Sunday, March 25, 2012

In Response to the Scenery

Brian David Downs at the Ochre Ghost
Last night at the Ochre Ghost the Northland was treated to new work by the talented and imaginative Brian David Downs. I arrived impatiently early, looking forward to taking as much of it in as possible before heading down to the annual Chicken Hat Plays at the Harbor City International School Theater. Both events exceeded my expectations, which were already high.

My cousin, a lifelong fireman, described for me the emotions of a fire run. First comes the alarm, the call to action. Your adrenalin begins pumping immediately, but since there as so many false alarms in a fireman's experience there is also an internal check valve. But as soon as the truck arrives on the scene and you see the smoke billowing out an upstairs window, a gusher of adrenaline fills your brain and a hyper-intense focused engagement follows.

In the same way, when I approach an art event it begins with this same initial rush of adrenalin. Then, last night as I stood face-to-face with Downs' pictures, his work billowed with flames licking the adrenaline valve. So many of the drawings offered so much, yet were presented so simply.

An ice chest with beer had been set in the corner. Downs was seated in a chair near the door that takes one to the back room of the small space, a thin young man with wavy dark hair, dark sunglasses, light skin and unkempt beard, but a warm aura. He received his Bachelor's of Fine Arts in 2009, graduating Cum Laude from St. Cloud State.

There was a quiet musical accompaniment in the background. A man seated with his back to the large window played an electric guitar in the manner of an undulating sea of submerged harmonics which served up these images from Downs' subconscious reservoirs. Think Dali in terms of distinct images that serve a recurring themes in many of the pieces, particularly the shrunken heads. Some of the work reminded me of Escher's treatments, especially Escher's Metamorphosis. The style had no Escheresqueness other than perhaps some the linear fluidity and attention to detail, but there was a similar arc in their thinking.

But Downs said his strongest influence was Bosch, and one could see it everywhere. Even the names of Downs' shows reflect Bosch, whose famous tryptich featured titles like Heaven, and Hell, to escort The Garden of Earthly Delights. We discussed this briefly and I pondered how the work of one significant painter from five centuries ago continues to influence new generations of artists today. I became stunningly aware of his work more than four decades ago, and the here is a new generation finding inspiration from the long dead Dutch master.

See more work by Brian David Downs at his website.

The Chicken Hat Plays
If you think Dr. Seuss had fun inventing stories and all those whimsical characters for young people (of all ages), you're probably right. For people with unbounded imagination, inventing stories is a blast. And having an enthusiastic audience appreciate those stories is even more of a blast. This is what the Chicken Hat plays are about. You're a playright, and in less than 24 hours you will see your work performed before a live audience. There's no better barometer than a live audience.

Based on the response of last night's audience, we have a really talented pool of writers, directors and actors here. It was seriously fun.

First off, what a surprise to discover yet another wonderful theater space here in the Twin Ports. In recent years we’ve seen the addition of The Play Ground at the Tech Village, and Teatro Zuccone at the Zeitgeist Arts Building. And in 2009

The program begins by announcing, “What you are about to see did not exist 24 hours ago.”

First off, what a surprise to discover yet another wonderful theater space here in the Twin Ports. In recent years we’ve seen the addition of The Play Ground at the Tech Village, and Teatro Zuccone at the Zeitgeist Arts Building. And in 2007 a raw space down on Michigan Street underwent the transformation of becoming a charter school into which was incorporated a 160-seat theater space, thanks to a collaboration between Wagner Zaun Architecture and Scalzo Architects. These kinds of investments in the arts are just the kind of thing that makes community insiders hopeful about the direction our city is taking.

The house was packed as Brian Matuszak, a veteran of the local comedy theater scene and primary force behind Rubber Chicken Theater, opened the show with this declaration: “What you are about to see did not exist 24 hours ago.”

For those not familiar with this event, it goes like this. Eight writers have to create original plays which incorporate certain elements thatthey draw randomly from a hat. Call it Saturday Night Live meets Dada. Except even Saturday Night Live writers and directors have a week to prepare.

Each playwright must incorporate a who, a what and a where, and also a required line that all the plays must deliver, woven naturally into the story. This last twist gave an almost breathlessly comedic enhancement as the audience would begin to anticipate the required line. Last night's required line was, "It's curtains for you."

The first play was called A Playwright's Revenge. The surrealistic story rivaled Ionesco and the actors could carry Broadway. Written by Michael Maki and directed by Lawrence Bernabo, the Who was Maria von Trapp, the What was an Irish wristwatch, and the Where was The National Scattegories Championship. The acting was quite astonishing as each member of the four-person team seemed outdone by the next.

Well, so it was throughout the evening, one surprisingly good performance after another. The rest of the plays carried these titles: Plastic Cup Discussions, Also Spracht Sunkist (a play that had to incorporate a singing orange!), The State of the City (another unbelievably hilarious assembly), The Keanu Reeves School of Acting, First Date at Melvin's, Jurassic Park 5: Salvaging the Rex, and Barney Stinson Makes a Friend.

For what it's worth, you'll probably have to wait a year to see another round of Chicken Hat Plays. But you won't have to wait that long to see more entertainment by the Rubber Chicken Theater. In mid-April, Greg J. Anderson will be directing Steve Martin's "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" at the Play Ground Theater. I can't wait.

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