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The Notion of Craft

Celebration of Craft

Review by Pan Wendt

The Eptek Centre’s summer exhibition Celebration of Craft offers a welcome opportunity to experience a broad sampling of Island craftwork. But it also focuses on pieces that expand the definition of craft, as organizers asked local craftspeople to submit objects that featured innovation and went a little beyond the format of their usual production work.

Naturally such a brief could be interpreted in a number of ways, and given the variety of mediums and techniques on display, the centre’s small exhibition space was packed with an array of different objects. Eighty-four pieces were chosen to represent contemporary Island craft, and several examples of historical work from Prince Edward Island museums were featured to illustrate continuity with past techniques as well as the way craft has changed over the years.

Craft forms a growing part of the economy of Prince Edward Island, and as a result there was a lot to choose from in this show. Everyone will have their favourites. For me, the gems varied from a subtle smoke-fired bowl by Jamie Germaine to Diane Gaudreau’s elegant Asian-style side table. Or in a more traditional vein, Cheryl Wolthuis’ In the Garden, a representation of Adam and Eve in bobbin lace. Robert Wilby presented a wacky and engaging “Soldier,” made of painted porcelain, although it was somewhat difficult to read it as a piece of craft, per se. Amiel LeBlanc’s Slit Drum was an impressive exploration of the material possibilities within his craft of drum making. There were many others.

In fact most of the pieces won me over, but the exhibition still seemed uneven to me, or maybe just too multifarious and crowded. A show of this sort presents a variety of problems. Firstly, there is the somewhat tired but nonetheless vexing question of the definition of craft: is it utilitarian objects embellished by decoration? Is it a question of technique? Of tradition? Of not being “art”? And some pieces were obviously closer to production work than others. At what point does craft cease being craft when it departs from its utilitarian function? And I was left confused, for example, by the inclusion of photography in the exhibition. Doesn’t craft seem to gain its status through its involvement with technology that’s at least partly outmoded?

Many pieces approached the brief of the show by exploring technique or material, some expanded craft through content, some through conceptual devices that raised the issue of how the notion of fine art and the notion of craft articulate one another; there is clearly art in craft and craft in art. But overall it was unclear exactly how one differentiated craft from other kinds of object-making. What the exhibition presented, not necessarily intentionally, was the uncertain status of craft in contemporary life. This would have been an interesting question to explore, but by including nearly everything, according to the very loose definition of craft adopted by the Island Crafts Council, what we were left with was a kind of everything for everyone position. I would have liked to see a more focused exhibition, perhaps with fewer works (the venue was quite crowded), that tried to make some deliberate connection or contrast between the craft of today and craft of the past.

Despite these reservations, I applaud the Eptek Centre for bringing together so many quality pieces and giving recognition to a rich vein of creative work on the Island. It is basically impossible to go into any depth with respect to medium, theme or tradition when you are trying to give a broad picture, and given this situation the curators of this show did an admirable job arranging the various pieces by medium and technique. The next step will be to follow this exhibition up with further curatorial projects that produce more focused explorations of Island craft.

Hitting the Mark

Anne of Green Gables—The Musical™

Review by Pan Wendt

This year’s Anne of Green Gables continues in the vein of last year’s classic, understated and precise rendition of a musical that remains miraculously fresh after more than four decades. With each passing year the focus of the stage adaptation of Anne on the brilliant sweetness and openness of youth, on (short) Island summers, and on the temporariness of it all seems more eloquent. And that’s a good thing, because some of it is fairly dated, like the very 1960s school pageant, with its “Eskimos” and “Indians” and Fleur-de-Lis. “Anne of Green Gables, Never Change” indeed, to quote the lyrics of the song, that sums it up.

To keep this musical exciting it needs new life breathed into it every time, not necessarily by tinkering with formula so much as by insisting that everyone hits their marks and plays their parts with crispness, conviction and a commitment to getting the maximum out of three hours that, for the most part, go by too quickly. I’ve always felt that the script drags a tiny bit in the second act, but, in general, Anne is a masterpiece of snappy pacing made stronger by actors who don’t mess around with it, and don’t show off too much. Maybe Anne is an entertainment machine by now, but it was designed to be and it works, partly because it has something to say about itself.

