The Billings Outpost

Culture seekin’ in the city

By WILBUR WOOD - For The Outpost

We make lists before we drive into the city, lists of things we can not get, or do, in the town where we live.

Our list for Friday, March 2, asked questions like: where to find organic whole wheat flour, in bulk? Also, where – since our decades-old CD player has died – can we find some place that still sells this technology?

(Fortunately our older tape player and even older turntable can still coax sound out of our speakers.)

Also on the list: dropping off No. 1 and No. 2 plastic containers at the recycling center (no pay for this, but we’re glad some recyclers in our part of the world will take them).

Leave plastic, bring growler

We end up leaving the plastic at home, but we do bring an empty half-gallon glass bottle – called a growler – to refill with beer at one of the local brew pubs. Since we cannot, by state law, do that until 4 p.m., our list also charts our course around the city.

Where we pick up big bags of catfood is near where we’ll fill our car with the cheapest gas in the region.

Where we find good day-old bread, at a discount, is a deli situated between the two local colleges, where we aim to catch a couple of art shows. So today’s list includes culture.

Not that our town is bereft of culture; we’ve just seen a fine exhibition in the lobby of Roundup Memorial Hospital: abstract paintings on wood, a new departure for the upscale furniture craftsman Troy Evans, who lives in our town – but on this day we also have tickets for the opening night of a Billings Studio Theater musical production – a recent big hit in New York – called “Spring Awakening.”

So, before the play – and before filling the growler – we need to catch a show of quilts at Rocky Mountain College and at Montana State University Billings, the amazing surrealistic photographs of Jean Albus.

Quilting as ‘evolving fiber art’

The quilt show is called “Broad Spectrum” with works by artists from Montana and Idaho, including Brook Atherton, Wanda Nelson and Barb Olson from Billings. It’s been hanging since Feb. 17 in the Ryniker-Morrison Gallery in RMC’s Tech Hall.

We knew we’d have to miss Barb Olson’s talk there, on March 6, about “her evolution from quilter to quilt artist” and “the tools that helped her understand her life’s purpose and how those tools expanded her creativity” (in the words of RMC curator Sally McIntosh), but we wanted to see the range of works – many landscapes, expertly executed, but we both tended to prefer several abstract pieces – before the show comes down March 30.

By then, as indicated in a “Fiber Spring” brochure we picked up at RMC, a national traveling exhibit called ”Creative Force: The Studio Art Quilt” will be up at the Yellowstone Art Museum (from March 22 to June 10).

On April 27 YAM will host a talk by fiber artist Sandra Sider, president of Studio Art Quilt Association, who will talk about “this rapidly evolving area within the textile arts.”

At YAM another area of fiber arts will be featured on April 22, when Annemar Sundbo will lead a class on “Knitting Directly from the Fleece of Norwegian Wild Sheep,” followed by a talk by Sundbo on April 26 on “Norwegian Symbolism and the History of Norwegian Knitting” and two other classes by Sundbo, on spinning and designing mittens, April 28 and 29.

Other weaving and hand-spinning events will occur at various venues into May.  Contact YAM for more information.

Jean Albus at MSU Billings

“What Else Is There to Say about the Land?” is Jean Albus’ name for an exhibition of 24 large photographic constructions. A photo in The Outpost of Feb. 16 showed a red strapless gown, no body inside it, floating in an overcast sky over brown fields and low blue hills covered with snow. I’ve been catching images like this in newspapers and elsewhere for a year or two.  Albus has had shows around Montana and the wider region lately; Elizabeth saw several of her works not long ago in Red Lodge. We both wanted to spend more time with her recent work.

Twenty-four pieces line the walls of Northcutt-Steele Gallery in the Liberal Arts Building on the MSU Billings campus. “Pink Clouds” are draperies filling the sky over a swath of prairie landscape. In “Sunset” the draperies flare red-orange, flapping in the wind in front of an evening sky.

In “Black Ice” more drapery, or perhaps an undergarment, flimsy white, rests on a snow-covered slope amidst black and yellow bushes and black trunks of trees.

“I Hear the Cricket Singing” brings back a strapless gown, this one dark blue, sprawling on a swath of cracked, dried mud bordered by green grass.  Another gown appears to be “Emerging” out of coal-like ground, faintly outlined, little points of magenta and turquoise suggesting what may become visible.

Or not. Here are two red booted legs lying in grass. What has happened to the person who is wearing them? We cannot see the rest of her. What else is there to say about these images except: “Experience them.”

The show comes down March 16, just a few days before spring equinox. Which brings us to the play called “Spring Awakening.”

