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Despite genuine insights, CTC’s ‘Three Sisters’ mostly overdone

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Baron Túzenbach (Charlie Thurston) tries to impress Irína (Charlotte Graham) during the first act of Chautauqua Theater Company’s production of “Three Sisters.” Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

David Shengold | Guest Reviewer

The good news is that Chautauqua Theater Company is staging Anton Chekhov’s 1901 “Three Sisters,” one of the greatest plays ever written, through July 17. Further, good reports can be made of the chosen translation: by the late Slavic academic-turned-actor Paul Schmidt, it renders Chekhov’s then-contemporary idiom (the play is set in a stultifying provincial city in 1900) into plausible, listenable and unstilted American English, with only a few questionable decisions. (For one, the play opens on the imeniny of Irína, the youngest of the titular sister: her “name day,” the feast of the saint for whom she was named. Schmidt chooses to make it her birthday.) Several of the individual performances prove outstanding, and the entire cast certainly manifests a lot of energy and willingness to venture out on interpretive limbs.

However, guest director Brian Mertes’ often showy, self-impressed staging is longer on attitude than on narrative coherence: Many around me in the audience Friday afternoon voiced puzzlement as to the basic storyline, let alone the nuances of meaning inherent in Chekhov’s multi-level text. Certain scenes achieve emotional resonance, and Mertes and his designers furnish some striking images along the way — also, alas, some displays of posturing, clutter and already cliché artifacts of Wooster Group-type productions.

Nearly everything is overdone, sometimes deep into the ground. There is way too much music (some of the folkish stuff was lovely and worked well with the text, but the blasts of heavy metal seemed both portentious and pretentious) and way too many interpolated “numbers” — such as a truly unfortunate and unmotivated moonwalking/mime display lasting minutes by Irína’s suitor Baron Túzenbach, blighting an otherwise engaging and distinctive performance by Charlie Thurston, though the young actor is in the enviable position of being too attractive for the role he’s playing.

It is also disheartening to hear such frequent resorting to “funny voices” — like the worst kind of opera singer acting, with characters affecting SNL-quality French, German and (most bizarrely) “Russian” accents and (worse) reaching on occasion for pat television intonations instead of speaking their lines.

Jim Findlay’s set is quite ingenious in terms of varying the playing space and allowing different perspectives and trajectories; Mertes takes commendable advantage of that. Still, as the performance unfolds, one ticks off a catalogue of iconic and hardly novel post-modern effects, including mirrored sunglasses, mime-like play with bowler hats, glass back walls (the better through which to see two softcore “shower scenes” — perhaps an attempt at rendering a Russian banya, or bath house, though that potential locus of sin interested Dostoevsky much and Chekhov not at all).

In terms of Detritus Chic, we see mattresses used as a crash pit, a summary pile of dirt for the final act’s outdoor setting and plastic dolls desultorily used as infant stand-ins.

Technologically, the production included a live mic into which some of the play’s key speeches were over-earnestly intoned — as if Mertes had found Chekhov’s language at these junctures too unhip to countenance without an ironic aural frame.

At one point during the fire scene in Act Three, we see the frequently put-upon servant Ferapónt (Dave Quay, equally put-upon by the direction but ingratiating) using his Mac laptop. (Are audiences expected to think, “Kewl!” Really?
In 2011?)

An equivalent gratuitous signifier of Hip is the onstage video monitor, distracting and rather poorly used withal. Olivera Gajic’s thoughtfully detailed costumes, however, contribute positively to the production’s visual side.

The notably long (3.5 hour) performance ends with a big, elaborate, unison motion choreographic extravaganza (Jesse Perez is its credited maker, and the steps are fun). One admires that the cast can get through it, especially on matinée days, but the fist-pumping, Michael Flatley-esque tone seems peculiarly out of synch with Chekhov’s despairing finale — however jokily some of it is rendered here — and the dance seems (in its inordinate length) to imagine audiences wildly applauding what they have seen. That was not the case Friday, and — not for the first time — one felt rather embarrassed for some very hard-working actors.

The orphaned Prozorov sisters yearn for their native Moscow as for the lost possibilities of their youth. It is by definition unrecapturable — what Gertrude Stein meant in saying late in life of her native Oakland that “there is no there there.” Irína, 20, traces the sharpest arc from hope to abject despair and also acts (often unwillingly) as a romantic catalyst for the young officers posted in the city.

In my experience, this tricky role usually draws the show’s weakest performance, so it’s a particular pleasure to see lovely Charlotte Graham embody it so truthfully and intelligently. She and Thurston (under Mertes’ direction) have forged an impressive onstage rapport — one can’t say “chemistry,” because Irína admits she admires but doesn’t love the poor (rich) Baron.

In this enactment, the relationship seemed to hold potential, making its thwarting by the jealous, strange Solyóny (a dignified, focused Tyee Tilghman) all the more tragic.

Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch plays Ólga, the eldest sister, and though she does some subtle and convincing work here, both the beginning and ending of her performance (and thus of the play) seem unduly “actressy” — the exhausted Ólga gets an exhibitionistic dance in Act Four that came from and went nowhere.

Másha, the gifted and unhappily married middle sister, emerged rather emotionally opaque in Laura Gragtmans’ reading — which also too often verged on verbal incomprehensibility.

Joel de la Fuente, seeming young for the part, did a capable and well-spoken job as Vershínin, the equally unhappily married colonel with whom she briefly finds happiness. “Three Sisters” usually revolves around Másha; Mertes got better work from, and devoted more interpretive and plastic stage time to, her hapless, pedantic husband Kulygin — a highly stylized and in-your-face but quite brilliant performance by Ted Schneider, conveying both Kulygin’s human suffering and the deep awfulness of living with such a person.

The other Prozorov sibling, Andréy, is excluded from the title; his doomed marriage with a local shrew (Natásha) and his manic gambling are the inexorable engines that drive the sisters out of their paternal home. He can seem a kind of silly also-ran to his sisters, but Mertes’ direction pushes Lucas Dixon into high-decibel, flamboyant, sad goofiness, with Andréy emitting many laughs — Ólga also chuckled incessantly — and tears. Most of the time, this gamble worked.

The most completely realized portrayal onstage is Andrea Syglowski’s Natásha. Stalking the stage like a meaner, pettier Lady Macbeth, she misses not a trick in portraying this monster of sentimentality and voracious selfishness. (One knows the proto-conservationist Chekhov hated anyone who cut down old trees.)

Keith Randolph Smith has a fabulous presence and voice — a Big Daddy in Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” just waiting to happen — and aces Dr. Chebutykin’s comic parts. He doesn’t capture sufficiently the old fraud’s effectively murderous nihilism — but again, the direction toward the dénouement tends toward pushing for laughs.

