” (Niclas Olson). The blood red cape belongs to Little Red Riding Hood (Sammy Cattin); the hair the color of corn is Rapunzel’s (Jenna McRill); and the slipper as pure as gold is Cinderella’s (Tasha Smith).
In a play filled with comical and dramatic clashes with temptation, the baker is too nice to swindle or steal these items, but his wife is much more willing to do whatever it takes to get what she needs so she can have a baby. She’s also easily tempted by the seductive prince (Derek Mesford) who is in love with Cinderella but doesn’t hesitate to two-time her (princes use their charms to seduce. That’s what they do). This prince has a brother (played by Olson ) who is in love with Rapunzel, and both princes are charming, sleazy, arrogant narcissists, as portrayed with great comic effect by Olson and Mesford, whose duet on the song “Agony” is the comic highlight of the show.
The music throughout is wonderful. Highlights include the wolf’s flirtatious “Hello Little Girl” as sung by Mesford to Cattin, “A Very Nice Prince” as sung by Dewey and Smith, and Dewey’s “Moments in the Woods.” The choreographed movement of the entire cast popping in and out like so many Jack-in-the-Boxes ads a magical quality.
Clawson, Cattin, Dewey and Chris Serface as the narrator and “Mysterious Man” turn in marvelous acting jobs. It is particularly nice to see Serface, Tacoma Little Theatre artistic director, back on stage.
Olson, founder of New Muses, not only sings and acts wonderfully in multiple roles, but he is also does a great job of directing of this show, rising to the challenge of scaling down a big stage production to fit in a small house.
The house, which seats only 40, was sold out opening night, so I highly suggest getting advance tickets.
Into the Woods, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m., Sunday through July 3, $10-$15, Dukesbay Theater, Merlino Arts Center, 508 S. Sixth Ave., Tacoma. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Laramie Project at Tacoma Little Theatre
A Benefit for Orlando
Tacoma Little Theatre is producing a one-night-only reading of “The Laramie Project” on June 26 as a benefit for the survivors of the massacre in Orlando. 
Read the complete article on

Thursday, June 16, 2016

A Betty Ragan Retrospective

“Between Michigan and State,” photo collage by Betty Sapp Ragan, courtesy Tahoma Unitarian Universalist Congregation.
Published in the Weekly Volcano, June 16, 2016

