Arts Reviews

“Waiting for Lefty” by Clifford Odets at Theatre 9/12

While fortunes amass today in Seattle and elsewhere, this is also a time when those left out of the boom are even more busted than ever. For some it is indeed a return to the 1930s. “Waiting for Lefty” the Clifford Odets 1935 play about striking taxicab drivers in New York explores the fate of the working class in tough times. It is both dated yet remarkably pertinent today, and Theatre9/12’s powerful take on it is bound to move you and certainly cause you to question the system as it works in our time.

Odets, like so many other intellectuals, was a Communist during the Depression years. His hard-hitting social protest plays received much favorable attention and greatly influenced the playwrights who followed.

This production begins on a crowded dance floor where energetic couples are doing the Charleston. The mood is gay, enthusiastic. Then the lights go out. When they come back on only a few couples dance, well not really dance, simply move in an exhausted, almost crippled manner. You quickly understand that this is one of those marathons we read about in history books. Couples subject themselves to this debilitating and demoralizing exercise because there is prize money for the last couple standing, and they all desperately need the money. Jobs are few. Pay has been cut back. Life is hard. There’s no safety net. What better way to begin this thought provoking play?

Director Charles Waxberg has staged it in the round with action in front of, behind and above the audience members thus, immersing them in the goings-on. And by placing the corrupt leader of the taxi drivers union, Fatt (aptly named) and his gun-toting henchman above the rest of the players, their corrosive presence is inescapable.

Photo by Michael Brunk / nwlens.com

Photo by Michael Brunk / nwlens.com

Theatre 9/12 is known for the quality of its acting and this production is no exception. But amazingly one of the most powerful performers is Michael C. Robinson as Fatt’s henchman. He never says a word. For most of the play he just sits next to Fatt, toothpick dangling from his mouth, eyes alert but veiled, a rifle hung on his shoulder. He personifies evil.

Odets created the play with vignettes that speak to the injustices of the difficult Depression years: impoverished married couples, unethical medical practices, corrupt union leaders, frustrated lovers who can’t afford marriage, soulless capitalism. There’s no subtlety here. The characters are stereotypes; the message is pounded home. It would be written with more nuance today, but this is a piece of theatre history. It’s fascinating to see the agitprop of the ’30s, especially when it is presented so successfully and is so pertinent to contemporary times

Through Feb. 20 at Trinity Parish Hall, 609 8th Ave. and James St., Seattle. For reservations 206 332-7905 or www.Theatre912.com. This show is offered as “pay what you can afford.

“Genius / 21 Century / Seattle” now at the Frye Museum

In recent years, the most avant-garde museum in Seattle has been the Frye. Its transformation from a relatively staid institution to one exploring the newest boundaries of contemporary art and the role of the museum in today’s dynamic society began under the leadership of Midge Bowman who took over in 2003 and has advanced significantly since Jo-Ann Birnie Danzker became Director in 2009.

Both women respect the Frye’s heritage and have capitalized on the original collection as they have united this rich legacy with Seattle’s and the nation’s changing art scene. “The Stranger” newspaper honored the Frye with one of its annual genius awards. And in response to that, the Frye has mounted a museum-wide exhibition celebrating Seattle’s artistic genius in the twenty-first century. The exhibition is a 16-week extravaganza, including more than 40 events, and showcasing the work of more than 60 artists—visual artists, filmmakers, writers, theatre artists, composers, musicians, choreographers, dancers, and arts organizations with special interest in multidisciplinary and collaborative work.

Their offerings highlight the social, political, and artistic modifications that are reworking Seattle and the world around it. Ours is indeed a society undergoing rapid change and growth. What the Frye hopes this exploration will do is stimulate conversation about the evolving environment and show the interconnections between the social factors and the arts that are developing. The Frye is also asking whether this effort to step beyond traditional boundaries is a new model for museums everywhere.

Jim-Woodring2

Jim Woodring. Still from Frank in the 3rd Dimension, 2015. 3D digital video. Pen drawings: Jim Woodring, 3D conversions: Charles Barnard. Courtesy of the artist and Fantagraphics Books

“Genius/21Century/Seattle” is a cornucopia. Its riches spill over gallery walls, the auditorium, the grounds, and into the community. It’s an ambitious undertaking chock full of happenings to challenge the mind and feast the eyes. To suggest the diversity of visual experiences I’ll mention just a few in the following paragraphs.