The best parts of this year’s Anne involve the family triangle of Anne, Marilla and Mathew, played by Amy Wallis, Janet MacEwen and Sandy Winsby respectively. Helped by the occasional interventions of Rachel Lynde (played with great tone and timing by Charlotte Moore) the trio has developed even more chemistry as a group since last year, when they already achieved fine form in their debut season. All bring nuance and subtlety to the roles, with Amy Wallis toning down the cute factor just enough to make sure we never get sick of the heroine, but without adding unnecessary melodrama or darkness to the performance. She also has a great singing voice.

It’s hard to think of anything wrong with such a solid version of Anne, so the defects that come to mind are probably trivial or fairly subjective at best. To take an example, some of the wigs were a bit much. I don’t recall noticing the wiggishness of the wigs so much before, but the hair on some of this year’s players (we won’t mention any names) didn’t look right somehow. And perhaps it’s an issue with the script that Gilbert Blythe is so often a slightly thin character in the show—he doesn’t get that many great lines, after all—but I still want more evidence that he’s really worth Anne’s attention. This year, despite the best efforts of Louie Rossetti, Gilbert, as usual, seems to be trying to keep up a lot of the time. I wonder if the role as written could be tinkered with slightly. But yet again, from top to bottom, a great show, everybody included. The last two seasons of Anne have been the strongest I can remember.

In The Raw

Stephen B. MacInnis
Spare Parts for Improvements

Review by Pan Wendt

Over the past 15 years or so, Stephen MacInnis has become one of the Island’s most recognizable and respected painters, with work showing at many galleries across the province, gracing the covers of books of poetry and, of the course, The Buzz. One of MacInnis’s achievements was the development of a personal style that combined saturated colours, patterned, flattened surfaces, and dreamlike scenes of figures in fantastic spaces that often made reference to the landscape of PEI. Although there was considerable variation among the various works, and the works continued to be compelling on their own terms, it nonetheless comes as a pleasant surprise to see MacInnis’s new paintings at the Guild.

This is an ambitious group of works, and MacInnis has set himself a major challenge by working in a much larger scale, placing life-sized figures against almost totally non-referential backgrounds. Clearly the new scale has forced MacInnis to adopt a more painterly mode, and he has set upon this task with considerable gusto, often through thick layering of paint and use of gestural brushwork. And by stripping down his format to a single figure against an abstract ground, MacInnis has made painting, and paint itself, an explicit aspect of his content. In addition, the new paintings engage with much more overtly gruesome and visceral subject matter ­ the human body transformed through prosthetics, surgery, and modern forms of bodily imaging, such as x-rays. The figures in these pictures often appear as victims of cruel manipulations, and MacInnis’s comments, which appear on placards next to the works, suggest that he is deeply critical of the contemporary practices of bodily modification. This stance is undercut, however, by the clear pleasure MacInnis takes in manipulating the human body in paint. Even the most horrific works, such as Monster, of 2005, which conflates a puppet-like body, mask-like face, and various signs for bones with what appears to be a kind of insect-doll, reflects this pleasure. The surface of the monster is made up of layers of thick, opaque white paint, obsessively layered until it is redolent of roughly textured glazed pottery. In The Soldier, one of the most successful pieces, the faceless figure’s circulatory system takes on the character of a slow-drying glue.

The bold experiments don’t always work, which can be expected when a painter adopts a strikingly different approach for the first time. One wonders about the conceptual cohesion of work that comments on the contemporary world in a style that is so rooted in painting of the first half of the 20th century. MacInnis sometimes departs aggressively from his signature mode, as in the sketchy, abstract backgrounds and thick layers of paint. But at the same time he maintains his fascination with masklike faces, pattern-effects and strong design. Sometimes the ambiguity produced is powerful and productive, and sometimes it comes off as indecision. But I like the new, rawer and more declarative MacInnis, and I look forward to seeing more works in this vein.