“Uptown Broadway Angel,” hand-colored photo collage by Betty Sapp Ragan, courtesy Tahoma Unitarian Universalist Congregation.
Betty Sapp Ragan passed away a year ago. She was an excellent artist, and she left behind an impressive body of work, a lot of which is now being shown in an exhibition of photo collages and prints at the Mary Bozeman Gallery in the Tahoma Unitarian Universalist Congregation.
Curated by Patty McPhee, the show consists of some 32 works in the main auditorium and a few of her larger works in separate rooms. The art is arranged in generally chronological order beginning with a few prints and drawings from roughly 1985. Few of the works are dated, but McPhee says the bulk of them are from what Ragan called her “button down series,” works with feminist themes done in the 1990s. Two of the larger works are photo collages with intricate shading in colored pencils, and there are two of her latest works— paintings of landscapes with architectural structures. I reviewed an exhibition of this series in September of 2015, writing:  “Painted are the scenes where the buildings were, are, should be, or might have been located. The colors are bright and sunny with a predominance of blue. Everything is painted with precise detail but softly focused, like a cross between photo-realist paintings and pastel drawings. The buildings themselves are digital prints of architectural drawings, mostly black and white line drawings that are collaged into the paintings.”
All of the smaller photo collages depict women’s dresses either on mannequins or hangers, positioned within architectural structures. The dresses stand in for the women who may have worn them. They are stiff and formal dresses from bygone eras. They tend to be far too large for the settings — windows or archways or pedestals on baroque buildings — as if the women are giants, and the button-down formality of the dresses combined with the positioning within the buildings creates a feeling of imprisonment; locked within their clothes and within what is expected of women. Further intensifying this feeling of imprisonment is the fact that the mannequins are always headless and armless.
The earliest painting in this show is “In the Gazebo,” a photo collage of dresses inside a building: one giant dress inside an archway and a procession of smaller dresses marching forward.
“Chambored Oval Window” is an outsized dress within an oval window. All that is visible is the midsection with six large buttons. Above the window is a sculpted face flanked by leaf designs that form arms for the woman made up of the sculpted face and the dress in the window as the body. It becomes almost surrealistic and ominous.
Many of the other works, such as “Raitt Hall,” Cathedral Apartments in San Francisco,” and “Rialto Apartments” repeat this theme of an outsized bodice inside a window or other framing device. Semi-transparent blouses are also a repeated theme, as in “Between State and Michigan” with its transparent white blouse with polka dots that reverberate nicely with the intricate scrollwork framing the window.
Ragan took all of the photos of dresses and of buildings, the bulk of which are in Chicago. She cut out the dresses and meticulously collaged them into the photos of buildings. It is almost impossible to tell they are actual collages and not digitally manipulated images. If you look very closely from just the right angle, you can sometimes see the edges of paper, which she colored to match the sections where they were pasted in.
All of the art is for sale by silent auction and is priced ludicrously cheap, with bids starting as low as $10. All proceeds to go toward upgrading the lighting and hanging system for the gallery. McPhee said the low bid prices are based on the executor of Ragan’s estate’s desire that the works have homes.
Tahoma Unitarian Universalist Congregation, South 56th and L Street, Tacoma. Open most days but it is best to contact Patty McPhee at 206-919-4938 to make sure someone is there.

The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged)

Published in the Weekly Volcano, June 16, 2016 
from left: Rebecca Rogers, Vanessa Postil, and Lauren O’Neill. Photos courtesy Theater Artists Olympia.
If you are easily offended by irreverent humor, steer clear of The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged) at the Midnight Sun. They don’t make them any more irreverent. Produced by Theater Artists Olympia and written by Adam Long, Reed Martin, and Austin Tichenor for The Reduced Shakespeare Company, the same folks who brought you The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), this Pythonesque retelling of the Bible follows the formula established by RSC’s evisceration of Shakespeare. They loosely reinterpret and retell the familiar (and not so familiar) stories of the Bible. There are groaner puns (the ax of the apostles), a skewering of The Almighty’s destructive vengeance and misogyny, Vaudeville-style jokes and song-and-dance routines, and a smattering of topical references mixed in with historical/Biblical tales (the apostles Paul and John, but not George and Ringo).
This satire is directed by Mark Alford and stars Lauren O’Neill, Vanessa Postil, and Rebecca Rogers as themselves telling the tales of the Bible and acting out the parts of God, Jesus, Moses, Sampson, Joseph and Mary and the whole cast of characters from both the old and the new testaments. These are three of the funniest women in the South Sound. O’Neill, also known as Hattie Hotpants, emcee of Tush! Burlesque, and as Dr. Lauren (could that possible be a takeoff on Dr. Laura?), is a veteran of many plays with TAO. Postil performs with Lady Town Improv troupe and was a huge hit in TAO’s The Head That Wouldn’t Die. Rogers is a relative newcomer to South Sound stages, but comes to the area with more than 20 years’ experience performing and teaching improv all over the country and recently in Paris, France.
Oddly enough, despite great actors throwing themselves with abandon into routines that are clever, biting, and ludicrous, I found myself not laughing out loud throughout much of this play. I enjoyed it, but not to the extent that I enjoyed more than one production of its predecessor, the Shakespeare treatment. Some of the jokes came across as juvenile, and much of the humor was of a type that I appreciate but don’t necessarily react to; and I don’t think that was what the writers or the director intended. There were some bits, on the other hand, that were funny enough to make tears of laughter roll down cheeks, a prime example being the audience-participation retelling of the story of Noah’s ark as a song, “Old MacNoah had an ark.” Brave audience members made weird animal noises onstage, and many were sprayed with water. You have now been warned.
Some of the more clever bits included the mark of Cain (no spoiler here, you’ll have to see it for yourself) and a musical explanation of how to tell Elijah from Elisha or the Josephs from the old and new testaments.
The costumes were purposefully bad, as were fake beards and big wigs, and the props were silly: a giant blow-up whale for Jonah and a tiny plastic ark that Rogers claimed she carved out of wood.
No other South Sound theatrical group is as edgy, brave or outlandish as TAO, so it is fitting and not at all surprising that they’re the first to bring this satirical romp to Olympia.
Lauren O'Neill

