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Art Beat: 'Wizard of Oz' opens Friday

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published March 24, 2016

TBA Theatre's production of "The Wizard of Oz" will open at Wendy Williamson Auditorium on the UAA campus on Friday, March 25. The show is a staged version of the well-loved movie, complete with the songs, accompanied by a live orchestra and, says the press release, "stunning special effects." We haven't seen the effects yet, but judging from the publicity photos, someone has done a great job of replicating the costumes from the movie. Performances will take place at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through April 3. Advance tickets can be purchased at tbatheatre.org.

TBA has done good work in the past and I'm told they're especially proud of the work that's gone into this show. It goes without saying that this is a good live theater event for families with young children.

Cold War play holds up

One reason why "Wizard of Oz" has remained on the boards for a century or more is that it deals with human emotion and almost nothing else. Author L. Frank Baum was not averse to commenting on society or even politics in his children's books, but he did so very obliquely. If asked to boil down "Wizard," one might say it's about what someone does when she has to make a quick decision to survive. That message may not be as important as whether the country should switch to a silver-based currency, or whatever the big flap was 100 years ago. But it's ultimately more interesting.

In a preview article about Anchorage Community Theatre's production of "Visit to a Small Planet" we wondered how that nearly 60-year-old play would hold up. It's been a recurring weak spot when theater slips into overt advocacy. Plays that focus too tightly on current events or take sides on prevailing issues of the day often mean nothing to the next generation.

Gore Vidal's Cold War comedy, however, remains very entertaining and somewhat thought-provoking for two reasons. First, Vidal was an excellent writer of dialogue. He did a lot of work in the movies and I'm a little surprised that he didn't have a more ambitious career with stage work. Arguably, he was more comfortable with novels and essays, and the money in Hollywood was better. But it could be he was seduced into using theater as political or social commentary.

Subsequent plays included a Tony nominee, "The Best Man," about party politics in 1960, which had a good run and became a film. But "Weekend" -- a Vidalian version of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" -- flopped in 1968 and "An Evening with Richard Nixon" (1972) failed to draw a crowd even while Nixon was in the Oval Office.

But "Small Planet" remains fresh and funny. Kreton, the alien visitor who decides to whip up a war for his own amusement, has become something of a classic sci-fi type. He's like a jester/chorus/narrator, the ultimate outsider puzzled by people but drawn to them. At the same time he's a real character, given to incoherent flights of rhetoric and flaunting his superiority, having a jolly good time indulging in the frantic discomfort of our species. The "Star Trek" character Q is a slightly more mature version of him.

Rod Mehrtens has the big, giddy role in the current show. The rest of the cast features Carl Bright as the television commentator who realizes he has the scoop of the century; Andrea Staats as his wife, whose main concern is what Kreton's spaceship does to her roses; and Jim Haacke as a combat-averse general whose sincere wish is to be known as the officer who created the most efficient service-wide laundry system in military history. Grace Williams and Tai Yen Kim make credible young lovers whose concerns about war, peace and the probable end of the world take a back seat to their plans for elopement. Small roles are filled by Jeremy Johnson and Chris Wolpert.

These personal preoccupations give the author a big field of human nature to dig into, and Vidal does it masterfully, but not very deeply. The characters are television caricatures, but delightful ones. The plot is a pumped-up version of an episode of "My Favorite Martian" or "Mork and Mindy," but those were hit shows. "Small Planet" may not be profound, but it is still entertaining. Some days it's enough to just save the world and get on with our lives.

The play winds up its run this weekend with performances at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are cheap and available at actalaska.org or by calling 907-344-4713.

Coming up onstage

The theater scene will get busier on April 1 when two more plays open. "Stalking the Bogeyman" will open at UAA and "Rapture, Blister, Burn" will open at Cyrano's. The latter will feature a return visit by Annia Wyndham, whose previous Anchorage credits include "Hedda Gabler," "A Gulag Mouse" and "God of Carnage." Both will run through April 24.

Arts council reshuffles conference

The Alaska State Council on the Arts has announced that the biennial statewide arts conference planned for this spring is being reworked due to budget and travel cuts. Instead, the council will use funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and private donors to create four small "cohort groups" that will meet April 28-29. A focus of the meetings will be "how to work effectively with reduced financial resources." Facilitators include Michael Rohd, executive director of the Portland, Oregon-based Center for Performance and Civic Practice and Margy Waller of Topos Partnership, a public interest communications group.

It will take place in the Hotel Captain Cook said the council's executive director, Shannon Daut, and is intended primarily for arts organizations.

Melms’ full house

Anchorage quilter Diane Melms has work showing in five shows outside Alaska this year. On display now is Art Quilt Elements at the Wayne Art Center in Wayne, Pennsylvania, closing April 30.

Melms' quilts are also included in Seasonal Palette, a major traveling show that opened in Houston, Texas, in 2012 and will next be displayed at the Taiwan International Quilt Exhibition in the National Tainan Living Art Center from April 30-May 29 before going to the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where it will be displayed July 1-Aug. 31. It's already shown at sites from California to Brazil.

Another traveling show, Radical Elements -- which debuted in Silver Springs, Maryland, in 2014 -- will be up at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., from May 18-Oct. 19 before moving on to venues in Florida and Texas.

Additional quilts by Melms can be seen in The Artist as Quiltmaker XVII (also known as AQM) at the Fireland Association for the Visual Arts in Oberlin, Ohio, which goes on view May 15 and continues through July 31, and Circular Abstractions -- Bull's Eye Quilts, at the Muskegon Museum of Art in Muskegon, Michigan, opening Aug. 25.

Classical music shockers

Classical music fans were shocked on March 17 by the news that Ukrainian pianist Vadym Kholodenko, winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2013, found his daughters, ages 1 and 5, dead at the home of his estranged wife, Sofya Tsygankova, also a pianist. Tsygankova, reported to be in a state of disorientation with self-inflicted wounds when Kholodenko found her, and was charged with murder in Fort Worth, Texas, where both pianists live. A brief on Page A-2 of Thursday's Alaska Dispatch News said she has pleaded not guilty. The girls were buried on March 21.

Another shocker came last month from the online fanzine VAN, based in Berlin. In late January the publication launched its English-language edition and it didn't take long to make a splash. In it's second edition, VAN ran an interview with contemporary composer Georg Friedrich Haas in which the former Salzburg Festival fellow and current Columbia University professor came out as "a kinky person."

That phrase was actually from his new wife, Mollena Lee Williams-Haas, a prominent lecturer and activist in alternative sex activities. Haas said they met on the OkCupid website. "I don't need to be ashamed of my orientation," Haas told VAN. "I don't mind if it's discussed in public." He then went on to talk about how accepting his orientation has affected his music, mostly by making him more comfortable in his daily life.

The New York Times noticed the VAN piece and published its own interview on Feb. 23. Although he is well-known in the little world of avant garde serious music, we suspect it's the first time most people ever heard of him and we don't doubt that the publicity will bring more attention to performances of his music -- probably for reasons that have nothing to do with the music.

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