Total company effort made ‘Red’ light up stage

TAP Co-artistic Director and the Director for RED says goodbye to the cast and production team of RED in the latest article from the Key to the Door.

Robert Boles, Third Avenue Playhouse, Published 11:03 p.m. CT July 17, 2017 

This week is bittersweet for me. Saturday night will see the closing of our current play, “Red,” and I will be sad to see it go.

From the first day of rehearsal through all four weeks of performances, it has been a total joy having “Red” in the house. This is due in no small part to the talent and skill of the two actors in the play, Drew Brhel and Matt Frye. Add to that the wonderful set and lighting design of James Valcq, the sound design of production manager Logan Thomas, the costume design provided by our summer Artist-in-Residence Kelsey Wang, plus the invaluable help of our summer intern, Dana Cordry.

With “Red,” Brhel has now appeared on our stage seven times in the past three years. I first met Drew on the first day of rehearsal for “Talley’s Folly” in the summer of 2014. My original choice of actor for the role had to drop out at the last minute, and Drew had been highly recommended to me as a replacement.

 Since there was no time to meet before that first rehearsal we communicated through phone and email — clearly not the best way to audition for (or to cast) a play, but with the first rehearsal looming, we both took a leap of faith.

Seven plays and three years later, you can safely assume that it was a leap worth taking. He’s simply one of the most remarkable actors I’ve ever been associated with in my career. And if you haven’t seen him yet, you still have a few more chances to catch him in “Red” to see why Mike Fischer of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel called it “a command performance. One of the best performances I’ve seen this stage veteran give.”

Rounding out the “Red” cast is a newcomer to our stage, Matt Frye. He came to my attention at the Milwaukee general auditions this past winter. After seeing his audition, I called him back for another audition with Brhel to see how they fit together, and shortly after that offered him the job. He spent the past year in the emerging artist program of the Milwaukee Rep and we are very lucky to have this talented young actor working with us at TAP.

The script for “Red” describes the set in great detail: hardwood floor stained with dark red paint, counters full of buckets of paint, turpentine, tubes of glue, cartons of eggs, bottles of Scotch, coffee cans filled with brushes. Many representations of artist Mark Rothko’s Seagram Mural paintings attached to a pulley system that raises, lowers and displays several paintings simultaneously. The description ends with the sentence, “Alternately, the entire setting could be abstract.”

Valcq has managed to come up with a set design that is both realistic and abstract at the same time. It is realistic enough to get the feel and look of Rothko’s studio, and abstract enough to strongly suggest what is not actually there. In the place of a pulley system for instance, we employ the actor’s skill and the audience’s imagination. Add to this his evocative lighting design, and the effect is complete. Rothko’s studio is fully realized, as if by magic.

Thomas not only put together the sound design (which includes several selections of different compositions by Mozart seemingly being played, most convincingly, on a small record player), but he operates the light and sound boards at each performance with astounding precision.

For instance, whenever one of the actors places the needle on a record, we hear first the sound of the needle drop as it nestles into the groove of the record as it begins to play. This is all coordinated by following the actor’s movements so precisely that from an audience member’s point of view it looks seamless, as if the actor is controlling all the action. In reality though, Logan and the actor are working together to create the illusion. This happens with the lights and sounds throughout the play. Although unseen (unless you look off in a back corner of the room), he is a vital and essential part of the play.

Wang’s costume designs are deceptively simple. Essentially, the two characters for most of the play wear clothes that have been splattered with paint from the many days and hours spent working on the various Rothko canvases. Kelsey didn’t simply apply paint splatters randomly, but rather she imagined how the paint got on the clothes in the first place, whether it’s from the drips of the brushes flicking off the bristles as the artist is working on the canvas or wiping his paint soaked hands on his clothes, or even sitting in a chair that had also been splattered with fresh paint. The result is the clothes look authentic. That authenticity is a direct result of Kelsey’s skill and attention to detail.

Cordry comes to us from Lawrence University in Appleton, part of its theater program. Since we’re a small theater, interns get to participate in many aspects of TAP’s operation. Dana not only handles all the many and varied props used (including painting a large canvas each day in preparation for that night’s performance), but she also serves as the dresser for the two actors in their quick changes during the course of the play. In addition, she is assisting Kelsey in preparing the many costumes for our upcoming musical, “Candide.” From her first day here, she plunged right in as if she’d been here for years.

It does indeed take a village to put a finished and polished production on stage. And we’ve got one of the best villages going in the county. And fortunately that village — Drew, Matt, James, Kelsey, Dana and Logan — will continue with “Candide,” along with several new villagers.

But in the meantime, I will savor every moment of “Red” until the very last performance ends Saturday night. Hope to see you there.

Robert Boles is the co-artistic director of Third Avenue Playhouse and director of “Red,” closing July 22.