Contrast that temporality and contingency with a certain room in an art museum near Philadelphia. The only thing in it that has changed in 53 years are the people who come and stand before a priceless collection of Impressionists, including Matisse, Cezanne and Renoir. Their works hang, suspended in perfect juxtaposition, exquisitely balanced to indicate the reciprocal influences each artist had upon the others. In their midst, a grouping of two African tribal masks and two sculpted African wooden figures.
By codicil, nothing can be added or taken from this room. Except, of course, the people.
That detail ultimately proves the crux of Thomas Gibbons' polemical drama permanent collection . Deep Dish Theater's current production of it opens their new season on an auspicious note.
Gibbons' work is loosely based upon the recent art world controversy concerning the Barnes Foundation's move from the suburbs to inner-city Philadelphia. In short order, the leadership at an art museum changes from founder Alfred Morris, a rich white pharmaceutical magnate with a prescient eye for modern art, through his proxy, Paul Barrow, a white art historian and academic, to Sterling North, an African-American businessman, a former vice-president for corporate communications with no experience in art administration.
During an introductory tour through the museum's "storage department"--a basement which houses works that are never seen--North finds a notable group of wooden African figures. Upon proposing that eight of them be displayed somewhere in the museum, he learns that the exhibits cannot be changed, under the terms of Morris' will.
Intransigence sets in on both sides of the issue. A curator, backed by the law, insists on the "artistic integrity" of Morris' original vision, while North demands that cultural art works not seen in half a century be made available to the public.
Though on the face of it, Gibbons' work seems preoccupied with race, it also deftly explores issues involving aesthetics, economics and control. Who decides--or is permitted to decide--what is "beautiful" and what has value? Who gets to see such items and under what conditions? How available--or answerable--are they to contemporary culture?
North and Barrow, both admirably played here by Byron Jennings II and John Paul Middlesworth, ultimately become position people for their sides in this debate of a play.
But in this room with a view, what ironically becomes obvious are the limitations of their visions. Barrow clings to a changeless room, and a view of art that stopped somewhere in the mid-1900s. For North, it's the cynicism of a world where the roles between blacks and whites became frozen--at least for him--in the 1960s. It's left to Kanika Weaver, North's assistant (ably played by Angela Ray), to see the limits of both, and attempt to fall victim to neither.
Enormous changes at the last minute: We deferred reviewing Temple Theatre's production of My Way: A Tribute to Frank Sinatra last week after learning that medical complications had robbed the show of one of four on-stage performers less than one week before it opened. David Grapes and Todd Olson's musical revue divides the Chairman's songs between two women and two men, a balance that was overturned when Patrick Ryan Sullivan, Temple's new associate artistic director and the director of this production, was forced to step into the fourth role a few days before it bowed.
At Thursday's matinee, a confident opening to "Strangers in the Night" seemed to signal that Sullivan and colleagues Melvin Tunstall III, Kevin Worley and Cassandra Vallery had weathered the shakedown cruise of the weekend before. But the difficulties that followed had us questioning just how many of this show's woes could be blamed on a last-minute change of cast.
Two weeks should have given music director Darren Server time to realize that many of Sullivan's songs were keyed too far beneath (or, occasionally, above) his vocal range. Though he was convincing and dramatic on "One for My Baby," we strained to hear him excavate the low notes in songs including "I Love Paris," "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "Love and Marriage," and later watched him strain his way through the improbably high-pitched "You Go to My Head" and "Wave." These and other awkward numbers clearly could have been transposed for an on-stage trio including Server on piano, an all but inaudible Reinette Seaman on upright bass and drummer Ted Zislis.
And we had to notice when a show that complimented Ol' Blue Eyes' breath support on stage was populated by singers noticeably lacking in this department. Melvin Tunstall III has a melting, lyrical, soulful vocal quality. The problem? This lasts until the moment he starts to move, when breathing problems decimate his ability to stay in tune. From his delicious, tender work on "Where and When," "Young at Heart" and "It Was a Very Good Year," it's clear: This musician and actor has too much promise and charisma for this problem to remain uncorrected.
Kevin Worley experienced similar tune and nasal, thin tone problems in "I've Got the World on a String" and "That Old Black Magic." His tap dance duel with Tunstall was a show stopper, but more accomplished than his hurried iteration of "That's Why the Lady Is a Tramp." It really wasn't until the show closer, "That's Life," that Worley finally came into his own, nailing a showy showpiece with complete conviction.
Cassandra Vallery presided over this problematic boy's club with velvet renditions of songs including "My Funny Valentine," but found high notes an audible challenge in "I Get a Kick out of You" and "All the Way."
Though moments like the four-part harmony of "Dream" gave us something to savor, systemic, recurring vocal problems detailed difficulties in music direction throughout.
Paperhand Puppet Intervention ends their summer occupation of UNC's Forest Theatre this weekend accompanied by special guests. The Fire Dance Collective performs after the show Saturday, Sept. 3, and Katharine Whalen's Europa Jazz closes the season with a post-show concert Sunday, Sept. 4.
***1/2 Garden of the Wild , Paperhand Puppet Intervention--The kids will enjoy the colorful menagerie of handcrafted two-story animal puppets, some requiring as many as five people to operate, and adults will connect with pointed political metaphors like "Hog Wild." But the evening's artistic high point is "Morphos," an eerie mix of choreography and mask work. In it, six puppeteers covered in stretchy black fabric portray near-human forms, with faces that move (with the masks) from the back of their heads to the tops of them, before extending to the end of their covered arms, suggesting creatures with incredibly long necks. Elsewhere, though, the cast and plot of this multi-section pageant seems noticeably thinner than last summer's Wood, Stone, Fire & Bone, though several familiar "faces" from that show reappear here, with less impact. (Forest Theater, UNC-Chapel Hill, through Sept. 4).
E-mail Byron Woods at email@example.com.