Lynn Cohen’s most interesting scene as the old nanny Anfísa is her last one, in which she seems to have crossed over into contended dotage. Biko Eisen-Martin and Peter Kendall draw Chekhov’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern roles, Fedótik and Ródhe, quite well; Mertes explores more than usual their interrelationship with Túzenbach and Irína; and Eisen-Martin and Kendall also handle a lot of the musical duties.

Mertes and his staff seem to have done some substantial dramaturgical work, as several linguistic and sociological details emerged spot-on. However, someone might have ascertained the correct pronunciations of Dobrolyubov (duh-brah-LYOO-buhff), Saratov (sah-RAH-tuff) and the English word “Caucasus.”

First-time “Three Sisters” viewers might find themselves at sea — though probably not bored. Those who know the play well might (like myself) find themselves weighing the production’s genuine insights and strengths against its tendency to posture
and overdo.

A Philadelphia-based arts critic, David Shengold has written for Opera News, Opera (UK), Theatre Journal and Time Out New York among many venues. He has contributed program essays to the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Covent Garden and Washington National Opera programs and lectured for NYCO, Glimmerglass Festival and Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre. He trained and acted at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA and has taught on opera, Russian literature and cultural history at Oberlin, Mount Holyoke and Williams Colleges.

‘July’s Delight’ indeed as NCDT, CSO collaborate elegantly

Photo | Matt Burkhartt

 

The North Carolina Dance Theatre in Residence performs to the music of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra Tuesday evening in the Amphitheater. Gerberich and Pete Walker perform the pas de deux from “Stars and Stripes.” Photo by Demetrius Freeman.

Jane Vranish | Guest Reviewer

It’s always a welcome event to have the North Carolina Dance Theatre and the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra collaborate, but the first such program of the season appeared to have a third party involved — the audience.

There was no doubt that these ballets had a built-in audience appeal — dare I say accessible? — with the likes of John Philip Sousa and Johann Strauss. However, the notion of accessible can sometimes mean the kiss of death, implying that a performance was pleasant but lacked a certain substance.

That was not the case here. It was a program designed to play on the considerable personalities of the NCDT dancers, one of the company’s main strengths, and to extend a comfortable familiarity with the music, played with a robust sweep by conductor Grant Cooper and the orchestra.

It worked — the audience was almost immediately hooked and helped to escalate the sense of excitement throughout the evening, much like Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero” does so succinctly in itself.

This was obviously one of Mark Diamond’s most popular ballets, judging by the audience’s applause at the Amphitheater Tuesday night. But he used the music, ripe with that iconic repeated rhythm, merely as a jumping-off point. Instead, his “Bolero” seemed to focus on its overall exotic, undulating nature, sometimes with humorous touches, rather than the usual erotic interpretation.

While the bolero is a Spanish dance, there were only a few hints of that in the choreography. It began as if in a sleepy Mexican town, the men lounging about with sombreros on their heads. Anna Gerberich entered to the soft opening strains, clad in a white midriff top and harem skirt, wafting among the men like a hot summer breeze.

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The other women joined in, playing with the sombreros, then undulating their torsos occasionally with a Middle Eastern flavor as if to encourage the men to join them. As the music escalated, Diamond inserted more technical elements for the dancers, giving the dance a classical balletic overlay in the various solos and lifts. Although the choreography itself appeared to change emphasis, the dancers’ commitment did not, bolstering the undeniable appeal of this “Bolero.”

Diamond also contributed one of the two opening pas de deux, choosing to rework a duet from “La Fille Mal Gardée,” a production already made famous by Sir Frederick Ashton. It is wickedly difficult to do ballet comedy, but Ashton’s classic does it with style, where one of the highlights is a cleverly brilliant grand pas that incorporates satin ribbons into the choreography. (Imagine a ballerina poised en pointe in attitude, holding the ribbons like a human maypole while the other dancers rotate around her.)

Diamond’s version was cast in the classical idiom, more like the peasant setting of “Coppélia,” although the musical selections and tempi seemed a little lackadaisical even for that. While it was performed with a fresh-faced flair by Sarah Hayes Watson and Daniel Rodriguez, there was straightforward partnering built on the arabesque and, as expected, a series of whipping fouettes for her and clear-cut beats for him.

If the choreography in “La Fille” was direct, George Balanchine’s “Stars and Stripes Pas de Deux” was not, showcasing a chain of twizzling off-center balances right out of the starting gate. This virtuoso piece has all the razzle dazzle of a parade condensed into a duet. As such, it needs larger-than-life dancers, which it had in Gerberich and Pete Walker.

They came on with a flourish and never let up. Gerberich (a true “Liberty Belle” here) displayed a razor-sharp passe that seemed to ricochet into place then deliberately unfold into a high extension. In her solo, she balanced while piquantly tilting her head in different directions and later did a blinding series of turns that changed feet and suddenly transformed into fouettes.

Walker emerged as a star in his own right, strutting his stuff in high, floating jumps and dashing off turns with considerable aplomb, the kind that galvanizes an audience.

It remained for artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux to keep the momentum going in his premiere, the aptly titled “July’s Delight,” although Cooper apparently nicknamed his arrangeament “Strautauqua.”

Balanchine delved into some Strauss for his full-length “Vienna Waltzes” in 1977. Although the two works share the music from “Voices of Spring,” Bonnefoux took his ballet in another direction.

“July’s Delight” was a collection of works from “The Waltz King,” ranging from the popular “Radetzky March” and “Blue Danube” to the lesser-known “Eljen a Magyar” and “Jokey Polka.” It contained a slight subtext where Walker gave Gerberich an engagement ring, which she elatedly showed off to her friends while embarking on some celebratory chasing maneuvers. Later in the finale, she appeared in a white gown, perhaps a wedding dress.

While that might be stretching things a bit, the ballet still had an overall youthful exuberance about it, beginning as the dancers precisely marked time in the opening march. Then it moved into a waltz where the lush Melissa Anduiza swirled among a trio of possible suitors.

Although a few details still needed to be worked out — there were some long pauses to accommodate the men’s costume changes — the varying moods kept things interesting, particularly with a lively character dance, something that is rarely inserted into contemporary choreography nowadays, and an almost giddy polka for Hayes Watson, her feet flickering as she bounced between Greg DeArmond and Jordan Leeper.

With all this delicious variety, Bonnefoux still understood the basic nature of each selection — the character steps were spot-on, and the polka selections had a sprightly accent. But it all came down to the basics — a strong connection of the steps to the music, allowing the dance to emanate from the score.

Perhaps that was best seen in “Blue Danube,” a winsome finale where the billowing patterns created the atmosphere of a lovely moonlit night. Bonnefoux was able to fill the stage with his dancers, who fully understood the glide, the weight and the elegance of the waltz.

