(2018) Review of Red – Performed at the First Presbyterian Theater (Ft. Wayne, IN)

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Local Acting Mainstays Want ‘To Make You Think’

The new year at First Presbyterian Theater begins with a riveting performance of John Logan’s 2010 Tony Award-winning play Red.  This two-week stint at the venue features a duo of remarkable actors: Thom Hofrichter and Kevin Torwelle.  Hofrichter also co-directs this play with Chance Parker.  

Readers will no doubt recall the first of these two performers.  Co-starring as prolific American artist Mark Rothko, Hofrichter has been directing and organizing the FPT for twenty-one years.  Torwelle, a nine-year acting veteran, plays Rothko’s fictional young assistant Ken as Rothko prepares his largest and priciest commission for The Four Seasons restaurant in New York City in the late 1950s.  

Audience members may not immediately recognize the name Mark Rothko unless they have been involved in the study of American painting.  This review is not going to be a lesson on Rothko, but a slight understanding of his work and legacy can be useful artillery for those who attend this outstanding drama.  Regardless of your familiarity with Rothko, his contemporaries, or art history in general, the teacher-student dynamic swarms the stage from beginning to end.  

In under ninety minutes and with no intermission, Hofrichter and Torwelle successfully challenge a bevy of themes and aspects of human nature.  It’s irrelevant that the assistant’s character of Ken is fictitious because he is clearly representative of Rothko’s friends, fans, critics, and his subconscious.   Rothko, at this point in his life, had already enjoyed success and was one of the few artists who could live comfortably solely on the income his artistic work provided.  Thus, he has evolved from a “starving artist” to a “hardened artist” who is contemplating what future generations will consider to be his legacy.  Hofrichter’s performance surges throughout the play in this mentality.  Among the early remarks he makes to his new assistant is that art must have “tragedy in every brushstroke,” which embodies the artist and the performance.  Hofrichter exhibits Rothko as a pained and uncomfortable human being who has no interest in being anyone’s father, teacher, mentor, or friend.  

Torwelle counters as Rothko’s fictional foil.  His character’s mental growth and confidence blossom with each scene, leading up to the culminating discourse of their final moment together.  

Through five scenes, the play covers two years of time between artist and assistant.  The on-stage action is woven into the drama beautifully, but the powerful, inspiring language is what sets the trajectory for these monumental final few minutes.  

“What do you see?” Rothko asks Ken at the outset.  It becomes suddenly obvious that he’s not just talking to the young, enthusiastic artist who cannot believe he’s being hired to work with the living legend.  The question, it turns out, is for the audience to consider as well.  Rothko’s character further drops poignant takes such as “You cannot be an artist until you’re civilized!” and “That’s business, not art!” Torwelle’s Ken, however, emerges from the verbal assaults received early on and eventually matures into Rothko’s sparring partner about life, art, and philosophy.  

Later, in a visibly active moment between the two, they discuss the power of color and the connotations we build for the entire spectrum.  The assistant’s torrid past eventually unfolds and brings new depth to their relationship.  These elements are no doubt why the play won a Tony; however, the directors’ notes point out that some viewers “see this play as an impenetrable wall of philosophy.”  Thus, we return to the central question—What do you see?–but now with an emphasis not on the first word, but rather the third.  

Co-directing with Hofrichter is recent IPFW graduate Chance Parker.  He directed Ballad 423 and 424, and he has been a performer and stage manager in his young, promising career.  In the spring, he will direct the final show of the 2017-2018 season at FPT.  

Jeanette Walsh returns as costume designer.  In a play about artists, Walsh pieces together a perfect visual rendition of each character’s personality and mentality.  

Rae Surface and Sheila O’Rourke re the technical director and dresser/backstage crew respectively.  Austin Berger, who recently performed in last autumn’s Faith Healer is the stage manager and board operator.

One of the most tempting opportunities I had with this review was simply to write the words “Go see this play” a few hundred times.  Each of the moments spent viewing the action and dialogue between these two performers will remind anyone of the significance of being a mentor, a student, a teacher, a trainee, or anything in that realm.  

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