Rebecca Rogers

Vanessa Postil

The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged), Thursday, March 31 at 8 p.m. and Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m. through June 26, pay what you can June 16, The Midnight Sun, 113 N. Columbia St. Tickets: $12-$15, Available at door night of show or online at

Friday, June 10, 2016

Life is Complicated

Seated are Erin Quinn Valcho, Christopher Valcho, Sharry O'Hare, and David Cuffeld. Randall Graham and Jenni Flemming are standing. Photo by Steve Saxton.

Local playwright Kendra Malm brings her first play to the stage at Olympia Little Theatre, and it’s a hit. The play is Life is Complicated, a contemporary comic drama that delves unflinchingly into one of the more contentious social and political issues of the day.
In program notes Malm says the script was inspired by thinking about the perfect part for herself. She said, “I got a book about playwriting to give me advice about getting it down on paper . . . and worked on it off and on for six years.”
It’s the story of Chelsea Walsh (Jenni Fleming), a single professional woman in her forties. Egged on by her free-spirited best friend, Zoe (Erin Quinn Valcho), Chelsea starts a relationship with a younger man. And then Chelsea’s mother shows up and reveals something about Chelsea's past in front of Zoe that she would rather have kept hidden. This leads to a surprising confession that shocks her new boyfriend, fascinates her best friend, causes conflict in her family, and has Chelsea re-evaluating her life.
I took this description from a press release, which made it clear that the playwright doesn’t want the “shocking revelation” to be given away. That means there is little else I can say about the story.
Readings of plays can be anything from actors sitting around a table with scripts in hand to a fully staged reading with lights, set and costumes—scripts in hand being the only difference from a full production. That second option is what this production of Life is Complicated is. It is skillfully directed by Martin P. Larson and performed by a professional quality troupe including David Cuffeld as Jordan, the boyfriend; Randall Graham as Chelsea’s wisecracking little brother, Dave; Sharry O’Hare as Chelsea’s mother, Midge; Christopher Valcho as her father, Chuck; and Fleming and Erin Quinn Valcho as Chelsea and Zoe. The cast and crew had three weeks to prepare, and judging from the opening night performance, I suspect they could soon easily drop the scripts.
Christopher Valcho, who plays the dad, is also credited with building the set, which is as lovely as any I’ve seen at OLT, thanks to a classy back wall and beautiful props (modernistic furniture with gorgeous coloring—subtle tones of gray with colorful accents softly lighted in tones of blue). No one is credited with costuming. I gather the actors chose their own, resulting in contemporary clothing that, in each instant, fits the character’s personality.
Fleming plays Chelsea as a sophisticated and worldly woman who is nevertheless sensitive to others, can let her hair down when appropriate, and feel deeply. She plays the part with subtlety and strength. Erin Quinn Valcho and Graham are delightful as the playful Zoe and Dave. Cuffeld plays a likeable and also playful but sensitive Jordan. O’Hare as the spiteful mother makes you want to scratch her eyes out, and Christopher Valcho is a strong father figure. Excellent acting and directing all around.
Malm’s script could use a few minor tweaks. I thought there could have been more foreshadowing to build up to the big reveal at the end of the first act, and the discussions in the second act became a bit too didactic in spots. But when criticizing the script, I have to keep this in mind: hit plays on Broadway are usually re-written many times after they are first performed on the road. A playwright needs to see her play performed by actors before finalizing it. This play has never before been performed. I would love to see it fully developed and produced again at OLT or some other theater.
Life is Complicated is being performed this weekend only, tonight and Saturday at 7:55 p.m. and Sunday at 1:55 p.m. Tickets are $7 and are available online at, or at Yenney Music, 2703 Capital Mall Dr. SW, Suite 201.
Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Avenue NE in Olympia, (360)786-9484,