And when the lights went down, they were still dancing … delightfully.

Jane Vranish is a former dance critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and continues there as a contibuting writer. Her stories can be read on the dance blog “Cross Currents” at pittsburghcrosscurrents.com.

In CTC’s ‘Three Sisters,’ experimentation leads to sparks of brilliance

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Irína (Charlotte Graham) talks to her sister Ólga (Vivienne Benesch) about returning to Moscow in the Chautauqua Theater Company production of “Three Sisters” at Bratton Theater. Photo by Samantha Rainey.

Anthony Chase | Guest Reviewer

Those who love Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” understand that as time passes, the world we know fades into the past. In time, we ourselves will be gone, and no one will remember our faces or even our voices. The good news is that through the indelible impact we have on others, eventually, our lives will take on meaning, and the world will be a better place.

At least, that is the famous prophecy made by Ólga, the oldest of the three sisters, in the final moments of Chekhov’s play.

This is also the hope of the theatrical experience — that we will enter the world of a play, and leave, somehow altered forever. On certain magical occasions, before the performance evaporates into time, the conflicts, sufferings and victories played out by actors transcend mere diversion to become the kind of joy that affirms life itself.

These are the theatrical experiences that we never forget.

Those who have seen “Three Sisters” performed brilliantly know just how unforgettable it can be. When we recall the words of this great play, we often hear the voices of the actors who have spoken them. Ólga is simply wrong when she predicts that future generations will not remember how many sisters there were. For those who love Chekhov, there were (and always will be) three.

Ólga, Másha and Irína, the “Three Sisters,” find themselves stagnating in a provincial Russian town at the turn of the 20th century. Cultured and well-educated, they yearn to return to their girlhood home in Moscow, where the ability to speak three languages might, on occasion, actually prove useful.

They find some amusement in the company of the military officers stationed in town, and as the play progresses, they latch onto glimmers of hope, but none is fulfilled. Their brother, Andréy, marries the odious and vulgar Natásha, who overtakes and tyrannizes the house, even as his gambling addiction pulls the family into debt. Másha is unhappy in her marriage and has become cynical. Irína settles on a man she does not love.

As desperation mounts, the three sisters are alarmed to realize that boredom has become the primary theme of their lives. That is not, of course, to suggest that they, themselves, are boring — anything but. “Three Sisters” is sustained by three and a half hours of brilliantly engaging conversation, monologue and insight into the human condition.

For their current production of “Three Sisters,” Chautauqua Theater Company artistic directors Vivienne Benesch and Ethan McSweeny saw an opportunity to offer their audience something fresh, different and memorable. They brought in director Brian Mertes, current head of the MFA directing program at Brown University, who has made a name for himself as a director of Chekhov through epic environmental productions that he and his wife, director Melissa Kievman, have staged at their home on Lake Lucille in Rockland County. They engage a company of 30 visiting artists and enlist the support of their entire neighborhood to house and feed them. Then, after a week’s rehearsal, 400 people come to see a Chekhov play, fully staged using locations around the lake. Reportedly, these communal productions (“Ivanov,” “Platonov,” “The Cherry Orchard,” “Three Sisters,” “The Seagull,” “Uncle Vanya”) have been life-altering theatrical events for those involved.

Benesch and McSweeny envisioned the potential for similar flights of magic for their own version of Chekhov by a lake.

Inserting a director who develops his ideas collaboratively and intuitively during the rehearsal process was a risk in a summer festival, where time is limited and professional polish is expected. But the Chautauqua Theater Company has assembled a remarkable resident company to experiment with Mertes, comprised of young actors from some of the most highly regarded theater programs in the nation. And so, Benesch, who plays Ólga, is joined by Laura Gragtmans, a Canadian actress studying at the Yale School of Drama, as Másha, and Maryland native Charlotte Graham, a recent graduate of the Brown/Trinity Rep MFA program, as the youngest sister, Irína.

Added to the resident company, Chautauqua brings in seasoned actors like Lynn Cohen, who plays Anfísa, the old servant; Joel de la Fuente, familiar from “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” who plays Másha’s love interest, Vershínin; Keith Randolph Smith, one of the great interpreters of August Wilson’s work, who here plays the drunken doctor, Chebutykin; and Ted Schneider, who can count among his credits four of the Mertes-Kievman stagings of Chekhov, here playing Másha’s tedious but well-meaning husband, Kulygin.

Director Mertes establishes his expressionistic mark in the very first moments of the play. Cacophonous electronic music anachronistically underscores our entry into the world of Chekhov. When a clock striking 12 interrupts Ólga’s immortal opening speech, in which she announces it has been a year since father died, the chiming stops at 10. Benesch prompts the musicians who are creating the clock chimes to provide two more. When Irína trills her yearning to return to Moscow, this central desire of the play is underscored with an electronic blare, her relative youth and innocence amplified by placing her on a chair-swing in a short white dress. When characters are overcome with emotion, they hurl themselves offstage into a bank of mattresses.

Clearly this is an “Epic” production in the Brechtian sense, reminiscent of a Berliner Ensemble production of a classic, wherein Hedda Gabler might find her furniture has attached itself to her gown, obliging her to drag it around the stage, a visual metaphor for her confining home life.

Mertes and the Chautauqua Theater Company remain almost entirely faithful to Chekhov’s text, here rendered in the comfortably American prose of the famed translation by the late Paul Schmidt. But they do play within the text, energetically and capably exploring intentions, laughing at sad moments, searching through each character’s unstated desires.

At times, the process of experimentation has fragmented the play. Playful moments of discovery seem to stand in isolation from each other, like a loose collection of mismatched pearls. The action lacks a coherent through line, and choices often seem illogical. At various moments, for instance, the action dissolves into mysteriously motivated dances and seemingly unmotivated gestures. Two visually arresting but perplexing shower scenes can be included in this category. I found myself thinking, “What ARE they doing?”

At other times, critical lines of the plot are lost among the distractions. Vershínin’s passionate efforts to balance love and duty are diluted, for instance, and Chebutykin’s important confession that he loved the late mother of the three sisters is glossed over, as if they were inconsequential, submerged beneath the veritable circus that surrounds them.

The relationship most fettered by the frenetic goings-on is the fatal rivalry between Baron Túzenbach and Captain Solyóny. Charlie Thurston as the baron and Tyee Tilghman as the captain give the characters their all, but within this production, the volatile coupling is dissipated.