Risky and worth it

Billings Studio Theater has been stretching its repertoire in recent years – yet, under the direction of Eric Hendricks, becoming financially successful in an era of difficulty for community theaters around the country. Hendricks for a time supplemented the usual BST fare – standard Broadway shows like “The Sound of Music,” slapstick comedies like “Noises Off,” serious theater like “Twelve Angry Men” – with “dark night” plays of a more experimental nature.

BST’s new director, A.J. Kalanick, has done a little of both with “Spring Awakening” - Broadway success but pushing some limits of language and subject matter. This seemed to us more like the kind of play Venture Theater might tackle - and indeed, several of the actors have appeared in Venture productions.

The show runs through March 18. Kalanick directed, with choreography by Stephen Hrubes and Jayme Green, and musical direction by Donna Ayers (keyboardist in the cookin’ five-person band). Before the show Kalanick stood up to praise his cast as the most talented he’s ever worked with. About talent he was right, and after some first-night, first-act problems with microphones were solved, the energetic acting and compelling singing rang out unimpeded.

In this play about conflict between generations, the language of the youth is very contemporary and – in the ears of the adults in the play – profane. It probably seems profane, as well, to the ears of many in the audience; however, this first night crowd, ranging from teenagers to octogenarians, seemed to have heard in advance about the simulated girl-boy sex scene, the homoerotic seduction scene, and came here voluntarily, ready to applaud.

There was plenty to applaud.

The adults in the play – several roles played by one “adult female” and one “adult male” changing costumes and voices – speak formally, stiffly. They remind me of parents and teachers in the 1950s, like Mr. H., an eighth-grade math teacher in our school who did not hesitate to call a miscreant student to the front of the class, order him (never a her) to extend his palm and suffer a sharp, stinging whack! Discipline like this would be impossible today.

So we get the language of authority as it sounded in 1950s America and also, presumably, in 1890s Germany, where the original play was written by Frank Widekind - written but too controversial to be performed until, more than a century later, it was repurposed as a musical for Broadway. Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik won Tony Awards in 2007 for “best book of a musical” and “best original score” along with numerous other awards and accolades.

The kids in the play speak and sing a different language. Though the five female characters mostly wear long dresses and the six young males mostly wear gray uniforms and boots (except when they appear in undergarments), they are uppity enough to call the authority figures The Parentocracy.

Though portrayed as naive enough not to know exactly where babies come from, they are adolescents on a quest for meaning, and they yearn for connection both physical and spiritual with others in their circle. Their response to adult tyranny erupts in some kick-butt rock ’n’ roll from a tight five-piece band that backs song-dance numbers with titles like “The Bitch of Living,”  “My Junk,” “Don’t Do Sadness,” and “Totally Fucked.”

The subject matter is Sex and Death, to the accompaniment of physical abuse, pressure to succeed in school, lustful attraction overcoming shyness, rejection, a suicide, a botched abortion fatal to both fetus and mother, and punishment for acts that do not seem like crimes.

In the dark I jotted down some of the lines and lyrics:

• “How can your mother show her face at the missionary society? What will I tell them at the bank? ...  I’m glad my own father did not live to see this day!”

• “Oh we’re going to be wounded / Oh I’m going to be your wound

Oh we’re going to be bruised / Oh I’m going to be  your bruise”

• “The preacher issues warnings ...”

• “He only yearned

    for that little bit of paradise...-”

• “And he touched me,

    And I let him love me,

    And let that be my story ...”

• “We will build that world together, for our child ...”

• “— died? Of anemia?”

• “All alone but still I hear their yearning”

• “Not gone ... not gone...”

Two deaths and a male lead character who is discouraged from slitting his throat, beside the grave of his lover, by the interceding of her ghost and the ghost of a friend who, earlier, shot himself in the head: It’s a sad trajectory, but it does move toward some kind of hope.

During the mingling and consuming of snacks and drinks traditionally set out in the lobby after a first night performance, we saw Rita Heizer – who has worked for something like five decades at BST, and recently was brilliant in BST’s production of “The Trip to Bountiful.” She was going from young actor to young actor, five decades younger than herself, earnestly congratulating them on their performances. Elizabeth and I agreed: This is a production well worth seeing.

Outside, heading to the car for our 50-mile drive home, we began discussing not the performance but the text of this play. In some ways it reminded us of “Hair” - a cast full of young people, pushing some limits.

“If ‘Hair’ was the musical of an earlier generation,” Elizabeth asked, “is this the musical of the current generation?”

And if so, she continued, why is it still about much of the stuff we were dealing with in the ’60s? Why deal with the same old conflicts? Why not some truly transformative vision that relates to the crucial issues of this moment? Why not a play evolving out of the current “Occupy” movement? What would that look and sound like?


Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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