Avenue Q Comes to Lakewood Playhouse

Published in The News Tribune, June 10, 2016
Ensemble cast of Avenue Q. 
“Avenue Q” is an edgy adult comedy billed by Lakewood Playhouse as “‘Sesame Street’ Grows Up And Moves to ‘South Park.’” Originally conceived as a television show, it is presented in the style of a children’s show with puppets and catchy songs, but unlike the former and more like the latter, the themes are definitely adult-only. So is much of the language. There is even a scene with simulated sex by puppets stage right while actors and other puppets stage left sing a loud and rousing "You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want When You're Makin' Love."
Other clever songs include: "It Sucks to Be Me," "If You Were Gay, " "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," "What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?" and "The Internet is for Porn."

KYLE SINCLAIR (Princeton) and DEREK HALL and KAYLA CRAWFORD as "Nicky" from the Lakewood Playhouse Production of "AVENUE Q"

Two of the main characters, who may or may not be gay, are roommates Rod (Kyle Sinclair) and Nicky (Derek Hall), who are unmistakable takeoffs on Bert and Ernie from “Sesame Street.” Trekkie Monster (also Hall) whose voice is a whole lot like his namesake, Cookie Monster. The landlord of the apartment on Avenue Q is none other than former child star Gary Coleman (not a puppet but live actor Tony L. Williams,). And a very slutty Lucy (Taylor Davis) is a cross between Miss Piggy and Mae West.
All puppets are operated on stage by actors in full view of the audience. Director Victoria Webb credits puppet master Lance Woolen with “making the puppets come to life.” I also credit the actors for disappearing into their puppets in the sense that they both act their parts and make the puppets act their parts. The combination of acting and puppeteering is amazing to watch.
Some of the puppets take two actors to operate, and there appear to be some fast swapping of who is operating which puppets. For example, there was one point when actor Taylor Davis clearly exited the stage, and yet within seconds I saw her on stage operating a puppet that I believe Kayla Crawford had been operating moments before. I never saw the swap, and it happened so fast that now I’m not sure I saw what I thought I saw. There was a lot of that kind of thing going on so pay attention.
Also acting (not with a puppet) is Conner Brown as Brian the building superintendent whose dream is to be a stand-up comic and JasminRae (((CQ))) Onggao Lazaroo (also no puppet) as Brian’s partner, Christmas Eve. Rounding out the cast are Kate Monster (Davis), Mrs. T. and Bad Idea Bear (Crawford), and Princeton (Sinclair).
The story is that of young adults fresh out of college trying to find their way in the world while wrestling with issues of love, sex, finding their purpose in life, and how to make a living and pay the rent.
The ensemble cast is made up of newcomers to Lakewood Playhouse, all of whom are either making their debut there or for whom this is their second show at the Playhouse, and they do an excellent job of both acting and puppeteering in roles that must be technically challenging.
I can easily imagine how hilarious and how shocking “Avenue Q” must have been when it debuted on Broadway in 2004 (winner of the Tony Award “triple crown”: Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book). It must have been as astounding as “Hair” or “Saturday Night Live” when they first appeared. Not so shocking for today’s audiences, “Avenue Q” is still funny. The tunes are catchy, it is surprisingly sweet, and the social commentary is still relevant.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday,  2 p.m. Sunday, 2 p.m., through July 3
WHERE: Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood
TICKETS: $24-$29, pay-what-you-will actors’ benefit June 16
INFORMATION: 253-588-0042,

