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Beaten to a Pulp

Pulp Fictions: Regional Handmade Paper Products

by Pan Wendt

This exhibition of paper-based work, curated by Shauna McCabe, inaugurates the striking new display cases in the Confederation Centre (hallway). The show continues the Confederation Centre Art Gallery's practice of using the cases to highlight objects that are not generally considered under the rubric of "art"; in the past, historical or ethnographic artifacts, functional and/or decorative works have been displayed along these walls.

In this exhibition, however, McCabe has deliberately selected works that are either sitting on the fence between the realms of high art and decorative art, or are art works that either recall functional objects or employ craft practices. Paper, or maybe just pulp, is the material around which she centres her selection.

The "fictions," beyond providing a snappy cliche for the title, are the overriding theme, as the artists concerned all appear to be grappling with the problem that what is art and what is craft is based on mythologies of function, of beauty, and of material. Most of these works revel in a confusion of function, and highlight the processes of naming and framing that are as much a part of the transformation of raw materials into whole, defined, classifiable and usable objects as are the work of the artist or craftsperson's hand.

Nigel Roe's group of bowls, apparently not, which is a group of text-covered papier mache bowls with unformed edges, and punctured by bright red dowels, confronts this question head-on in its title. Newfoundlander Helen Gregory's dirtbooks, in which thickly encrusted books open to reveal fragments from the natural world, are beautiful, if slightly overwrought variations on the theme.

The most striking works in the show are by Christine Trainor. Here a book is displayed in what seems to be a process of decomposition or dissection, paper untrimmed, loose, still raw. The book features carefully composed anatomical notes and drawings; the book itself like a dissected body; our own body as a text, as a fictive constellation of names and categories; nothing new, perhaps, but Trainor's is a singularly beautiful and powerful reworking of the theme.

The Strength of Summer

by Pan Wendt

Sky Boots, 1965, acrylic on found objects by Geoffrey Hendricks.

This summer's slate of exhibitions at the Confederation Centre is particularly strong. There are several exciting offerings that really capitalize on the expansive space of the West Gallery, as well as an enthralling selection of portraits from the permanent collection, among other highlights.

The shows are weighted toward contemporary work, and Robert Harris is rather less prominent than usual for the tourist season. For those who can't get enough of it, however, a generous fix of Harris's 19th century academic painting is provided in Conversations/ Portraits/Artists/Models/Viewers, curated by Kevin Rice. This exhibition juxtaposes portraits from the permanent collection to illuminate how representation has changed historically. It also exposes viewers to Andy Warhol's tacky/brilliant portrayal of Wayne Gretzky. Other highlights include Brian Burke's eerie and expressive 1985 painting of Milton Acorn, entitled Poet, and Yvon Gallant's hilarious Sketch For Afterbirth/La Delivre of 1998.

Upstairs is adjunct curator Andrew Hunter's Donnelly Project. Like Hunter's previous shows at the Centre, it is a kind of hybrid exhibition in which disparate objects are brought together to tell (or rather re-tell) a layered story, in this case that of a notorious crime family of 19th century southern Ontario. The booklet that accompanies the exhibition is wonderful, but the show itself doesn't always work, despite the strength of its various elements. Hunter's exhibitions often teeter on the edge of cacophony, but that can be a plus, as he offers lively and unexpected ways of experiencing objects. This time, in what I think is his weakest effort here, it doesn't quite mesh.

The Lower West Gallery features Geoffrey Hendricks' complex and fascinating Between Earth and Sky, curated by Shauna McCabe, which features the reclusive Fluxus artist's beautiful sky paintings. These are embedded among a selection of semi-autobiographical objects that include pieces of slate, old workboots painted with a skyscape, and assemblages that feature ladders reaching upward to the darkened gallery above. The show is about delicately exploring and negotiating the boundary between art and life, and fittingly it seems to exhibit a generosity and delicacy in relation to the show that occupies the metaphorical sky-space above it, Taras Polataiko's Moth.

For Moth, the windows of the Upper West Gallery were covered in dark cloth, and two giant video projections dominate the resulting blackness. On one wall is a looped video of a moth flinging itself against the video camera's light source; opposite it are the artists hands, slowly floating toward and away from the viewer in mock-creepy fashion. This show seemed sort of obvious at first, but like Polataiko's best work, it economically sets up a dramatic and reverberating interplay of ideas, rewarding repeated viewing.

Finally there is Lucy Hogg's recently installed Artist Politic, a selection of her paintings juxtaposed with Jean Paul Lemieux's ubiquitous painting Fathers of Confederation in the entrance gallery. The large paintings are seductive, witty and acerbic takes on the history of painting and representation in general, in unnatural tones of green and purple.