Chemistry Lab

Culture Shock- Lorne Elliot

Review by Pan Wendt

Lorne Elliott’s long-running comedy, Culture Shock, hinges on a “stunned” young Newfounder’s trip to the mainland. Hilliard Philpott, played by Rory Lambert, finds himself in all sorts of predicaments because his total lack of understanding of big city goings-on, but he always emerges triumphant, in part because he’s honest and naïve, but in part because he turns out actually to be less stunned than he lets on. Much of the denouement takes place back in Newfoundland, as the fallout from Hilliard’s trip leads to all sorts of insane consequences.

Most of the play actually takes place in the rundown Philpott living room, with a tiny television set that serves as a link between Hilliard’s big adventure and a small Newfoundland town. The interaction between the three main characters, Hilliard, his father Mr. Philpott, played by Lorne Elliott, and Cyril, a moronic postman, played to perfection by Paul Broadbent, is pretty much the core of the comedy, much of which revolves around over-the-top misunderstandings in the grand sitcom tradition. Mr. Philpott is a complacent and self-serving Newf Archie Bunker, a mixture of know-it-all hypocritical crank and cunning schemer. And Elliott has him down to a tee.

The script relies heavily on rather hoary regional stereotypes, and a lot of the jokes are heavily telegraphed. There are a lot of obvious groaners: Hilliard thinking C.O.D. means cod, French Canadian prison escapees who try to translate Quebecois curse words into English, and Newfoundlanders generally acting as if they don’t know nothin’ about nothin’. But this is also one of the play’s chief charms. It relies on age-old formulas; we know what’s going to happen next, but we don’t care; the whole thing sinks comfortably into a kind of set piece mode, where the real pleasure is in the comic skills of the actors. The three players were total pros, with Elliott and Broadbent’s interplay probably the most consistently hilarious. For the first ten minutes, maybe, I was skeptical, and found the obviousness irritating, but I was quickly won over by the well-crafted entertainment on hand.

If I was to sum up this play, I’d say it was several episodes strung together of Newfoundland-themed Three’s Company, performed live by people with great timing and chemistry. And is that really such a bad thing?

A Worthy Sequel

Anne and Gilbert

Review by Pan Wendt

This show is always going to have to contend with its mighty predecessor, and like all sequels, it’s not completely up to the task. But considering that young adult Anne was somewhat less interesting than teenage Anne in the original books, Anne and Gilbert does a tremendous job making something of the situation. For starters, writers Nancy White, Bob Johnston and Jeff Hochhauser opted for a different feel overall from Anne of Green Gables, in part by making music, dialogue and lyrics much more contemporary, quirky and risqué than in the original classic show. At times the show opts for generalized takes on universal romantic problems, but more often than not things get a bit strange and sometimes brilliant, and Anne and Gilbert are revealed as two of the many town oddballs.

The show takes up where Anne left off, and concentrates on the inevitable union of Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe, who are attending the same college. Both of them are, of course, waylaid by distractions: Anne’s idealism, the endless stream of girls drawn to Gilbert’s studliness, and a rich smooth-talker who woos Anne. Counterbalancing the distractions is destiny, in the form of missed-opportunities-that-must-be-redeemed (Marilla’s), the truth of true love above all (a rich and beautiful university friend who falls for a humble goofball fiddler), and “the Island,” which always draws true Islanders back together, among other olde themes.

All of these clichés are undercut by the songs, which dominate the dialogue much more than they do in Anne, and which are filled with witty and sharp moments, lyrically and musically, and by the well-drawn characters and fine repartee between the actors. Heidi Ford nearly stole the show as Josie Pye, and her scene on the beach with Peter Deiwick’s Gilbert was one of the play’s best moments. Melanie LeBlanc made Anne her own, and among other standouts were Pam Stevenson as Rachel Lynde and Natalie Sullivan as Anne’s school friend Philippa Gordon.

All in all, it was a fine show, full of strong performers and material, and a worthy sequel. Clearly Anne and Gilbert has a long future. Hopefully more work will be done on the book: some of the scenes and songs feel as though they are just moving through parts of the story, while others are brilliant takes on the whole situation. I thought the songs, dancing and general rah-rah-rah was better than the dialogue or the acting. But this musical has made a strong start, and if I’m hard on it it’s because it has a lot to live up to. Good show.