New Gifts and Purchases at Tacoma Art Museum

Published in the Weekly Volcano, June 9, 2016
A Canyon River with Pines and Figures (Yellowstone),” circa 1886. Oil on canvas, Grafton Tyler Brown, courtesy Tacoma Art Museum, museum purchase with funds from the Art Acquisition Fund and the Black Collective.
As an art critic and lifelong student of art, I must confess that my education is sorely lacking in certain areas — 19th and 20th century Western art being a prime example. I don’t mean Western as opposed to Asian or Egyptian or African; I mean American cowboy art and grandiose landscapes depicting the majesty of the Western scene. This means that I don’t know Grafton Tyler Brown from Grandma Moses, but apparently he’s a big deal among aficionados of Western art, and Tacoma Art Museum has recently purchased a “significant, rare landscape painting” by Brown. It is a large (five-foot wide) landscape of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone titled “A Canyon River with Pines and Figures (Yellowstone),” painted in 1886 while living in Portland. It is now on display in TAM’s Liliane and Christian Haub Gallery.
According to TAM, his works are highly sought by museums. They can be found in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Oakland Museum of California, and Tacoma’s own Washington State History Museum, which has a Brown painting of Mt. Tahoma, a.k.a., Rainier. The first retrospective exhibition of his work, Grafton Tyler Brown: Visualizing California and the Pacific Northwest, was presented by the California African American Museum, Los Angeles in 2003. It traveled to Baltimore, San Francisco, and the Washington State History Museum.
Brown was the first African-American artist to paint landscapes of the Pacific Northwest and California. The scenes he paints are calm and reverential.
“A Canyon River with Pines and Figures (Yellowstone),” pictures the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone with pine forests in the foreground, rugged sunlit rock walls leading the eye into the distance, and the Yellowstone River winding through the canyon.
“We are delighted to acquire Brown’s stunning landscape painting. This is our first significant purchase to complement the Haub Family Collection of Western American Art since the opening of the Haub Family Galleries in November, 2014. We are grateful for the community support that made it possible to acquire this exceptional museum-quality work,” said TAM Executive Director Stephanie Stebich. “This painting beautifully links TAM’s focus on the art of the Northwest with the art of the broader Western region. It helps us to tell a more complete story of Northwestern art and artists.”
“Grafton Tyler Brown has long been on TAM’s curatorial wish list, but his works have been rather scarce on the market until recently,” said Margaret Bullock, curator of collections and special exhibitions. “This is a lucky confluence of both the chance to acquire an evocative major work by this artist and having the funds to make it possible.” The Tacoma Pierce County Black Collective and the museum’s Art Acquisition Fund supported the purchase.
Brown’s painting is not the only new addition to the museum’s collection. Twenty additional gifts of Northwest art have also been added, including four mural studies by Kenneth Callahan; a pastel, charcoal and dry pigment work by Norman Lundin, professor emeritus at University of Washington; Robert Helms 1990 oil on panel “Bone Yard”; a selection of 13 works on paper including watercolors and prints by Alexander Phimister Proctor; and William Morris’s 1992 “Lace Urn,” a blown glass vessel in a metal stand. A selection of these works will be rotated into the exhibition What’s New at TAM? Recent Gifts to the Collection and will be on view through September 18.  

Tacoma Art Museum, Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., $12-$14, 1701 Pacific Ave. Tacoma,

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Riding Ned Hayes’s Coattails to Fame and Fortune

Yes, that’s right. Herewith I set off on my quest to ride Ned Hayes’s coattails to fame and fortune.

