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'Red' brings performing and visual arts together at CST

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It is perhaps fitting that the actors asked to portray painters on stage are themselves painters, for they could better understand what such artists go through in their lives.

Well, that sounds good at least.

(Photo by Paul Gordon) Clark Rians portrays abstract expressionist Mark Rothko in the award-winning drama "Red," which opens Jan. 11 at Corn Stock Theatre's Winter Playhouse. Rians, shown here during a recent dress rehearsal as Rothko contemplating a painting in front of him, shaved the top of his head to more accurately portray the look of Rothko. "I'm not sure anybody could really understand Mark Rothko. He was very complex," said Clark Rians, the veteran Peoria actor who will portray Rothko in Corn Stock Theatre's production of "Red," which opens on Friday, Jan. 11.

By the same token, Rians said, "I have read a lot about Rothko and have found him to be both sympathetic and repellent. He was either a prince or a schmuck. But it is obvious he was absolutely a driven perfectionist."

"Red," written by John Logan, is the story of a brief period in the life of Rothko, once one of this country's top abstract expressionists. The play covers two years in the late 1950s while Rothko and his young assistant Ken work to complete a series of murals for New York's famed Four Seasons restaurant. When Rothko was commissioned to create the murals it was the largest commission in the history of modern art.

It starts with Ken first coming to work for Rothko and follows his own growth as a person and an artist as he learns from and often challenges the master, Rothko. At the same time audiences witness the effect Ken has on Rothko, including being forced to face "the agonizing possibility that his crowning achievement could also become his undoing," according to Corn Stock's description of "Red."

The play won the Tony Award as Best Play in 2010.

Director Victoria Kapanjie-Rians said it is important that audiences realize "Red" is not just about art, but about the relationship of the two characters and how they affected each other and how they each grew as a result.

"This play is so much about the human condition," said Kapanjie-Rians, who first saw "Red" and Broadway and knew them she wanted to direct it at Corn Stock. "I felt this play would fit so well in this space (at the Winter Playhouse) It is such a good script, so tightly written."

There is one big difference between what she saw on Broadway and the way she is directing "Red," however. "The actor who portrayed Rothko on Broadway, Alfred Molina, was great but he played him angry the whole time. It is true Rothko was moody and self-absorbed but people have said he was also often gregarious and liked to joke. I mean, he taught art to children for 20 years," Kapanjie-Rians said.

"We want to play him with levels," she added.

The role of Ken, portrayed at Corn Stock by Andrew Jon Rhodenbaugh, is actually a composite of different assistants who worked for Rothko, she said.(Photo by Paul Gordon) Andrew Jon Rhodenbaugh, right, portrays Ken, the assistant to expressionist artist Mark Rothko, played by Clark Rians, left, in the Corn Stock Theatre production of "Red." The play opens Jan. 11 and will have five performances.

"Red" talks about the sometimes depressing life of an artist and brings to the forefront the masters who commited suicide or died tragically yound. It even perhaps foreshadows Rothko's own suicide, even though that didn't occur for 12 years after he completed the murals, she said.

"There are some universal themes that speak to people, about life and about relationships. It can at times be uplifting," Kanpanjie-Rians said.

Clark Rians, whose day job is that of an orthopedist, is himself an abstract expressionist in his spare time and has studio space at the Contemporary Art Center in downtown Peoria. The art that adorns the walls of the Winter Playhouse are duplicates of Rothko paintings that Rians did in his garage.

The theatre itself has been transformed to represent the studio in the Bowery, complete with a working old-time record player, liquor bottles, different kinds and colors of paints and even ashtrays filled with cigarette butts. Rothko was a heavy smoker and Rians portrays that as well, though not with real cigarettes.

While all that may seem stereotypical of artists, Kapanjie-Rians said it is accurate, as is the actual painting the Rothko and Ken characters do during each performance. "This is a working play. There is manual labor involved," she said.

The title of the play comes from the fact much of Rothko's work, and indeed the murals he painted for the Four Seasons, were of different shades of red, with black designs — mostly squares or straight lines — the only other thing on the canvas.

While at first it seems the work wasn't that special, Rothko explains through his character that each painting comes to life the more one looks at it. A key line from "Red" is when the characters talk about their fears and Rothko says, "There is only one thing I fear, my friend... One day the black will swallow the red."

Rians said one of the most appealing aspects of the play was how Rothko expressed himself through his work and his words.

"I love art, particularly the abstract expressionists because the work just comes from within. To play one of them on stage is a privilege for me," Rians said.

That includes portraying Rothko, he added. "I can tell you though, after reading so much about him, that he would not be satisfied with this play or with my portrayal of him, nor of anybody else's portrayal of him. But I am enjoying the opportunity," he said.

Rhodenbaugh said he also paints portraits as a hobby and found "Red" to be an opportunity to explore a different kind of character than what he's played before, in "Angels of America Perestroika" at Corn Stock last year and in productions at Bradley University.

"It is also a great opportunity to work again with Clark, who I think is a great actor," he said. Rians also was in "Angels in America."

Rhodenbaugh and Rians both are members of the new theatre company called The Great Work Begins, which will perform plays at different places for different audiences. "We bring the play to you," he said.

Rhodenbaugh said the fact his character, Ken, is a composite instead of a certain person gives him advantage. "I can make this character my own, without feeling bound to play it only one way. The opportunity having that kind of range provides has been enjoyable," he said.

"Red" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 11, 12, 18 and 19 and at 2:30 p.m. Jan. 13. Tickets are $10 for adults and $7 for students and can be ordered by calling 676-2196.

A special feature for this show is that Corn Stock has converted the dance studio next to the theatre into an art gallery during the run of "Red," featuring the works of 20 local artists. They include John Selburg, Jeanna Fearon and Suzette Boulais. The walls outside the dance studio has art by children. Some of the work is for sale.

"We wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to bring visual art and performance art together in one place. We've been overwhelmed by the response we've received from the local art community," said Jenny Parkhurst, head of marketing for Corn Stock Theatre.

"We are helping to bring awareness in the community for organizations like CIAO and the Contemporary Art Center and they are helping bring awareness of Corn Stock to their artsists and patrons. It really is a win-win," she said.

Paul Gordon is editor of The Peorian. He can be reached at 692-7880 or

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).