Classic Quality

Anne of Green Gables

Review by Pan Wendt

There were many changes made with this year’s production of Anne of Green Gables at the Charlottetown Festival, but for the most part these weren’t too obvious and it was business as usual: a slick, strong, entertaining show that totally won over its audience. And since one of the things that makes the show so successful is its classic quality—the feeling that everything is in its place, nobody is overreaching, no unnecessary detail is intruding—it probably wouldn’t do to make jarring changes.

Even visually, in terms of sets and costumes, but also in the way the show is choreographed, things are still kept simple and understated. In general the musical numbers, although they feature complex interplay (as in “We Clearly Requested a Boy” and “General Store,” to take random examples), don’t involve over-the-top flourishes or climaxes where everybody is singing at once at the top of their lungs with arms flung in six different directions, as in much Andrew Lloyd Webber. There is an avoidance of showing off in Anne that seems wholly appropriate to its Island setting, and makes Anne herself stand out all the more.

What was different was the pacing. Scene transitions were done more quickly, often in half-darkness that revealed the silhouettes of actors leaving the stage from previous scenes and gave some hint at what was about to come. Sometimes this was a little strange in a play that so often makes a virtue of being clearly-drawn and well-lit. But in general the new transitions were a plus, mostly because they kept the second act moving, where in the past it had sometimes dragged in places, and because they shortened the length of an already very long show.

The other key change in this year’s Anne was with the cast, where a lot of new faces were introduced in key roles. Maybe because of this, and because it was still early in the season (3 weeks in), I thought I detected a rough moment or two. But since I’m still not even sure those moments were there, it couldn’t have been too severe. The new cast members were great, for the most part. Amy Wallis makes a solid Anne, with acting and vocal range, and the new Matthew, Sandy Winsby, had a great warm and gritty voice and understated charisma. Plus he and Wallis had real chemistry going throughout the show. The new Marilla, Janet MacEwen, was harder to warm up to, with the choke in her voice seeming a bit mannered at first, but in the end I was totally sold on her as well, especially her acting. All three are great finds. Much of the supporting cast stood out, as always, with waggish Terry Hatty as the mailman/stationmaster, and Sweeney MacArthur as a weird squinting Scottish version of Mr. Phillips the most memorable on this night.

Still the best theatre on the Island, and it would stand up anywhere. I’ve now taken my girls three times in three years and it’s not getting old.

A Sense of the Local

Confederation Centre Art Gallery

Review by Pan Wendt

The summer exhibitions at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery this year seem more than ever geared toward presenting visitors to the Island with a sense of local artistic production, historical and contemporary. On schedule, Robert Harris is trotted out for the tourists, but this time, with In/Flux: Migrating Culture and Cultural Modernisation in Prince Edward Island, 1969-1980, two whole floors are devoted to Island artwork from the 1970s, a period contemporary with the arrival of the Centre itself as a force in Island life. The Harris show, Leaving a Mark: The Harris Family in Prince Edward Island since 1856, curated by Kevin Rice and R.C.Tuck, is a skillfully designed overview of the arrival of official culture to P.E.I., in the work of the Anglo-Welsh Harris brothers. The Confederation Centre is itself a natural heir to their project of bringing an academically-informed and to a great degree institutionally-based idea of the fine arts to the Island.

