Searching for Artistic Meaning Should Have You Seeing ‘Red’

Larry Sinak plays Mark Rothko and Lucas Simonson plays Ken during rehearsal for the Rochester Repertory Theatre’s production of “Red” on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, at the Rochester Civic Theatre. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

When we first see Mark Rothko, played by Larry Sinak, in silhouette staring at one of his paintings at the beginning of the show, the audience can only guess how the impressionist artist is regarding his work.

Sinak plays the temperamental artist in Rochester Repertory Theatre’s production of “Red,” which opened Thursday to a standing ovation at the theater’s black box. Through Rothko’s assistant, Ken, played by Lucas Simonson, we learn Rothko’s proclaimed assessments of his work are layered and not as unflinchingly honest as he’d like Ken and himself to believe. Brief moments of hesitation give the onstage relationship between the two enough air so as not to suffocate the audience with Rothko’s overbearing attitude.

Sinak almost appears to pull his acting punches. He approaches scorn for his younger foil (and the new generation of artists Ken represents), but never embraces a convincing outright dismissal or disdain. Sinak gets louder, yes, but he doesn’t portray a convincing antipathy toward his assistant. Maybe Sinak softens to make Rothko appear more sympathetic. Or, Sinak sees Rothko as, deep down, implicitly supporting the new pop artists he vocally scorns. (A theory that gets some weight when Rothko eventually dismisses Ken as an employee.)

Whatever the reason, Sinak isn’t pulling punches for Simonson’s sake. The younger performer holds his own opposite Sinak’s intensity. We watch Ken go from pushover to pushing back, though the transition isn’t as clear as it could be.

Early on, when Rothko hurls names of artists and philosophers he believes Ken should know, he doesn’t appear entirely cowed. He does a more effective job when he holds his own against Rothko after having read Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy.” Ken offers his own take on Rothko’s Apollonian and Dionysian motivations, which lets Sinak play Rothko slightly more off balance.

While Simonson’s emboldened Ken is more convincing than the meek version, Sinak showing vulnerability and uncertainty elevates the second half of the show.

On the cusp of selling his murals to the newly opened Four Seasons restaurant (which he bitterly describes as “a temple of consumption”), we see his face as he gazes at his work. Sinak, staring at the imaginary fourth wall of his New York studio between the audience and the stage, shows vulnerability as Rothko contemplates doing that to his creations.

“Will they forgive him?” he wonders out loud.

It’s Simonson’s turn to be dismissive, as Ken says the works are only paintings. Their verbal sparring is fun to watch, but the choreography between Sinak and Simonson, priming a canvas in burgundy red, is as smooth as the fresh layer of paint they end up with.

Crew for the show have a massive mess to clean after each performance and hours of setup prior. The reproduction canvases, set against a cluttered and drab art studio, radiate in the Civic Theatre’s black box. Doug Sween, who designed the set, said crew members used “layer after layer” of paint to recreate Rothko’s murals. These efforts, combined with Sinak and Simonson’s excellent performances, make “Red” a work of art. Just don’t try to define what that means to Mark Rothko.

–John Molseed, Post-Bulletin, October 11, 2020

Rochester Rep Makes Intense Return with “Red”

Larry Sinak plays Mark Rothko and Lucas Simonson plays Ken during rehearsal for the Rochester Repertory Theatre’s production of “Red” on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, at the Rochester Civic Theatre. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

“Red” returns Rochester Repertory closer to its primary goal: the stage.

Expressionist artist Mark Rothko was known as much for his intensity as his art. Larry Sinak, who plays Rothko in Rochester Repertory’s production of “Red,” will have to channel that in a familiar space.

Sinak will be performing in roughly the same spot where he carried Absolute Theatre’s “An Iliad” in 2018. The two-person show opens Friday for the Rep’s first live show since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Lucas Simonson plays Ken, opposite of Sinak.

Based on true events, the Tony-winning show by John Logan presents a challenge for actors, but also an opportunity for a theater company under pandemic restrictions.
Larry Sinak playing “Mark Rothko” and Lucas Simonson playing “Ken” during a rehearsal for the Rochester Repertory Theatre’s production of “Red” Monday, Oct. 5, 2020, at the Rochester Civic Theatre in Rochester. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

In March, the pandemic cut short the Rep’s run of “Strange Snow.” “Red” was originally scheduled to be directed by Philip Muehe and performed earlier this year. “We thought this would be a small-cast show we could use to dip our toe in the water with COVID,” said director Merritt Olsen, who took over direction of the show because Muehe was no longer available.