Pan Wendt returns to his Charlottetown home every summer. He is studying for his Doctorate in Art History at Yale University.

Dracula's Difficulty

Dracula: A Chamber Musical

by Pan Wendt

Bram Stoker's Dracula should by rights be a great companion piece for the omnipresent Anne, dealing as it does with another, very opposite, kind of Victorian story. But the subtle novel is notoriously difficult to translate into theatre, let alone musical theatre, since so much of what makes it effective is how it constantly defers the action, filters it through devices like journal entries and correspondence, and even veils its appealing title character. This difficulty haunts the Confederation Centre's production of Richard Ouzounian's Dracula: A Chamber Musical.

The booklet for the show advertises that it is "More faithful to Stoker's 1897 novel than any other version," and this is to some extent true. The sets were really effective, stark, monochromatic, sheer; they combined well with the direction, in which the action was often clumped together, fairly statically, in one part of the stage. As a result, the characters and events were dwarfed by gloomy castle walls, seeming powerless to resist their destinies. And the production rarely drifts into the kind of campy gore and silly special effects we've seen in so many theatrical and film versions of the story, focusing instead on establishing its mood along the lines of Stoker's minimal approach.

The low-key sets, costumes and direction contrasted awkwardly with the histrionics (even cacophony) of many of the musical numbers, however. In many of the scenes the mood just began to get nicely eerie when suddenly the whole cast broke out in riotous song. Often one wonders if the musical wouldn't have worked better with less singing in general, and more of the sad, evocative string and piano ensemble. This was particularly a problem at the beginning of the show, which probably should have been slower and more drawn out, to create a bit more expectation from the audience.

The actors struggled mightily to make something of this conundrum, as well as the somewhat indifferent lyrics of many of the songs, and often the performances were very convincing. Jay Davis, as Dracula, was one of the strongest performers, displaying just the right combination of physical passivity and menacing strength for a vampire. Despite some inconsistent moments, he usually generated a lot of dramatic tension, as by rights Dracula should. And Jennifer Toulmin is a strong Lucy Westenra. The best performance was that of Terry Hatty, as the mad apprentice vampire, Dr. Renfield, who provided a mesmerizing rendition of the most interesting (and least reminiscent of The Phantom of the Opera) musical number in the whole show, "The Spider and the Fly." The only complaint one could make about the acting was that the accents weren't always up to snuff.

In the end though, despite the fact that the show really wasn't scary, the small but enthusiastic audience loved it, cheering at the climax of the most over-the-top songs, and jumping up without hesitation for a long standing ovation.

Exceptional Anne

Anne of Green Gables-The Musical™

Review by Pan Wendt

I've seen Anne of Green Gables many times, but this year it was a treat, and not only because Lucy was old enough to accompany me. The show was a little long for her anyway; she's only four, and halfway through the second act she was fast asleep. But she wasn't the only one grinning through the first act. This season's incarnation of Anne of Green Gables starts on a high note and never lets up.

This might be attributable to last year's decision to recreate original director/choreographer Alan Lund's production. Artistic Director Duncan McIntosh believes that the original intent of the show's creators has nearly been achieved with this year's version. Certainly it jumps out and entertains, without any embarassment about it. The choreographed dance numbers are pure fun and display a consistently light touch. The jokes, especially in their physical aspect, are played to the hilt.

When one considers that Anne can at times be a pretty syrupy story, loaded with melodrama and weepy moments, the sheer pace and entertainment punch of this year's production is pretty impressive. The timing is wonderful. There are genuinely heartbreaking moments, but they last just long enough to draw us in and then quickly wrench us into another intense emotion.

Jennifer Toulmin, as Anne, was perfect for this kind of show. She demonstrated excellent comic timing, and the ability to shift emotional gears quickly. Sometimes she overdid the vein-popping facial expressions, but one had to admit by the end of the evening that she had literally dominated the stage, all the way to the final bows and curtsies.

Other standouts included Lisa Lennox, a strong, confident Diana Barry, Judy Marshak, who navigated the complex role of Marilla Cuthbert with exceptional aplomb, and the whole crew of gleefully gossipy and judgmental characters that so convincingly (those who aren't locals, trust me) define the social sphere of Island life. Jay Davis was a very weird, even awkward Mr.Phillips, but he provided some of the funniest moments in the whole show.

All in all it was an exceptional night of entertainment. After all these years you can't beat it, and the producers of this show must be given credit for continuing to bring lightness and liveliness to Anne of Green Gables, which might very well be a cliché by now. With this year's production, they have outdone themselves.

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