Preview: Seeing ‘Red’ on Smithfield Street

In an unassuming church gymnatorium in Pittsburgh, The Smithfield Street Theatre will debut their production of John Logan’s “Red” on Thursday, June 26, for a limited three-night engagement.

Tyler Anthony Smith (left) and Tom Protulipac rehearse a scene for "Red" at The Smithfield Street Theatre.

Tyler Anthony Smith (left) and Tom Protulipac rehearse a scene for “Red” at The Smithfield Street Theatre.

In 1958, Mark Rothko, a Latvian-born American abstract expressionist artist, was commissioned to create a series of murals for New York City’s Four Seasons Restaurant – the largest and most lucrative commission of the art world at the time. The play covers a two-year period, during which Rothko and his assistant Ken worked to create more than 40 paintings, while battling their own inner demons and one another.

“’Red’ is a fictionalized reimagining of those two years,” said director and producer Sean Michael O’Donnell.

At first glance, it may seem the play is about the more than 40 paintings Rothko creates over the course of two years; however, O’Donnell stresses, “The play is not about creating the art; it’s about Rothko being stuck…all he can do is talk about painting, but he seems unable to actually paint.”

The murals, referenced throughout the play, are an interesting detail in the story, but O’Donnell and set-designer Todd Collar manage to keep the paintings from stealing the show.

“The playwright…suggested that the art could be presented abstractly, with a barebones approach,” said O’Donnell. “We chose that approach and found that it ultimately served the story better.”

With the murals’ existence being suggested, but never really shown, the audience is able to focus on the story and the relationship between artist Rothko, played by Tom Protulipac, and his assistant Ken, played by Tyler Anthony Smith.

“The play is full of battles,” said Protulipac. “Rothko battles to keep his own passion alive while he forces Ken, also a painter, to confront a childhood trauma that might lead to his own true artistic expression.”

Ken, who didn’t exist in reality, challenges Rothko, forcing the artist to see that these murals could ultimately be his undoing. Smith describes his character as being introverted and cut-off emotionally, but said, “[Ken] can kind of act like a know-it-all with a strong air of youthful confidence.”

“Ken’s youthful energy and cutting insights ignite the ‘Red’ in Rothko that ultimately keeps [Rothko] true to himself and his art,” said Protulipac.

The two-man cast and two-man production team of “Red” have been working and rehearsing for four weeks to bring John Logan’s story to the stage. The team started by working each of the five scenes individually and only ran the entire show from beginning to end for the first time one week before opening night.

The stage is set for The Smithfield Street Theatre's production of "Red."

The stage is set for “Red.”

“Much of our rehearsal time,” said O’Donnell, “was spent discussing the script, taking it apart, and figuring out what the characters wanted from each other and for themselves. It was exciting to be able to spend so much time ‘working’ the script.”

The actors have also prepared for their roles outside of rehearsal, learning their lines and researching Mark Rothko, his work, and his eventual suicide. Protulipac adds, “I shaved my head, grew a mustache, and studied my lines. A lot.”

The Smithfield Street Theatre of Pittsburgh debuted in their current space with “Reckless” in 2012. They produced several shows in the space, including “Moll Flanders,” “The Santaland Diaries,” “Night Must Fall,” and “Heddatron.” But the production team, director O’Donnell and set-designer Collar, took a hiatus to adopt a child. They adopted their son, Chris, in July 2013. This is the first show The Smithfield Street Theatre has produced in more than a year, and there are no solid plans for future shows at this time.

“Theater has consumed my life for more than half my life. I have been operating my own theater for almost 15 years now,” said O’Donnell. “It’s been hard work, but I’ve always been incredibly fulfilled by it. But a funny thing happened this past year and I discovered that there was something that fulfilled me even more than creating theater: being a dad.”

Collar, who now goes by ‘Papa’ at home with young Chris, is known for creating both elaborate and simple sets with a small budget and prides himself on his work.

Tom Protulipac (left) and Tyler Anthony Smith (right) rehearse a scene for "Red," opening Thursday, June 26.

Tom Protulipac (left) and Tyler Anthony Smith (right) rehearse a scene for “Red,” opening Thursday, June 26.

“I always enjoy creating sets that look gritty and grimy,” said Collar, “because as an audience member I feel a stronger connection with characters who inhabit a free, real, and imperfect world over those who are trapped in a falsehood.”

Collar has taken the same approach with Rothko’s studio. “I sought to express the conflicted sensibility of the artist rather than a lavish reproduction of the great man’s workspace,” he said.RED poster

When the theatre produced “Butterflies are Free” in 2013, featuring Smith in the role of Don Baker, Collar transformed a basketball court into a city loft apartment, complete with a small kitchen and loft bed, for less than $100.

The Smithfield Street Theatre may not have the budget of a Broadway show, but they certainly have the talent.

“The easiest part of this production was working with Tyler and Tom,” said O’Donnell. “I cannot express how much easier and fulfilling it is to work with two intelligent and talented performers.”

“Red” runs Thursday, June 26, through Saturday, June 28 – three nights only – at 8 p.m. each night. Tickets are $15. Call 412-251-7904 to reserve tickets. The Smithfield Street Theatre is located in the Smithfield United Church of Christ, 620 Smithfield Street, Pittsburgh PA 15222.

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Story by Danette Marie Levers for Pennsylvania Bridges

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