The Rochester Civic Theatre’s black box accommodates a larger audience than the Rep’s main stage — especially under state health department guidelines to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Households will be seated at least 6 feet apart, and audience members will be at least 6 feet away from the actors.

“That’s not something we could do (at the Rep),” Olsen said.

–John Molseed, Post-Bulletin, October 7, 2020

If you go

What: Rochester Repertory Theatre’s production of “Red”

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 9, through Saturday, Oct. 10; 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 11; 7;30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15, through Saturday, Oct. 17; 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 22, through Saturday, Oct. 24; 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 25

Where: Rochester Civic Theatre

Tickets: $23 Available online at www.rochesterrep.org/wp/tickets-2 or by calling 507-289-1737.

More info: Masks are required on the premises at all times.

All the World’s a Stage

Drive-in theater is making a comeback in the age of COVID, and stage theater is getting in on the act.

Dubbed “Getting Our Act Together … Together,” Rochester Repertory Theatre is leading the drive-in experience. It will feature multiple acts, music and performances in collaboration with seven other theater groups Aug. 13-16 in the Rochester Community and Technical College parking lot.

The idea came from the Rep’s reluctance to let go of their summer musical — “Evil Dead The Musical.” A short-lived plan to perform it as a drive-in was abandoned due to logistical hurdles.

“But we just couldn’t let go of the idea of doing a drive-in,” said Sue Schnell, managing director of the Rochester Rep.

Instead of the musical, actors, singers, musicians and performers from eight area theater companies will participate in a showcase variety performance. Greg Miller, Jerry Casper and Nick Mezacapa will emcee the event.

“They’re a team of guys that are great fun to watch,” Schnell said.

Joining the Rep are: Absolute Theatre; Calliope Theatre Company; Immersion Youth Repertory; In Heart Theatre; Rochester Civic Theatre Company; That Theatre Company; Theater du Jour. Upstage Theatre and Z-Theatre will provide support volunteers for the performance.

Pandemic Pictures will provide the stage and, as usual, dedicated volunteers will bring the production to life with lights, sound and props.

Rep actors from “Evil Dead The Musical” will perform scenes from the show, and the company plans to perform it for audiences next year. The play publisher is allowing the group to present the scenes this year for free as a preview to next year’s production, Schnell said.

“We’re reevaluating the next two seasons,” she said.

The Rep will present “Red,” which was scheduled for this spring, in October in the black-box space at the Rochester Civic. That space allows for a bigger audience under mandated distancing guidelines than the Rep could offer in its smaller space.

It’s also intact at the moment. Rep leaders decided to move forward with renovations of their bathrooms while they were shuttered during the pandemic. The Civic agreed to share its space to give them a temporary home while the work is completed, and about four times the size audience they could have fit in their theater. “Red” is tentatively scheduled to open Oct. 8.

The drive-in performances are Aug. 13-15 at 6 p.m., with matinees Aug. 15 and 16 at 2 p.m.

–John Molseed, Post-Bulletin, August 3, 2020

Play Review: Blizzard of Emotions

Rehearsal of “Strange Snow” a play about Vietnam veterans dealing with PTSD. (John Molseed/jmolseed@postbulletin.com) Forum Communications Co.

Four years before the movie “Platoon” was released, “Strange Snow” hit stages depicting two Vietnam veterans coping with life after service.

Before then, Vietnam soldiers and veterans were absent in popular culture, said Jim Crawley, a U.S. Marine Vietnam veteran.

Steve Metcalfe’s “Strange Snow,” which is currently in production by the Rochester Repertory Theatre, shows how two veterans cope with their experiences. It’s a depiction Crawley and other veterans who attended a preview performance Thursday night say is an accurate portrayal.

“Everybody coped differently,” said Chad Stowers, a U.S. Army veteran who was deployed in Iraq in 2004.

In the show, David, played by David Derby, and Megs, played by Alex Wilkins, are coping in opposing ways with their trauma and loss from their experiences in Vietnam. They’re headed for a confrontation, and when it comes, it’s explosive and intense.

Director Jeanne Skattum cast two actors who each have different approaches to their roles. Derby, leaning toward the method, is present and reacting in every scene. Wilkins plays Megs with rhythm — memorizing the cadence and flow of his lines and building character reactions around his proficiency with the script.