In/Flux, curated by Shauna McCabe, documents a contemporary phenomenon that parallels the arrival of the Harris brothers in 1856, the migration of what the wall texts describe as a “creative class” from away in the 1960s and 1970s to the Island. But where the Harris brothers inaugurated a coherent aesthetic tradition, In/Flux obviously means to present the 1970s version of “cultural modernization” as something much more fragmented and ambivalent about the role of official culture. A dazzling array of mediums, approaches to technique, and notions about art and its role in daily life, give a strong sense of the richness and variety of the visual art of the period, but also present a confusing picture. It’s hard to know where to begin: from a Lawrence McLagan documentary photograph of a farming family in Alaska, P.E.I., say, to Bill Vazan’s conceptual photowork, “Sandpiece P.E.I.,” from Lindee Climo’s iconic “Door” and papier-mache “Pig,” to Terry Dunton Stevenson’s large landscape “The Narrows” (from 1986, oddly enough) there are long distances to travel. And it’s unclear how Ahmon Katz’s wild bicycle sculpture can be related to Henry Purdy’s model for a monumental outdoor sculpture, other than by the fact that they are both, well, welded. The problem may lie in the fact that much of the work in the show was not really meant to be presented as art at all (some of the most intriguing objects shown were journal entries from the 1970s by Megan Williams, blown up to the scale of a painting), and also that the people making it were often actually exploring ways of making art that somehow integrated itself with while still challenging the environment and traditions of the Island, and had little to do with the idea of high art propagated by the Centre itself. Removed from its place above the box office doors and hung on a giant white wall, Malcolm Stanley’s ceramic “Sun” was still impressive as an individual work. But, like many pieces in In/Flux, it was obviously meant for a certain missing context. Perhaps the solution for a show like this would have been to destabilize the clean white walls of the gallery somewhat, and pack it to the gills with more of that context: I would have loved to have seen more stuff, arranged haphazardly and crowded like things at a yard sale, against the grain of the architecture’s pomp and formality. This was a great idea for a show, and I applaud the attempt, but I’m still waiting for an exhibition or book that really gets to the heart of that influx and the challenge it presented, and still presents.

The third show to grace the main galleries of the Confederation Centre this summer is Eric Walker’s Railway Lands, an absolute triumph of busywork and audacious literalness, including videos of what you see when you look out the window of a moving train, and flat metal trains and container ships. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s a must-see.

Strength of Character

An interview with Amy Wallis, the Festival’s latest Anne Shirley

by Pan Wendt

Charlottetown Festival Artistic Director Anne Allen (seated) surrounded by five newleading cast members of this year’s production of Anne. From left: Amy Wallis, Charlotte Moore, Sandy Winsby, Janet MacEwen and Natalie Daradich

Charlottetown Festival Artistic Director Anne Allen (seated) surrounded by five newleading cast members of this year’s production of Anne. From left: Amy Wallis, Charlotte Moore, Sandy Winsby, Janet MacEwen and Natalie DaradichAmy Wallis, the British Columbia born actress chosen to play Anne in this year’s Charlottetown Festival production of Anne of Green Gables—The Musical™, has only been on the Island for a few weeks, but she is already well aware that she is taking on a unique challenge. In a casual interview at Mavor’s, the young actress showed all the qualities that she plans to bring to the Anne character: intelligence, poise, clarity and determination. She gave an immediate impression of being ready for whatever is thrown at her.

“People have told me that playing Anne in Charlottetown is like becoming a local icon,” says Wallis, though she admits that she has yet to really experience the pressures that will come with representing Anne here, where she was invented. This is Wallis’s first visit to Prince Edward Island, but her journey here seems to be a natural culmination of her career so far. She first read Lucy Maud Montgomery’s book at age 9, and has dreamed of playing Anne in Charlottetown since she first heard about the Festival. Coming from a theatrical family, with a mother who choreographed for musicals and television, and a father who acted in straight theatre, Wallis has a long-standing connection to musical theatre; she didn’t go to theatre school, but developed her acting, singing and dancing through early exposure to the stage, and to a paying audience. There is something of Anne’s own determination to make it on the Island in Wallis’s story as well. She recounts that when she got the audition for this part, she dropped everything in Vancouver, where she was well-established in a strong theatre scene, and flew out on the same day. She is now a “person with stuff in storage,” and plans to try her luck in Toronto this winter, English Canada’s theatrical centre. “It would be easy to settle in and become complacent in Vancouver,” says Wallis, “so I look forward to the challenge of this show.”

What does Wallis want to bring to the production? She is well-aware that an established, annual show like Anne is not going to change in very obvious ways. The production team at the Confederation Centre knows what works. But in keeping with the nature of her role, she does have her own take on Anne, and she feels it is in keeping with changes the director has made this year. She says the show will be a little more character-driven this time around, “a little less played for laughs,” and that the new lighting designs and quicker scene transitions will create a subtly different feel overall. Since Wallis’s love for the musical stems from her love of the book, and the somewhat serious, odd, but imaginative and intelligent Anne, who hit a quiet, staid community like a lightning bolt, she wants to perform a strong, independent Anne. Based on first appearances at least, I have no doubt she will.

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