The moment he read “Red,” Coe College theater professor Steven Marc Weiss knew he had to stage it. The moment he read it, Josh Beadle knew he had to direct it. The moment Weiss called former student Brandon Palmer in Denver, Colo., the young theater artist knew he had to join his mentor onstage.The script that captured their creative spirits is John Logan’s “Red,” winner of the 2010 Tony Award for Best Play. It’s a look at the two years acclaimed abstract artist Mark Rothko spent in the late 1950s creating a series of paintings to wrap around the new Four Seasons Restaurant in Manhattan’s Seagram Building. Each canvas is red. But don’t think primary, rainbow red. These paintings span the spectrum from orange to a nearly black burgundy. They’re dark, ominous and from a distance, look like a simple box within a box or vertical lines within a box within a box. Up close, the nuances, brush strokes and colors spring to life, thanks to careful recreation by Peter Thompson, chairman of the Coe College Art Department. Weiss and Beadle were so fired up over taking the play outside a traditional theatrical setting that they formed a troupe, On Location Players, and found their ideal location in the Cherry Building, 329 10th Ave. SE. “Red” will spring to life April 19 to 22 in Stephanie Brandenburg’s art studio, Room 318 in the renovated 1919 dairy equipment manufacturing plant that now serves as a hub of creativity in Cedar Rapids’ New Bohemia neighborhood. The seating area will accommodate about 50 people. Mel Andringa steered Weiss toward the loft spaces at the Cherry Building. He fell in love the moment Lijun Chadima, one of the building’s owners, showed him the studio site. “I walked in and it was magic,” Weiss says. “It just immediately said this is the space for this play. It just feels like this play.” That’s the same kind of reaction Beadle had when he read the script. “The first thing that resonated with me with this play, there are probably a handful of scripts — five or six — that I believe are just pitch-perfect — they’re just perfectly written. This is one of those,” says Beadle, 27, of Iowa City, who divides his time between the local arts scene and graduate studies in arts administration through Goucher College in Baltimore. “Each scene builds beautifully off the other. It’s like a system of reveals,” he says. “And the interplay between Ken and Rothko — you can’t get better character-building, relationship-building in a show. “What’s great for me is that not only is it well written, but the discussion on the nature of creation and how people create things ... how each artist has a completely different process from another,” Beadle says during a recent rehearsal. “How when you encounter somebody else’s processes, your expectations are that you’ll have a rapport with them, but once you realize what they do, that’s not necessarily true.” “It’s visceral,” says Weiss, 62, of Cedar Rapids, who plays the late Rothko, a famously temperamental 20th century artist at the forefront of the abstract movement. Palmer, a May 2010 Coe graduate, plays his assistant, Ken, berated in Rothko’s fiery tirades, then joining him in a most delicious dance as he learns and grows in his own artistic pursuit. “He’s an overeager undergraduate trying to find himself,” Palmer says. His character is based largely on Dan Rice, who helped with the murals project. “‘Red’ is not just about a mentor and apprentice, it goes deeper,” Weiss says. “The play talks about supplanting one generation of artists with another. Rothko is proud of the fact that he and the others stomped cubism to death. “In the course of this play, pop art comes into being and threatens abstract expressionism,” Weiss says. “Now he’s upset this superficial art, as he calls it, this superficial sewage called pop art, should be so popular and hanging on the same walls as Rothko and de Kooning.” Artistic consultant Thompson spent about 40 hours over spring break to create four paintings based on Rothko’s work. “I agreed to do this because it fascinated me to think about what the process is like,” says Thompson, 53, of Cedar Rapids. “I get to play an artist in a way. I play Rothko, I get to inhabit him as an artist. I figure that will stretch me as an artist. ... There reached a point, though, where I realized I had to stop trying to copy Rothko and start trying to think like Rothko.” That’s not so easy, since they paint in very different styles. “Rothko is an abstract painter, I am a realist,” says Thompson, known for his paintings of bar scenes and musicians, like the orchestra paintings gracing the Paramount Theatre before the flood. “Rothko paints with colors that are very close in value and in hue, and my paintings tend to have quite a bit more value contrast in particular, and quite the brighter hues. One thing we have in common is that my paintings have tended to be dark.” The entire project, funded by a $2,000 Creative Endeavors grant from Coe, has been a labor of love for all, including Thompson. “I’ve enjoyed being ‘in the studio’ with Rothko, really making the paintings,” he says. “(Also) I have a little bit of theater background, and the whole idea of figuring out how something like this is going to play is fascinating.” He’s coached the actors in how to stretch and prime a canvas, as well as how to mix and apply paint. But audiences beware: When passions and paint fly, some may land in your lap or on your shoes, so dress accordingly.
— Diana Nollen
WHAT: On Location Players presents “Red”
- WHEN: 8 p.m. April 19 to 22
- WHERE: Stephanie Brandenburg Studios, Room 318, Cherry Building, 329 10th St. SE, Cedar Rapids
- COST: $10 to $15 through (319) 621-0024
- DETAILS: Contains strong language, not appropriate for children; contains smoking of non-tobacco, herbal cigarettes; paint will be used and may splatter