One of my favorite visual art pieces is the giant 3-D digital video, “Frank in the Third Dimension” by Jim Woodring. It began as a series of humorous depictions featuring Woodring’s anthropomorphic character, Frank. Charles Barnard, a 3-D wizard, fascinated by them, offered to turn the whole work into a 3-D extravaganza, and that’s what we have. Walk into the gallery and watch Frank carry on. Then put on the 3-D glasses the Museum provides and everything pops into dimension. I was mesmerized.

And don’t ask what that weird truck with the superstructure is out in the parking lot. It’s Alex Schweder’s “The Hotel Rehearsal.” It’s the artist’s rendition of a potential portable single room occupancy (SRO). More traditional SRO’s have a long history in Seattle, and given the plight of Seattle’s homeless, perhaps the concept is due a new incarnation.

zoe-juniper

zoe | juniper. We were., 2015. Installation and performances. Courtesy of the artists. Photo: Mark Woods

Victoria Haven offers “Studio X,” a two channel durational digital video that’s documenting the development, dissolution, and urban transformation in South Lake Union. The footage is taken from her studio windows, a studio that may be a victim of exactly that development.

There are on view a few of the Frye’s most beloved paintings, ones as diverse as “Moulting Ducks” and “Sin” each with a short poem by Maged Zaher. And don’t miss the earthwork that rises on the gravel lot behind the Frye. Called “Thereafter” and created by Lead Pencil Studio it evokes thoughts of Seattle’s regrades, and its landscape in perpetual alteration.

There’s a lot going on here, and the offerings are changing week by week. Check the Frye’s web site to find the activities that most interest you. And remember there is no admission charge and free parking at the Frye.

Through January 10, 2016, Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle, (206 622-9250 or www.fryemuseum.org)

“Bloomsday” at ACT

Simply delicious! Zesty! Sweet! “Bloomsday” by Stephen Dietz is a frothy confection minus anything that suggests saccharine. It’s notable because of the clever script and the classy production.

And, it’s historic. It marks Dietz’ 11th mainstage play at ACT, his third world premiere here, and Kurt Beattie’s final directing assignment as Artistic Director of ACT. Put all that talent together with a topnotch cast, and you’ve got a real winner.

The play is, of course, set in Dublin, when an American man hooks up with a tour of James Joyce’s Dublin that is led by a most attractive Irish lass. Such tours have become a mainstay of Dublin sight seeing. Though few people have actually read Joyce’s “Ulysses,” considered by many to be the greatest novel in the English language, it’s the rare person who hasn’t heard of it and its complexity. So Dublin tours of the places mentioned by Joyce are exceptionally popular.

Here we have an older man, looking back on his experience 35 years ago when he, too, took the tour with a knowledgeable but feisty young woman and fell just a little bit in love. It’s impossible to go back in time, but that’s exactly what he does here. The dialog is clever, and the production captures the essence of the Irish as the two eras meld together. It is both tender and funny.

The cast is remarkable. Peter Crook, the old guy making his nostalgic return to Dublin revisits the streets and their memories with a longing that’s palpable. Sydney Andrews as Kathleen the young tour guide is as spunky and charming as the role demands, and her facility with Irish dialogue is incredibly good. The whole cast have the accent down pat.

Marianne Owen and Sydney Andrews Photo by Chris Benin

Marianne Owen and Sydney Andrews
Photo by Chris Benin

Erik Ankrim captures the impetuousness and awkwardness of youth as well as it’s lost chances. Marianne Owen is brilliant as the older woman who comes alive to observe these two foolish young people. She’s a font of wisdom, infuriated to be reminded of how they let a chance at love go. In one way she blames her younger self, after all it’s women, not men, who know the future.

This is beautiful dialog performed by master actors under the leadership of a superb director. And it is a poignant reminder to all of us to make sure we don’t live our lives without taking chances.

Through Oct. 11 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle, (206 292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org)

“I Taught Myself” at the Greg Kucera Gallery

“Outsider art,” “folk art,” “naïve art”—call it what you will. I have a hard time making clear distinctions among the terms, and so, evidently, does Greg Kucera whose gallery is featuring a show called “I Taught Myself.” It includes work by the most esteemed contemporary and deceased artists of these traditions. Their work has whimsy, beauty, humor, and surprise

Among my favorites is Henry Darger. Born in 1892, Darger had a life history that moves one to tears. His early years were spent in a Catholic boys home before he was institutionalized in a home for the “feeble-minded.” He escaped in 1908 and became a menial hospital worker, a job that supported him for most of his life. By 1930, he moved to a one-room apartment on Chicago’s near north side where he lived in solitude until he died in 1973.