There are moments, however, that work exquisitely. I was quite moved by the staging of Vershínin’s declaration of love for Másha. As he begins his impassioned advance on the married woman, she thrusts a table onto its side, obliging him to woo her through the obstacle of a makeshift wall. Her physical evasions of a married man serve to heighten the intensity and frustration of their passion for each other. One might expect that the logical payoff would come in the scene of their final parting; it doesn’t.

The famed farewell between Másha and Vershínin is a collision of mismatched emotions and confused motivations. In its Chekhovian simplicity, the scene provides a perfect expression of the play’s theme of unfulfilled desires. As played on the Bratton Theater stage, however, it is a clash of desires between Másha, Vershínin and Ólga. Mertes alters the scripted actions of the scene in order to reinterpret the spoken words.

Why does Ólga passionately throw herself at Vershínin when he comes to say good-bye? (The script suggests a sympathetic and maternal gesture.) Why does Vershínin aggressively throw himself at Másha despite his dutiful resolve to leave her? (The script specifies that she throws herself at him.) Why does Vershínin order Ólga to take Másha away from him in anger and disgust? (The script suggests that he wants Ólga to comfort her younger sister.)

Laughter abounds. True, Chekhov himself maintained that he was writing comedy, and there is great humor to be mined from the text. Másha’s dreary worldview, alone, affords notable chuckles. The text does not, however, sustain the sort of collegiate yuck fest we see here. At times, the effect is like watching scene parodies, rather than a faithful rendering of the play, and this production will, without question, not appeal to everyone.

And yet …

This nearly wanton manhandling of Chekhov does afford powerful flashes of brilliance and even thrilling revelation. Purists will undoubtedly object, and I, personally, continue to savor memories of many another “Three Sisters” — from the 1989 Stratford production in which Másha’s nihilistic toast was comically rendered as “A short life, but a merry one. God help us!” by luscious Lucy Peacock; to the 1999 Irish Classical Theatre production that opened Buffalo’s Andrews Theatre. I watch and re-watch the video of the Actors Studio production that played on Broadway in 1964 with Geraldine Page as Ólga, Kim Stanley as Másha, Sandy Dennis as Irína and Shelley Winters as Natásha. (I stare at photographs of Katharine Cornell as Másha with jealous yearning.)

Nonetheless, there is something exciting about this sprawling and misshapen “Three Sisters,” populated by astounding talent, including a crew of young actors who are, without a doubt, among the finest up-and-comers in the American theater today.

After all, it is possible that Ólga really is displacing all her losses and unfulfilled desires onto Vershínin as he departs. Perhaps Vershínin is having a moment of panic when he realizes the sacrifices he is making as he goes and reacts with a new sense of angry urgency when he recognizes his own weakness. That incongruous chair-swing does provide a metaphor for Irína’s unsettling journey, as it successively highlights her innocence, her entrapment and finally, her aloneness.

Moreover, within individual performances, we find great delights.

Andréy, the brother in this sister play, is perfectly cast and played with marvelous clarity and convincing cluelessness by Lucas Dixon, a Texan now entering his third year in the Yale program.

Andrea Syglowski, a Pennsylvania native and Juilliard School student, is horribly delectable as Natásha, rendering her increasingly vicious and self-absorbed outbursts with terrifying yet hilarious punch.

Lynn Cohen, whose expressive face will be familiar to audiences from her work in television and film, is affecting and solidly anchored (and anchoring) as the aged servant, Anfísa.

Joel de la Fuente cuts a sculpted and well-tailored figure as philosophical Vershínin, looking crisp and orderly even in a supposed state of dishevelment. He brings meticulousness and intelligibility to his character’s celebrated monologues. This, coupled with his unusual good looks, helps us understand why he catches Másha’s eye — he is decidedly not from this tedious provincial town.

As Chebutykin, Keith Randolph Smith lends expressive prowess and much-needed vocal variety to the production, even when hidden beneath an animal head.

Finally, as responsible and dignified Ólga, Benesch is entrusted with much of the heavy lifting. With a graceful stage presence and without visible hesitation or doubt, she throws herself into the performance with full-throttle zeal. These efforts are matched by Gragtmans and Graham, who are similarly required to turn on an emotional dime in order to keep this roller coaster of a show careening about the stage. And into the wings. And in the case of Graham, up into the air.

These efforts are supported by Jim Findlay’s versatile scenery, Olivera Gajic’s eclectic and expressive costumes, Peter Ksander’s lighting and Daniel Baker’s startling and hard-working sound design.

While this production of “Three Sisters” feels decidedly unfinished, there are unmistakable sparks of brilliance and the sort of insight that is only possible through rigorous experimentation. Most importantly, the production provides the Chautauqua audience with an intriguing glimpse into the process of a fascinating director. We may yearn to see the scattered gems sorted, matched and restrung with greater unity, but to insist upon that would be to deprive ourselves of a foray into the experimental that is, in its own way, powerful and unforgettable.

Anthony Chase teaches dramaturgy and criticism, including script analysis, at Buffalo State College. For nearly 20 years, Chase has been featured on WBFO’s “Theater Talk” segment during NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and has served as the theater editor for Buffalo’s Artvoice newspaper. He is the creator and producer of Buffalo’s annual professional theater awards, “The Arties.” Chase was a feature writer for Theater Week magazine in New York for 10 years, and has also been published in Stages, In Theatre, American Theater and Hispanic magazines.

A grand spectacle

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Luisa Miller, played by Barbara Quintiliani, learns her father has been taken to jail and awaits execution, in a performance of Luisa Miller in the Amphitheater Saturday. Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Chautauqua Opera scores with a full-blooded Verdian ‘Luisa Miller’

David Shengold | Guest Reviewer

Following last season’s grand Norma, the Chautauqua Opera Company achieved even finer results Saturday evening with a fine but under-appreciated Giuseppe Verdi work that represents a midpoint between the bel canto style of Norma and the full-out “music drama” Verdi and Wagner were to develop later in the 19th century: 1849’s Luisa Miller. While, it’s never been a crowd-pleaser like Rigoletto or La traviata, it’s a passionate story — full of melodrama, but also full of feeling — and the music is wonderful, culminating in a third act that ranks among the great single acts in Verdi’s huge output. It certainly pleased the crowd at the Ampitheater; kudos to Jay Lesenger (the artistic and general director of the company as well as this straightforward, flowing production) for having the vision to program something not a “top-10” title for the benefit of Chautauqua’s audience.

The score was in fine, idiomatic hands with conductor Joseph Colaneri; some of the rushing string passages in the overture could have used another rehearsal, but beyond that, the players sounded terrific, and Colaneri presented the piece’s complex architecture — it has several nonpareil numbers, like Act Two’s a cappella quartet for soprano, mezzo and two basses, playing off innovations found in earlier scores by Gaetano Donizetti and Saverio Mercadante — with understanding and sweep.