Ned Hayes is a writer in Olympia, Washington, where I also hang my hat. His latest novel, The Eagle Tree, is fast gaining international praise. Here’s this from a recent article in our hometown newspaper: “The book — Hayes’ first for a major publisher, Little A — will be officially released July 5, but the electronic version is already available on Amazon, where it was the top-selling young adult book in April and May, selling 75,000 copies.
The book has been praised by author and filmmaker Sherman Alexie, autistic spokeswoman Temple Grandin and science journalist Steve Silberman, author of the New York Times bestselling book NeuroTribes, a history of autism and a look at what people who think differently have contributed to the world.”

Ned and I have become good friends over the past few years. He even included a character in The Eagle Tree named Alec Clayton. How cool is that! So I figure if he’s going to become a famous author, then I’m going to milk our friendship for all it’s worth, beginning with posting these reviews he wrote of the books of my “Freedom Trilogy”:

The Backside of Nowhere
"Backside of Nowhere" is a fascinating book for Alec Clayton, that court jester and storyteller of the deep South, who now hails from my hometown of Olympia, Washington.

It is fascinating, because instead of sticking to the "straight" family dramas that fill many of his other books like 
Return to Freedom and Reunion at the Wetside, Clayton adds the perspective of David Lawrence, and erstwhile film star who is back in the bayou country for a season. His experience outside of Mississippi is a telling contrast, and also an aspirational world that many strive for there.

David's life and family history in the country is the backdrop for a story of family ties that strain to breaking, small town corruption, racial tensions that are (pretty overtly) expressed, and a variety of clever observations about the culture and families of the Mississippi bayou country. In the end, I felt like I'd spent a season myself in that humid territory.

The story itself reminds me of a classic "This American Life" episode, where another movie star -- a real one -- comes to a small town and interesting things happen. The small town where this actor went in real life is nowhere near as interesting as Clayton's imaginary one, but the stories seem complementary. Here's a link to the This American Life episode 
#173: Three Kinds of Deception.\

Return to Freedom
"Return to Freedom" -- Clayton's new novel -- is a welcome return to the dramatic, stifling and at times destructive world of small town of Freedom, Mississippi first seen in his book "Backside of Nowhere."

Clayton adroitly portrays the inner thoughts of central characters Bitsey and Malcolm, and I especially liked his treatment of the poor yet wise middle-aged mother Bitsey. It's not easy for a male author to pull off a female character with this level of insight, and I credit Clayton's long marriage for giving him some of this insight.

The treatment of Malcolm is equally satisfying, although I found the way Justin (their son) dies to be less dramatic than it should have been: in fact, I almost missed the death, and had to go back to find it. In the end, this death reverberates in interesting ways through the novel, and only the initial moment threw me.

Clayton's treatment of Sonny Staples and Beulah Booker Taylor is a little less satisfying for me, especially since Beulah's orientation and her struggle with it is obvious to the reader far before Beulah herself owns up.

However, Clayton wraps up the complicated threads of the various stories with a sure hand. Clayton has mastered the task of getting inside his characters' heads: "Return to Freedom" could use a bit more plot momentum, and structural editing to hone the tale to a tighter storyline, but overall it is a very satisfying read.

Visual Liberties
A sweeping family drama and contemporary parable of art, love and meaning from America's own bard of the Gulf Coast, Alec Clayton.

Grounded in Clayton's familiar world of Freedom, Mississippi, Clayton's latest novel sparkles with finely observed insight, sharp wit and complicated relationships.

Clayton has a gift for writing funny scenes, interesting quirky characters and realistic dialogue. I enjoyed this book quite a bit.

Highly recommended!

Thanks, Ned. And dear readers: Do yourself a favor and dig into Ned Hayes’s three outstanding novels, The Eagle TreeSinful Folk, and Cour de-Alene Waters.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Life is Complicated

Olympia Little Theatre presents a staged reading of Life is Complicated, a new play by local playwright Kendra Leeanne Malm.