His own experiences gave him great empathy for abused and neglected children; a concern that manifested itself in the 15,145-page book he wrote and illustrated that was discovered only after his death. The heroines of this tome are the Vivian Girls. Their adventures unfurl in “In the Realms of the Unreal” that consists of watercolors, drawings, tracings and collages, many of the images taken from comic strips of the time.

Often depicted nude, the Vivian Girls all have penises. Some suggest that is related to homosexual instincts in Darger. Others suggest that he may never have seen a female nude body and just didn’t know it was different from his own. There are two large Dargers in the show.

Another treat are some images by Grandma Moses. It’s the landscape done in wool embroidery that is particularly interesting to me. It depicts the bucolic rolling countryside and stunning skies typical of her paintings of the upstate New York farmlands she knew so well.

Then there’s Gregory Blackstock, Seattle’s own self-taught artist. The Kucera Gallery represents Blackstock so has many of his pieces. Mr. Blackstock, an autistic savant, worked most of his life at Seattle’s athletic club as a dishwasher. In his spare time he created visual lists using graphite, markers, and crayons on large sheets of paper. From birds to balls, from trucks to shoes, his “picture lists” consist of exact depictions of all varieties of his chosen subject. You like dogs? He’s got a large depiction of various kinds, so too windmills, knots, and so much more. The breadth of subjects is astounding.

The exhibition also includes works by Bill Trayler, the emancipated slave who became an artist as a street person in latter life. Charles Shannon, an artist himself, noticed his talent and provided art supplies for him. Trayler’s first show was in 1942, and his work, typified by an elegant simplicity of line and form, is in a number of major museums today.

Included also are works by noted woodworkers, quilters, and bead artists.

This is a gem of a show.

Through Aug. 29, Greg Kucera Gallery, 212 Third Ave. South, Seattle, Tues.-Sat., (206 624-0770 or www.gregkucera.com).

Leo Saul Berk Structure and Ornament at the Frye Museum

When most of us think of architecture in and around Chicago, the first name that comes to mind is Frank Lloyd Wright of course. But northern Illinois architecture is so much richer, and the current exhibition at the Frye Museum introduces us to the Ford house, an architectural wonder not far from Chicago that few know about. It is both living space and art object created in the mid-twentieth century by Bruce Goff, artist, architect, musician, and savant.

The Ford House is unlike any other. Dramatic use of light and color, unconventional shapes, and radical use of materials are its hallmarks. Much of its glory has been recreated or reimagined at the Frye by Leo Saul Berk.

Berk came from England with his family as a six-year old and quickly settled into this extraordinary house in Aurora, Illinois, a few miles west of Chicago. There he lived for much of his childhood, immersed in a creative ambiance like no other. He firmly believes this experience heightened his artistic sensibility, honed his imagination, and in many ways shaped the artist and person he is today.

The Frye exhibition consists of Berk’s reproductions of decorative elements in the house, new works based on Berk’s memories of his experience in the house, and videos of many of the iconic architectural components that defined the house.

Heat-Signature__Leo-Saul-Berk-

Heat-Signature__Leo-Saul-Berk-

This is a building that was not conceived primarily with comfort in mind. Using structural pieces from World War II Quonset huts, it had many limitations. It was blazing hot in the broiling Midwest summers and bitter cold in winters. Berk remembers his family using sleeping bags on top of the rug on the radiant heated floor. In this exhibit, a noteworthy yellow, red, black and white wool carpet is displayed. Fabricated in Nepal its design is the thermograph pattern that Berk made of a segment of that floor. It’s a stunner.

Wind Jangle_Leo Saul Berk-install2-MarkWoodsAnother imposing piece, “Mortar and Marbles,” represents a section of the curved walls of the house. Made of canal coal and mortar, Goff insisted that glass marbles be embedded in the coal to catch and reflect the light. Berk’s to-scale representation traces the mortar and leaves the irregular forms of the uneven bricks vacant. At 142 inches long and 78 inches high, it provides the viewer with a sense of the space within the house.

Goff, as musician as well as architect, drew ornamental “wind jangles”—decorative hangings that played with concepts of light and sound. Though he never installed one at the Ford House, Berk has taken the idea and created one. It is suspended from the elliptical oculus in the Frye rotunda. Goff’s wind jangles were made in the pattern of actual piano rolls. Berk has taken Goff’s piano roll concept and imitated it by inserting large black rounds between smaller aluminum rounds hung on strands of fine fishing line. This overwhelming introductory piece cannot be ignored. It’s a fine announcement of what’s to come.

The Ford house was not a terribly workable home, but what an awesome space! Clearly its influence on artist Leo Saul Berk was profound.

Through Sept. 6 at the Frye Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle, always free and free parking, (206 622-9250 or fryemusum.org).