Plus, Lesenger and Colaneri had assembled a cast that could deal more than soundly with Verdi’s testing writing (I have heard less well-cast Luisa performances at the Met).

Ron Kadri furnished handsome, swiftly changeable set units, well-lit by Michael Baumgarten (having an initial spotlight on the eventually fatal drinking cup was a fine touch from Lesenger). The period costumes (B.G. FitzGerald) and wigs (Georgianna Eberhard) looked handsome.

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The opera, premiered in Naples, is an adaptation of Friedrich von Schiller’s 1784 play “Kabale und Liebe” (“Intrigue and Love”), which still holds the stage in German-speaking countries. The opera marked the third of four Verdian Schiller treatments, the others being Giovanna d’Arco (1845), I masnadieri (1847) and Don Carlos (1867).

Each of these Schiller-based operas contains an essentially murderous relationship between a father and a child. In Luisa Miller, it’s between the illicitly established Count Walter and his freer-thinking son Rodolfo, who so dislikes his father’s world that he has pretended to be a commoner to woo the title heroine, with disastrous consequences.

(Such disguised-down noble suitors crowded the Romantic stage: think of Rigoletto and Giselle). Along with I masnadieri and 1850’s Stiffelio — heard here in 2004 — Luisa Miller stands out as one of Verdi’s only three works set in Germany.

Librettist Salvatore Cammarano, best know for such Gaetano Donizetti collaborations as Lucia di Lammermoor and Roberto Devereux, had already worked with Verdi on two rather problematic operas (Alzira and La battaglia di Legnano); later, he began Il trovatore before dying at only 51.

His adaptation of Schiller in Luisa marks his strongest work for Verdi: he intensified the class difference between the central lovers, making the merely upper-class Walters into counts and changing Luisa’s father from a middle-class musician to a bluff retired soldier.

Barbara Quintiliani, last year’s imposing but uneven Norma, here gave the best performance I have heard from her. She offers a big, aptly italianate sound that dominated the ensembles but could also float delicate pianissimi.

Luisa is not an “iconic” prima donna role like Aida or Tosca: created by Marietta Gazzaniga, who also created Lina in Stiffelio, the part demands everything: fleet coloratura, tonal amplitude, long soaring lines, dramatic accents. Only the heroines of Verdi’s nearly contemporary operas Les vêpres siciliennes, Il trovatore and La traviata make similar challenges — though the last-named rarely receives suitable vocalism.

In fact the Met recently “looks cast” a striking, telegenic blonde who could barely handle the music and broadcast the sorry results worldwide. Quintiliani and her very promising tenor, Gregory Carroll, are not physically likely to find a place in such HD-driven projects; but unlike many who do, they offer voices suitable for Verdi’s testing scope and orchestration.

Quintiliani handled the tricky entrance coloratura quite well and she can certainly soar; the voice has not only power and shine but weight at the bottom. There remained about 3 percent of the role that gave her accustomed problems with intonation (she tends to flat ascending intervals when singing out), but her Luisa was an impressive feat — plus a sympathetic presence.

Lesenger incisively played up the father/daughter dynamic here. So often an emotional fulcrum for Verdi, who lost his daughters when they were very young, the father/daughter duet is key in many of his works; Luisa Miller offers, with Simon Boccanegra, the supreme example; Quintiliani and baritone Todd Thomas did it full justice here. Tellingly, in the opera’s final trio, “Ah, vieni meco” — Verdi cannily saved the very best tune for last — Lesenger visually paired Luisa not with her (also) dying lover Rodolfo, but with her father.

Miller is a wonderful part, created by the Milanese baritone Achille de Bassini, for whom Verdi wrote four roles over an 18-year period. Todd Thomas — once upon a time a Chautauqua Young Artist — returned for his sixth role as a mature artist. He gave a full-voiced and stylish “Verdi baritone” performance — that special category denotes a certain scope, ease in the upper register (Thomas sailed up to an interpolated high A flat to cap his rousing cabaletta) and broad phrasing.

His was the most completely realized vocalization of the night, and he acted the part with apt dignity and filial feeling. Thomas has a fine regional career going; I’ve been hearing him excel for a decade in places like Syracuse, Wilmington and Austin and still can’t figure out why he’s only done small parts at the Met — which has sent onstage several far less qualified Millers — and doesn’t get snapped up by some major German house.

Gregory Carroll’s Rodolfo made it clear why he is in such demand for Richard Strauss’s high-lying Bacchus: he offers an impressively solid tenor with nice finish and ring, traveling easily up top. The soft section of the ravishing “Quando le sere al placido” — perhaps Verdi’s loveliest tenor aria — needed firmer legato treatment, and Carroll might bone up on Carlo Bergonzi’s recorded legacy to bring more light and shade to a Verdian line; but he should make a fine career. The two basses — Wayne Tigges (the vicious Count Walter)  and Michael Ventura (his baddie assistant Wurm, who covets Luisa himself) — looked and acted very well and sang very solidly in their rare bass/bass duet. Both offered quality vocalism; I might have cast them in one another’s parts, since Ventura’s sound is darker and Tigges spits out words more incisively. Young Artist Daryl Freedman showed a striking dark timbre and attractive presence as the Duchess Federica, Luisa’s rival; but it’s a very tough assignment technically, in my experience best left to very experienced Verdi mezzos (Christa Ludwig, Mignon Dunn, Bianca Berini) and Freedman is still developing her resources. Another Young Artist, mezzo Victoria Vargas, made Luisa’s friend Laura’s brief contributions telling.

It’s tempting to repeat verbatim a sentence I write last year after Norma: “The choral work under Carol Rausch was excellent throughout, full-voiced fresh of tone and accurate in entries.” But more should be said, because in Norma, the chorus functions mainly as scene-setting filler, or in a call-and-response manner; Verdi and Cammarano assign them much more dramatic responsibility. In fact, they begin the show, assembling quietly one morning to fête and bestow gifts on a friend (Luisa), who is awaiting her fiancée’s arrival; here and elsewhere, this opera shows faint structural parallels with Vincenzo Bellini’s La sonnambula (1831).

The chorus acts as an observer to the most public and musically the grandest scene in Verdi’s opera: at first we hear two groups of men hunting offstage — a stereo effect that worked wonderfully in the Amphitheater. Later, it emerges that it is Luisa who is being hunted; Count Walter arrives to humiliate her and threaten her outraged father. The full chorus takes part as observers in the huge concertato that builds, a magnificent passage well shaped here by Colaneri that looks ahead to similar tense public confrontations in Don Carlos, Aida, the revised Simon Boccanegra and Otello.

