Chris Valcho calls “Red” one of the most technically challenging and mentally grueling plays in which he has ever performed.
He also calls it his personal best.
“I’m very, very proud of what we’ve done,” Valcho said.
“Red” by John Logan, opens Sept. 27 in the Wickstrom Studio Theatre on the Centralia College Campus. This is Valcho’s second iteration of the show, which he produced a year ago at Olympia Little Theatre. He said a director friend of his first handed him a script for the show about two and a half years ago and upon first reading it, he was inspired to begin researching how to bring it to life on stage.
The two-person show follows two years in the life of famed 1950s abstract artist Mark Rothko (portrayed by Valcho) through interactions between the artist and his assistant, Ken (portrayed by Jordan Baker). The set, designed by Valcho and built by Valcho and Joe Pettit, is as close as possible a replica of a piece of Rothko’s actual New York studio. The play will even include replicas of some of Rothko’s works as well as pieces inspired by Rothko painted by Liz Frey, Centralia College professor of fine art. From the Chock Full ‘O Nuts coffee cans and paint splattered cabinets to the blue Adirondack chair, Valcho said he spent more than a year researching Rothko’s life to get even the smallest details correct.
“Everything means something,” Valcho said of the set. “It was so important because when I researched Rothko and read what his son has written about him, he was a very mysterious man. I wanted to have the audience believe they were really watching a 1950s studio with Rothko in it. I wanted to immerse myself in this as much as I possibly could so I could become Rothko and really honor him.”
Director Emmy Kreilkamp said she was drawn to “Red” first because Rothko is one of her favorite artists and when she went to see Valcho’s version of “Red” at Olympia Little Theatre last year, she knew she wanted to bring it to Centralia College. Kreilkamp and Valcho have worked together several times with Valcho playing such diverse characters as Tevya in “Fiddler on the Roof” and O’Brien in “1984”. Kreilkamp said her only reservation was that the show only has two characters, which means very few acting opportunities to offer Centralia College students. So, she decided to add the show to the front of the 2019-2020 season and make the season four shows instead of three.
“I wanted to direct this because it asks the audience to consider what is the role of art in society,” Kreilkamp said.
The story explores the mentor relationship between Rothko and Ken and how the two people grow and change in each other’s company. During the course of the story, Rothko is working on the monumental commission for the famed Seagram Murals, which hung in the now closed Four Seasons restaurant. As his fame is quickly rising, Rothko is contemplating the concept of making a living as an artist while still keeping your artistic integrity intact.
“That becomes the central part of the play,” Kreilkamp said. “What role does art have in society? Is it just for décor or should it cause us to consider what it means to be a human being? Should it evoke emotion?”
Kreilkamp said she viewed the Seagram Murals, which are still on display in New York, and said like the story of Rothko’s life, they are a true art experience. She said the colors red (hence the name of the play) and black are featured heavily in the pieces.
“It’s hard not to feel the power of the raw emotion and what those colors represent,” Kreilkamp said. “Because it’s not a representational painting, I feel like you’re not distracted by ‘oh, these are haystacks’ or ‘oh, this is a starry night.’ You just experience color on an emotional level and you’re overwhelmed by it and it pulls you in and swallows you.”
While the character of Rothko is meant to directly portray the actual artist himself, the character of Ken is more of a surrogate for the audience, Baker explained. He is a portrayal of many people Rothko may have known and worked with.
“Rothko was kind of notorious for going through multiple assistants,” Baker explained.
Ken is a young, liberal artist who starts his relationship with Rothko as a student or as someone being mentored. But the relationship between Rothko and Ken becomes more that of two artists who are individuals influenced but also challenged by one another.
“He goes through so much growth and so much change,” Baker said of Ken. “And he wants to always be growing and changing. He talks about how art should always be changing.”
One of the more challenging aspects of “Red” for Valcho and Baker was that the show is written as a piece with heavy interaction between the actors and the props on stage. Baker said he had to learn to stretch a canvas as well as how to paint. He said prior to being cast as Ken, he had never really painted and now he has fallen in love with the art form and challenged himself to continue painting after the show has concluded.
“That’s one of my favorite parts about being in plays is the research. It is fun to acquire new skills,” Baker said. “It was something I’d never done before and it was interesting to try it and say ‘actually, this is fun.’”
Because “Red” follows the life of an actual person, there are themes that parents of young theater-goers need to be aware of. There is a small amount of language in the show, as well as conversations about violent crime. Rothko died by suicide, which does not happen during the play but the subject is touched upon.