Woody Guthrie's American Song: Up with the People

State Theatre
through April 20
Running time: 1 hr, 45 min

photograph by John Anderson

Hard roads. Hard ground. Hard labor. Hard times. This land of ours may be a land of plenty and of opportunity, but it's hard in many places and hard on many of the people living in them. Woody Guthrie knew that. He knew that hard firsthand -- in the dry, cracked earth of Dust Bowl Oklahoma and Texas, in the unsheltered migrant camps of California, on the concrete sidewalks of New York's Bowery, on the asphalt byways linking those places -- and he saw what it did to folks who had to face it every day. Guthrie knew hard, and he felt a need to talk about it and write about it and sing about it.

This theatrical presentation devoted to Woody Guthrie and his work takes us back to experience part of that hard world. In songs and other writings collected and culled by Peter Glazer, we hear tales of Guthrie's life and the lives of people he met. These sounds are reinforced with images projected at the back of the stage, photographs of women and men who endured the Depression and the hardness in the land, their faces deeply lined by that life. The production provides a potent evocation of the era, its terrible strain and what a struggle it was to survive then. And if we allow ourselves to think about it, it reminds us what a struggle it is for some to survive now.

But while Woody Guthrie's American Song might be valuable just as a history lesson/comment on the underclass, there's more at work here than that; there's also a testament to the human spirit. Guthrie may have hated the hard life, may have hated it with a passion (a passion well recreated in the fiery eyes and voice of William Walden here), but he saw that it didn't necessarily breed hard hearts. In those barren towns and crowded camps and Bowery bars, amidst the hard, he saw hope, and he put that in his songs, too. In this Live Oak Theatre at the State production, we hear it, feel it, in the duets of Gretchen Kingsley and Boni Hester, their voices as sweet as larks in a summer twilight; in the easygoing charm of Billy Henry; and in the rustic authority and country openness of Steven Fromholz. Fromholz is on home ground here -- in the music, in the politics, in this world -- and he imbues the piece with his whole self, so much so that his climactic rendition of "This Land Is Your Land" is truly a crowning moment. It fulfills the promise of all that preceded it, acknowledging the pain of the hard places, but then rising upward on wings of hope until it positively soars. Musical director/director Allen Robertson has ensured that Guthrie's legacy is served here with honesty and heart.

There is a slightly surreal aspect to this production; it's strange to be watching a show about the downtrodden and dispossessed in a theatre charging up to $18 a head for the experience (which may say as much about financial support for the arts in this country as anything). But if the alternative is to let the words and music of Woody Guthrie gather dust in a library, to let the faces of the Depression go unseen for another generation, we suffer a much greater loss leaving them outside the theatre's doors.

-- Robert Faires


501 Complex
through May 1

Best Gal by Layne Jackson

Seeing Layne Jackson's oil paintings in the hallway of the 501 Complex, I was struck by their similarity to Bob "Daddy-O" Wade's enlarged, airbrushed old photographs. The mood of Jackson's works -- easygoing, "day in the life" -- and the time period -- 1920s through the '50s -- make them look like cousins of Wade's popular works.

Where they differ is in their use of materials -- Jackson's thick oils lend her works an authentic antique feel, in contrast to Wade's wispy airbrush strokes -- and their fidelity to their source -- where Wade actually enlarges and paints old photos, Layne only models her paintings after photographs, allowing her more flexibility with design and composition. Her works feature smiling, vibrant women -- cheek to cheek with a beau, shoulder to shoulder with a girlfriend -- who portray a June Cleaver-esque innocent contentment. "I love finding images of strong women doing what makes them happy," Jackson says of the collection. "It feels great to bring them back to life through my paintings."

Best Gal features a couple at a dance, holding each other close, perhaps a little surprised by the camera. Her feathered head piece and the cone-shaped hat on the man in the distance hint at a New Year's Eve party. You can almost hear Frankie Avalon crooning in the background. In Belle, an Audrey Hepburn-type gal in a fitted blue dress, a fur hanging over her arm and a dainty purse dangling from her hand, is flanked by two men in uniform, each kissing a cheek. The piece, like all the pieces in this collection, resonates with the feel of the good ol' days -- like the photos in your parents' high school yearbook. -- Cari Marshall


West Sixth Street
permanent display

If you walk into Idea City, the new home for monster ad agency GSD&M on West Sixth Street, watch your head, because a soaring longhorn steer might be taking a nose-dive right at ya. Who, you might wonder, is responsible for the suspended, elephant-sized steer? The Skagen Brakhage team, of course -- the same guys responsible for, among other in-your-face sculptures around town, the giant blue genie crowning the Skagen Brakhage workshop on South First Street.

Scattered around that workshop at the moment are portions of the longhorn in the form of chalk-white hunks of foam -- the head on a table, an ear on the floor. When assembled, the colorful, larger-than-life-size steer will complete the mammoth piece of art which Rory Skagen and Billy Brakhage are creating in GSD&M's new space. Phase one of the work is finished; a mural, featuring a cowboy with lariat at the ready, sprawls across a 20' x 60' wall beneath a 30-foot-high domed space within the building. Phase two, which is scheduled to be complete by next week, will have the cowboy's left arm (lasso in hand) and leg jutting from the wall into the room (this is where the Styrofoam comes in), and the lasso -- a long, narrow piece of welded steel wrapped in neon light -- arching toward the ceiling, where it will encircle said steer, which will be suspended from the dome by wires, poised as though it has just come crashing in from the sky (and with a look of utter surprise on its face). Whew.

The spectacular installation is more than just an over-the-top Western-themed piece of art. "They (GSD&M) wanted something that was a metaphor for what they do," said Skagen. So, beneath this massive work lies a metaphor -- that of "roping someone in" -- for the advertising agency that houses it. -- Cari Marshall


Synergy Studio
April 4-6, 1997

Dayna Hanson and Gaelen Hanson thrive on the edges of things. These two women who make up 33 Fainting Spells, a Seattle-based dance company, carefully walk the perimeter of a solid wood table and precariously balance on the top of a ladder. Props have personalities in the mystical world that they have created, a world in which a dancing partner can fall from the ceiling, whether it is a drop of water or a breathing human being. It is a magical experience watching these two at work, simply for their willingness to experiment with three-dimensional objects and find ingenious ways of using them.

photograph by Peter Mumford

In a way, the piece is refreshing in its clear intentions. The Uninvited is a finished work, finished in the sense that all of the pieces have been joined and polished to a mirror-like sheen, a tribute to the strength and skill of the dancers. But this finished quality does not squash the ebullience of the dancers; instead, it feeds the laughing life lurking beneath these carefully constructed movement phrases. This spirit draws you into the relationship between these two women, which uses as its framework a loose story about an uninvited guest, Gaelen Hanson, who drops in -- literally -- on a woman bound by the earth, Dayna Hanson. But there are tiny and enthralling dramas buried beneath the larger frame that stick with you for days, particularly Gaelen Hanson's dance with two glasses of water that carries a myriad of meanings and a light spirit.

But their dance also manages to transcend the mere movements. It is honest. It has a sense of humor about itself. And, above all else, it is carefully crafted and full of joy. Hanson and Hanson look as though they are having a wonderful time sharing their dance. They want you to come with them and give you plenty of opportunities to mentally enter their magical dance. -- Adrienne Martini

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