A point reiterated in Schiller’s Enlightenment-inspired oeuvre is that rich and powerful people do what they want to their less powerful neighbors — a state that, sadly, can be observed in any community or society. Count Walter and Wurm live on in the boardrooms and secret police offices of today — but in familial terms, Walter’s nastiness has few parallels in opera.

Bright English surtitles projected on twin screens aided comprehension, though one or two moments (like “The favored youth presented himself to you falsely” and the Britishism “grey”) unaccountably evoked old-style Cinecittà translations done — as Gore Vidal has alleged — by somebody’s Finnish au pair. But the only real complaint to be made about this presentation of Luisa Miller was that it was a one-off event; it’s a shame more Chautauqua audiences could not have reaped the benefits of Verdi’s music and all the fine work involved.

A Philadelphia-based arts critic, David Shengold has written for Opera News, Opera (UK), Theatre Journal and Time Out New York, among many venues. He has contributed program essays to the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Covent Garden and Washington National Opera programs and lectured for NYCO,  Glimmerglass Festival and Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre. He trained and acted at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Mass. and has taught on opera, literature and cultural history at Oberlin, Mount Holyoke and Williams Colleges.

Albright-Knox partnership brings giants of scholarly field

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The exhibition “Abstraction in America: 1940s to 1960s” at Strohl Art Center runs through Aug. 22. Photo by Eve Edelheit.

Anthony Bannon | Guest Reviewer

‘New expressions of the spirit’

Such the wonder of a new way of being in the world: the proposals that remake our visions, rare celebrations like the turn toward abstraction in art during the last century.

Humankind at its best suggests new worldviews — that our ground is round instead of flat, for instance, and it is a shared amazement, like the suggestion that a star is at the center of things rather than us. And with these understandings, we are transformed.

How extraordinary to divine that just a line, or a smudge of color, or a brilliance or intensity might be worthy of an idea, or emotion or new expressions of the spirit: such the boldness of visual alternatives after centuries of orientation to the figure, to the horizon or to the landscapes.

Treasuries of these visual ideas are found in museums around the world, keepers of culture, and few are more articulate in their assemblies than the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., one of the first public museums in America.

The Albright-Knox and Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution collaborate this summer with an exhibition of just rightly scaled smaller works from that intellectual and cultural explosion of the mid-20th century, the period of “Abstraction in America: 1940s to 1960s.”

In the second floor Gallo Family Gallery in the Strohl Art Center on Wythe Avenue, a showing of 16 paintings and drawings by as many artists paints the emergence of a mindset that changed the world.

This cognitive revolution began sensibly in liberties with the known, including a free-wheeling American representation of our wilderness landscape, centered here with a great watercolor by Milton Avery, “The Brook” from 1943, made up by shorthanded inferences of the fracture of light as water crosses rocks, and a slashing suggestion of pines and brook’s banks, filled with the vitality of nature.

It is not a long aesthetic reach, then, to the bold assertions by Franz Kline, who rendered a fractured grid that held together an almost square piece of paper — in this show that broken grid and an anchoring black rectangle with a swatch of dark red here and over there and a quickly rendered sphere in the upper right, aptly “Untitled,” from 1946–48. This little oil painting has nothing to do with landscape, but it has a lot to do with how one can organize a space with enough wiggle room to encourage a viewer to continue the conversation.

And so it goes, the dyke of expression then broken open for abstraction. Paul Jenkins rushed in with big blacks and Mark Tobey with smaller, delicate, contemplative gestures to fill their frames. Sam Francis let the wet watercolor run down the paper, just as he did in his paintings, and Alfred Jensen looked around to a Mayan tradition to remark on time in a different way.

These are open-door invitations offered through the exhibition to see how great minds work, making hypotheses for vision the way a writer might propose a tumble of words for a poem, or a scientist ask, “what if?” matter performed sub-atomically.

The paintings in the Strohl show are not the paintings that usually demand attention in the big halls of museums. Here are the drawings, or prints that museums usually hold back in the vaults for scholarly inquiry. But so many artists themselves proclaim that these are the more interesting evidence of accomplishment — more revealing than the mountaintop amplifications that qualify in the popular mind as masterpieces. Here, with these drawings and smaller works, is the excitement of the studio — or the laboratory — rather than the products of these labors that are later commodified.

The giants of the field are assembled in this showing — Jasper Johns with just such an experiment, called “False Start II,” which is all about process; and Hans Hofmann, Cy Twombly, Adolph Gottlieb, Lee Krasner and Philip Guston, the latter with a glorious ink sketching of falling-down black lines and the ample space between, dedicated to his good friend, the composer Morton Feldman, for whom notes were a falling-down sprinkle that paid a lot of attention to the silences between.

These are the artists, too, who were the good friends of the Albright-Knox, many of them enjoying important exhibitions there, so that their careers were integrally wound around the museum’s own culture. The exhibition was a collaboration between VACI Artistic Director Don Kimes and Ilana Chlebowski, a curatorial assistant at the Albright-Knox. Chautauquan Leslie Zemsky, president of the Albright-Knox board, worked to bring the collaboration to fruition. The show continues through the season, to Aug. 22.

‘Delightful liberties’

Another exhibition across Wythe in the first-floor gallery of Fowler-Kellogg Art Center focuses through the first decade of the 21st century on the print, often abstract, and usually in the wake of abstraction when not.

Charlie Hewitt’s big woodcuts command each wall with his clumpy, aggressive massing in vivid colors, grounded usually in powerful orange and yellow. Hewitt is a descendent of the rough and tumble of Abstract Expressionism, but scrubbed up for the party, sporting a cleaner edge and surface.

Karla Hackenmiller’s etchings and monoprints play a different tune. She calls them “Liminal,” meaning at the edge of sensation, barely perceptible, and indeed, her complex biomorphic shapes are a microscopist’s delight, like a look through the ocular at a sample of pond water.

Bernar Venet has an even more quiet song, simplified to several strong lines inked assertively, and how wonderful it can be, in fact, to agree with pleasure and surprise in the reward hidden in his work and revealed in his titles, “Random Combination of Indeterminate Lines.”

The exhibition, called “The Contemporary Printmaker,” is a showing of varied pleasures — technical mastery of mezzotint (and mood) by Art Werger; amazing aquatint etching of complex stilled life constructions by Katja Oxman, and then the simple rendition of the face by Alex Katz, with delightful liberties in mapping and location by Paula Scher, and the clean grace of line and hue by Tom Raneses, who also installed the complex show. It continues through July 21.

Anthony Bannon is the Ron and Donna Fielding Director of George Eastman House, the International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, N.Y.

‘Quite a night’

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Frederick “Pete” Leo Walker II, left, and Jordan Leeper soar into the air during the Chautauqua Dance Salon Thursday evening in the Amphitheater. Photo by Megan Tan.