In a small cast, mixing those approaches can create an awkward performance. For this production, the two actors with different approaches to their roles is one of the show’s biggest strengths.

Wilkins, as Megs, is talkative to the point of babbling. Derby plays David more reserved and brooding — until he’s pushed too far.

Those acting approaches mirror the differences in the characters’ personalities and set the viewer up for the eventual confrontation in subtle ways.

When the two do hash things out, they’re at the same level of intensity and rage in a believable and satisfying scene. Derby’s in-the-moment acting ends up being the more believable of the two for most of the show. However, Wilkins adeptly brings more humanity to post-confrontation Megs.

Beth Regener, as David’s sister Martha, does not have as intense scenes, but portrays a woman walking a fine line of impatience and empathy with a balanced sincerity.

Some of the most effective moments are when nothing is being said on stage. Silence can be frightening for actors.

Following the intense confrontation between Megs and David, their restraint and ability to let nothing be said allows the impact of the emotional moments to settle on the audience with its full weight. That the cast has the discipline to hold those moments in silence for the right amount of time serves the audience well.

The set is nicely detailed, but space limitations on the small stage make it unclear in some scenes whether characters in different parts of the home can hear each other. When David delivers some damning assessments of Megs, whether those wounding words land on the man who’s keeping a friendly facade carry implications in later scenes. Some clarity via the set would have helped.

Since “Strange Snow” was written, a plethora of Vietnam pop-culture depictions have followed. In that light, “Strange Snow” might seem like it follows some familiar tropes. However, it was one of the first non-politicized works to give voice to a generation of veterans that still face struggles.

Repertory’s production honors that intention well.

–John Molseed, Post-Bulletin, March 9, 2020

“Strange Snow” Explores Psychological Impact of War

Rehearsal of “Strange Snow” a play about Vietnam veterans dealing with PTSD. (John Molseed/jmolseed@postbulletin.com) Forum Communications Co.

The terms change, but the trauma soldiers experience in war is as old as conflict itself. Whether it’s called shell shock, battle fatigue or PTSD, people’s reactions and adaptation to combat experience are varied.

In the Rochester Repertory Theatre’s production of Stephen Metcalfe’s drama “Strange Snow,” two Vietnam veterans with shared combat experiences find themselves coping in disparate ways.

“The friends are very far apart on this — who’s to blame, or how much they blame themselves,” said Jeanne Skattum, director.

Davey, played by David Derby, who prefers not to talk about his experiences, is withdrawn and surly. Megs, his gregarious friend, is more talkative but prone to an occasional window-punching outburst. As Megs drops into Davey’s life and charms Davey’s sister, Martha, the two friends, carrying old wounds and assigning blame for past events, are on a collision course.

Skattum saw the show in the early 1980s when it was relatively new and got a copy of the script.

“When I decided to submit it for this season, it was this tattered-looking thing,” she said.

Although it addresses veterans of Vietnam, its content is timeless as veterans of current conflicts deal with PTSD.

“I think maybe we understand it a bit better now,” Skattum said.

However, that doesn’t mean veterans are getting the help they need. Especially after decades of warfare have created so many veterans.

“We kind of move from war to another war to another war to another war,” Skattum said.

“Strange Snow” was published in 1982 as the U.S. moved to forget an unpopular and futile war that claimed more than 58,000 American lives. Veterans are invited to a preview performance before the March 6 opening. The script doesn’t pull punches, Skattum said. Could seeing the show be opening old wounds for vets who see it?

“It could be, it could be,” Skattum said.

However, seeing the characters in “Strange Snow” dealing with experiences from another war might soften the impact of the message about the psychological impact of war even if the message is the same, she added.

“Some people never learn to work through it, and some do,” she said.

Skattum said the timeless message of the script has stuck with her in part because it provides challenges for the actors.

“It’s such a beautiful acting piece,” she said. “It’s very touching.”

Performing such an emotional play can be a challenge in an intimate space like the Rep’s main theater space.

“The first time you perform on this stage, it can be a bit of a challenge,” Skattum said. “You look out there and there are eyes everywhere.”

For some actors, that intimacy can be an asset when you can see and hear the audience respond to the show.

And Skattum expects a response.

“It’s our intention to do the things that aren’t expected of community theater,” she said. “I don’t always do things that are easy to watch and see.”