“Chelsea Walsh is a single professional woman in her forties. Egged on by her free-spirited best friend, she starts a relationship with a much younger man who works down the hall from her. Then her mother shows up and reveals something about Chelsea's past that she would rather have kept hidden.  This revelation shocks her new boyfriend, fascinates her best friend, causes conflict in her family, and makes Chelsea re-evaluate her life so far.

June 9-12, Thursday through Saturday at 7:55 p.m. and Sunday at 1:55 p.m. There will be a talkback with the playwright and cast after the Friday night performance on June 10.

Tickets are $7, available at Yenney Music, 2703 Capital Mall Dr., Olympia, 360.786.9484, or online at
Olympia Little Theatre, 1925 Miller Ave., NE, Olympia 

Note: Time permitting (considering it runs four days only), I will try to review it for this blog.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Wiz at Tacoma Musical Playhouse
Published in the Weekly Volcano, June 2, 2016

from left: Charles Simmons as Scarecrow, Jimmy Shields as Tinman, Alexandria Henderson as Dorothy, and Matt De La Cruz as Lion. Photo by Kat Dollarhide, courtesy Tacoma Musical Playhouse
The Wiz hit Broadway like “Soul Train” on steroids in 1975, winning seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It was followed-up three years later by a popular film version starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. To ask any community theater to follow that is a tall order. Tacoma Musical Playhouse gives it a good try with an elaborate production that hits a few high notes but does not consistently reach the high-energy level the show demands.
What does meet high marks is the work of the technical crew and designers: sets by Bruce Haasl, lighting by John Chenault, and a whole lot of fabulous costumes by Jocelyne Fowler — from costumed Munkins on rolling chairs hidden by flared skirts to the costumed ensemble as a field of poppies and the yellow brick road and green-clad citizens of the Emerald City.
Having dancing actors as part of the set was ingenious. It originated with the Broadway show. Director Jon Douglas Rake said when he first saw the national tour he was fascinated by the Yellow Brick Road being played by dancers and the Tornado becoming a dance number as well.  TMP added crows to the Scarecrow number, which was not in the original show.
The magnificent giant wizard-head puppet build by Haasl was wonderfully designed and effectively lit. Congrats all around to the tech crew.
The Wiz was written for an African-American cast by William F. Brown (Book) and Charlie Smalls (music and lyrics). It is an urbanized retelling of Frank Baum’s classic, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. TMP’s cast is not wholly African-American but mostly people of color. It’s good to see such a racially diverse cast.
The show gets off to a rather slow start and doesn’t pick up until the first time they do the oft-repeated theme song “Ease on Down the Road.” Dorothy (Alexandra Henderson) has a beautiful voice, but she doesn’t begin to show her range until this song, which rocks the house ― as it should.
The true stars of the show are Charles Simmons as Scarecrow, Jimmy Shields as Tinman, Matt De La Cruz as Lion, and Jamelia Payne as Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West. Shields, who is also co-choreographer with Rake, is one of the best singers in the show and has a helluva repertoire of expressive dance moves. Simmons also shows off some mean moves, and Payne’s earth-shaking guttural and gospel-tinged singing on “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” is one of the musical highlights of the show, along with Henderson’s final song, “Home,” nicely done as a front-of-the-curtain solo, a lovely change-of-pace ending for a show made up of large production numbers.
One thing different that I have to point out is that a major character was played by an understudy the night I attended. Marion Read usually plays Aunt Em, but was unable to perform that night, and her part was played by Lanita Hudson, who did a great job of filling in. Hudson is in the ensemble and was also a standout performer in a number of other scenes.
Despite overall excellent technical work, there were some uncomfortably long scene changes and, at one point, disturbing backstage noise during a scene change. Hopefully these problems will be worked out for future performances. Overall, it is an entertaining show.

The Wiz, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday,  2 p.m. Sunday, 2 p.m. Saturday, , through Dec. 20, $22-$31, Tacoma Musical Playhouse at The Narrows Theatre, 7116 Sixth Ave., Tacoma, 253-565-6867,