Janes owns first dance performance of 2011

Anthony Bannon | Guest Reviewer

Maybe you think you understood it and could even situate it within the dance vocabulary of traditional poses, moves, couplings. Perhaps that charge of Sarah Hayes Watson onto the Amphitheater stage seemed like a violation by some primal creature. Maybe you felt comfortable with that association.

I’ll bet, though, that you recognized that Sasha Janes’ stand-up great little dance called “Last Lost Chance” had knocked you off your feet and succeeded in moving you to a place of wonder, even awe, at how someone might imagine — and then fulfill — such amazing ideas for the body in space. Miss that point, and it might well have been your last lost chance. Chances like the one Janes presented don’t come by very often. This was the real thing, and a good bit of the audience knew it, and took to their feet to give it mighty applause.

Again this year, the North Carolina Dance Theatre returned for residence with Chautauqua Dance, and in its tradition for the first week presented a salon with some of the treasures the company has in its stores.

Sasha Janes is the beloved rehearsal director and sometimes guest choreographer. He owned the evening Thursday.

I hope no one has any programmatic meaning for the piece: some psychodramatic explanation about the inner me and the outer you, or babble about quintessential truths and the basic needs.

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Like Absolute Music or Non-Objective Art, “Lost Chance” is about the exquisite practice of the mind and the surprising capacity of the body. It proposes a practice of mind and body that you’d think appropriate for another dimension, another universe, another kind of human.

Yes, Hayes Watson and Anna Gerberich with Jordan Leeper and Pete Walker with Melissa Anduiza created the work, and you’ll run into them on Bestor Plaza or University Beach. They are the company leaders, and no doubt regular folks, but you’ve got to wonder after seeing them dance: “Just who are these creatures? How is this possible — what they do on stage?”

They are that astonishing, committing every fiber to Janes’ equally extraordinary vision.

At one point a voice in Ólafur Arnalds’ score for “Lost Chance” — an odd, electronically manipulated voice — declares the “screaming silence of the mind” and the voice of wind through leaves. Arnalds, an Icelandic composer, moves easily from the classic concert to pop music stage with a variety of instruments and devices and enjoys breaking rules by proposing in his language of sound the absolutely unheard-of wonders that Janes shares in movement.

And then Anna Gerberich makes a twitch, a sudden shudder, that occurs in a millisecond and by surprise and positions a leg over there were it shouldn’t be and summons an awareness of the greedy art of “Lost Chance.” It is a dance about making art — and I think the anxiety of creating something truly new, not knowing just how it will turn out — that is the ultimate subject of great abstraction.

Anduiza centers the work, making brief appearances and piquant gestures to the couples who have left the stage, completing their turn. She runs in long and beautiful strides around the perimeter of the stage, as if to define it, hold it together, sustain its energy.

“Lost Chance” builds from sensuous couplings to sentiment more extreme, Arnald’s music reaching for amplitude and breaking apart, to fall finally into the organ that begins the work.

“Lost Chance” completed the first section of the evening to sustained applause.

Mark Diamond’s work fulfilled the remainder of the evening. Diamond is the program director of the Dance Salon and associate artistic director of North Carolina Dance Theatre, with Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, artistic director, and Patricia McBride, associate artistic director.

Diamond’s theme for the evening was good and evil, also the title of the opening dance, created to the chilly music of Antonio Vivaldi’s coldest of the “Four Seasons,” a fascinating choice for a vigorous confrontation by Leeper and Walker, the evil part, then ministered by Gerberich soothing the fallen Leeper and ending in a third movement with a compelling construction by Anduiza, Gerberich, Leeper and Walker, in which they struggle to achieve a fitting harmony, only to see it fracture, like broken glass, in a disassembly of an architecture startling for dance.

Diamond lovingly plays into each dancer’s strength; for instance, his utilization of the art nouveau lines that Gerberich so beautifully assumes through her body, in motion and still amazingly creating the sinewy, haunted line of last century’s avant-garde, from forehead to extremity, finger to foot.

The theme of good and evil continues in a piece called “The Advocate,” a narrative of power and submission, of threat and persuasion that works equally for an exorcism as for the development of Fascism. Kate Behrendt, Hayes Watson, David Morse and Daniel Rodriguez perform.

Following intermission, Diamond opened with a reprise of the The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough’s novel about priestly dalliance that became what still is the second-most popular television mini-series (after “Roots”).

Well, not really, but how many narratives are there that engage the confusion between godly and carnal love? This is one, with Leeper and Hayes Watson as the star-crossed lovers. The strength of characterization that Hayes Watson brings to every performance — her total conviction, from grace to passion, at every moment of the piece, called “Sunset Road” after the Bela Fleck tune, carries the conceptually thin work home.

The evening ended with a featured role for the company’s third great woman, Anduiza, playing the soul of Japanese tradition, the temperance behind conflict, a unifying principle, an ultimate balance that becomes corrupted and ultimately destroyed, raped by vulgarity and violence. She is extraordinary, through a range of sensibilities, and her men — Greg DeArmond, Rodriguez and Walker — spent more testosterone than should be legal for a dance floor. Music, appropriately, was the drumming of Leonard Eto, “Zoku.”

Quite a night.

Anthony Bannon is the Ron and Donna Fielding Director of the George Eastman House, the International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, NY. He had been a dance and theater critic for The Buffalo News.

Strohl, Fowler-Kellogg exhibitions a study in color contrast

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Amy Stark and her son Robert, 4, view Bill Reid’s “Untitled III,” on display as part of the “Animal Craft” exhibition currently open at Fowler-Kellogg Art Center. Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Anthony Bannon | Guest Reviewer

‘A very colorful, just odd enough show’

And how we love our animals.

Our animals.

We tame them. We worship them. We sleep with them. We admire them. We eat them. We use them for sport, for fashion, for profit. We nurture them, cultivate them, hunt them, kill them. They are devils. They are gods.

And here we have an art show about them, “Animal Craft,” on the second floor of Fowler-Kellogg Art Center.

Enter the mountain gorilla, Anne Lemanski’s creation, made from copper rods, paper, leather and stitched together with artificial sinew, mounted to the wall like a trophy in a hunter’s den. The artist makes the point that there are only 680 of the gorillas remaining.

The gorilla is installed next to a lion made of cloth from the Maasai people, redstriped blue plaid. And the lion has silly pink ears. This is a complex ecology. The artist makes the point that the lions are being killed by a poison that is packaged in pink containers. The Maasai are poisoning the lions because the lions are killing the Maasai’s cattle.

This is a very colorful, just odd enough show: Great ceramic pots with elephant and rabbit handles by Christian Kuharik and a hammered rusted steel stag trophy, almost close enough to be termed representational.

Speaking personally, I was particularly taken by the cartoon fierce clay dogs by Wesley Anderegg, who makes dogs doing silly things while trying to act menacing.

I am also partial to the amazing narratives that Bill Reid constructs with his welding equipment and then paints up in jumpy colors — an owl, for instance, holding under its wings the icons of sea and sky and land, all there beneath its outstretched wings, which, just by the way, reveal a mouse and its cheese right there at the owl’s heart.

And it goes on like this with vigorous imagination: the teapots and baskets and a vase honoring birds, and a wall full of tiny clay bunny heads cheerfully celebrating a birthday or masquerading behind a mask.

Finally, Lisa and Scott Cylinder have the invention to make animal-shaped jewelry out of a piano hammer, a clarinet key and a bottle opener. The artists’ mind holds no bounds.

Need a pick-me-up? Missing your pet? Wondering about how strange humankind can be? This is the ticket, through July 21.

‘All a bit silver-tongued’

Across Wythe Avenue is a gentle crosscurrent on the second floor of Strohl Art Center. This one is all about silver. That’s right. Just silver. And, of course, it is called “Silver Lining.” It, too, is the invention of Galleries Director Judy Barie.

So there are silvery lined glasses and a tall vase, which really are pewter, and silvery teapots, which are hollowware, and aluminum mesh sculpture that stands off the wall in a variety of ways inferring fundamentals, such as a double helix.

Carol Prusa, a Florida artist, has the corner on fundamentals, particularly with her wall-mounted domes. Several of the domes emit tiny points of light, one a centering red, and their delicate silverpoint designs infer the basics of the ocean, while the dome shape itself suggests spaces for basic shelter and elaborated worship.

Her other works in the show are circular panels. For an artist, this commitment to spheres and circles is a risky business; the circle shape is about as exhausted as a form portending singularity as is a sonnet today about love or God.

On a lighter note, Nicole Ayliffe takes the prize for cleverness. Inside a blown glass vessel fit for flowers, she lodges black and white photographs — silver prints! — one of the ocean and the other of railroad tracks, off to the vanishing point.

It is all a bit silver-tongued, but the show should be forgiven its excesses for the sake of its friendly charms. Through July 28.

Anthony Bannon is the Ron and Donna Fielding Director of George Eastman House, the International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, N.Y.

54th Annual Exhibition ‘a pleasant tumble of ideas and manners’

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Gabrielle Israelievitch views the 54th Chautauqua Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art on Tuesday. Photo by Eve Edelheit.


Anthony Bannon | Guest Reviewer

I’m sorry, but this show is just not the way it is supposed to be.

It’s off-kilter, sometimes upside-down and usually topsy-turvy.

Give this 54th version of Chautauqua’s juried Exhibition of Contemporary Art a nudge and it would tumble over the line, across that careful border that too often marks what is right for art and what is supposedly not.

Jim Kempner, who leads one of the veteran gallery spaces in Chelsea, 23rd Street and 10th Avenue, New York City, takes the show up to the edge. He is its juror, the person who looked at a lot of applicant CDs and decided who got in and who, instead, ended up on the cutting room floor.

Mine is not a rocket-science opinion about the willy-nilly wise-guy nature of the show. It’s right there in the art works’ titles. For example: “Too Far Too Soon,” “Crossing the Line,” “Broken.”

It’s all an eye game, really, for there’s a photograph of antlers playing look-a-like with peeling paint, and a photograph of a woman named Vanessa in painter’s overalls hanging upside down, and then the painting called “The Writer,” which is about a swimmer shown topsy-turvy sideways. For good measure, Kempner includes writing itself in a few paintings and constructions.  But the writing struggles within its medium to be set free, to be loosened from the strictures of paint and clay, squirming out to be itself, just letters.

Things just aren’t always the way one expects, that’s all.

And sometimes, right in the middle of a surprise, one finds one’s heart.

The following information isn’t on the wall anyplace in the Strohl Art Center on Wythe Avenue, but I have it on the good authority of Director Judith Barie that the remarkable mixed-media lithograph by Phyllis Kohring Fannin, titled “Last Moment in My Arms” depicts the embrace she gave to her son, his soldier’s hat in hand, before he left for Afghanistan.

It’s is a lovely image, to be sure, and a piquant read from across the gallery. And then one approaches the image, emotional hat in hand.

The figures Ms. Kohring Fannin created — her son and herself — are lined into the paper in silhouettes, the mother’s shape designed with the graced figures of a topographical map and the son’s in a similar figuration of camouflage. One design is bleeding, reaching, superimposing upon the other, a landscape of love.

The artist teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Her work won the top award of the exhibition, the Bellinger Memorial Award.

Charles A. Kacin won the James and Karen Greb Award with an abstract mood of oil, wax, graphite and ink blended into a different land that has no name, where blots and blurs and lines and smudges of red-based hues describe a mindset disguised as sky.  His work, called “Hiladago,” is represented by InArt Gallery in Santa Fe.

Ann Steuernagel is a video artist who teaches at Northeastern University.  She has shown work previously in Strohl. This year, she won the Visual Arts at Chautauqua Institution Partners Award for a three-part work called “Garden,” planted from found footage and arranged in a passageway for discovery, that long skinny perforated passageway of film that could lead from arbor to vine, plot to dell, idea to idea, with birds and ice and a rhetoric of effective use of repetition and contrast.  Indeed, like a garden, the artist shaped an opportunity for unexpected riddles, strange syllogisms and opportune jokes, a fine museum work for moving image.

In her own way, a strange way, Rachael J. Burke used sheets of film over canvas to hide and reveal figures and oil smudges and chairs arranged every which way.  It is a very, very free-handed exposition about surface, volume, figure, ground and other arcane art notions, but even so, “Concurrent Dramas” has a blotchy charm that suggests intense conversations about the funny things that some academics engage. The artist from Erie, Pa., won the Jeffrey Drake Award, and with it, the location as the center piece in the gallery.

Kevin Bernstein from Kansas State University is right alongside with a much smaller but far more colorful acrylic called “Crustose,” which shows the vivid formations that lichens make upon surfaces, a sort of biomorphic calico. He won the Ellie Wilder Award.

The show Jim Kempner made is a pleasant tumble of ideas and manners, a pick-up-sticks of fabric and paint and torn-out pages of linguistic theory — 27 works by as many artists selected from 510 entries by 181 artists from 14 states.

And, thanks to Ms. Barie’s installation design, it hangs together with preposterous delight — just the way it is supposed to be. For this is art after all, and one doesn’t go out arting unless looking for the unexpected.

Anthony Bannon is the Ron and Donna Fielding Director at George Eastman House, the International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, N.Y.

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