–John Molseed, Post-Bulletin, March 5, 2020

‘Screwtape,’ by Some Measures, Falls Short

Laurie Helmers, playing Slumtrimpet, left, Rich Mansfield, playing Screwtape, and George Skare, playing Wormwood, rehearse on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, for the upcoming production, “Screwtape,” at the Repertory Theatre in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Part of the fun of “Screwtape” is seeing a depiction of what the “underside” of god’s creation thinks of the people populating the earth and how they can be brought to temptation and eventual damnation.

The script, written by James Forsythe as a stage adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ “The Screw Tape Letters,” has a healthy dose of satire. However, most of the humor is cerebral and requires an articulate cast to convey that humor. Unfortunately, some of it gets lost in this production.

In Rochester Repertory’s production of “Screwtape,” Rich Mansfield, as Screwtape, does exactly that when he’s perched on the various levels of a tight but intricate set. When he’s later joined by Laurie Helmers, as Slumtrimpet, Mansfield gets an equal on stage from both the script and the acting.

Screwtape’s charge is to oversee his nephew, Wormwood, who is on his first mission to bring a young man, Mike Green, referred to as “the Patient,” to the infernal depths.

George Skare, as Wormwood, brings a nervous energy to the stage conveyed with a dash of adept physical humor. He conveys an earnestness of wanting to do well at doing bad. However, his delivery and articulation keep his depiction of Wormwood from holding his own with Screwtape and Slumtrimpet.

For physical acting, Anna Landkammer, who glides across the stage as a prim and proper Judy Macadam, takes an excellent and convincing fall with the assistance of Ben Menning, who plays a directionless and rather lifeless Mike Green.

Despite clever satire, the script itself doesn’t give much depth to the human characters. However, proselytizing doesn’t create engaging dramas. The characters seem to have just enough dimension to fit into what is essentially an adaptation of a clever sermon.

–John Molseed, Post-Bulletin, January 20, 2020

Farr Returns to Repertory Helm with “Screwtape”

Laurie Helmers, playing Slumtrimpet, left, Rich Mansfield, playing Screwtape, and George Skare, playing Wormwood, rehearse on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, for the upcoming production, “Screwtape,” at the Repertory Theatre in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

In the Rochester Repertory Theatre’s latest show, “Screwtape,” unseen influences dog the characters.

Director Dawn Farr wonders if their presence is more than fiction.

The production brings Farr back to the helm of a Rochester Repertory Theatre show for the first time since 2015. Farr had to step away for health reasons during the production of “Making God Laugh.”

“I wanted to make sure I was well enough to do some things before I directed a show,” she said.

Farr, who is now walking with the aid of a cane, has worked to regain enough mobility to return to the director’s seat. Despite having graduated from needing a walker to get around, the progress has felt slow, she said. But staying away wasn’t an option.

“I breathe theatre,” she said. “I’ve done theatre since I was a little girl.”

“Screwtape” is a stage adaptation written by James Forsyth of C.S. Lewis’s “The Screwtape Letters.” Farr said it was the first show she was involved with when she transferred to Bethel University (then Bethel College) to study theatre.

“I’ve always wanted to do this show,” she said.

The concept behind the show of unseen hands playing with our decisions and fates appeals to Farr. Looking back at “Making God Laugh,” she wonders if there was a bit of that occurring. Four cast members ended up dropping out of the show and Farr herself had to step back as her own health problems set in.

“Whatever beliefs you have, sometimes it feels like there’s an exterior force influencing our lives,” she said.

The show will also include live quartet performing music between scenes and during intermission. Much of it is improvised and moody with dissonant tones.

“If we do something we like, we try to duplicate it,” said Alecia Meline, who plays violin. The music is supposed to be dark but a little bit playful.

–John Molseed, Post-Bulletin January 16, 2020

Witty ‘Wandaleria’ is Rep’s Gift for Audiences This Holiday Season

Scott Stekel, playing Rocky, hands flowers to Annette Schuler, playing Wanda Mae Pretty, while acting out a scene with Becca Messick, playing Ivy, and Pam Whitfield, playing Betsy, during a rehearsal for the play on Nov. 7, 2019 at Rochester Repertory Theatre. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

The disappointment that Rochester Repertory Theatre is not doing a holiday show this season is tempered by what has been scheduled instead: “Wandaleria,” a clever comedy by David Valdes.

The play, which opened Friday, centers on Wanda, who rarely vacates the recliner in front of the TV, other than for flights of fancy that carry her away from her deadly dull life.  Things get a lot more exciting, though, when Wanda gets word that Rocky, her prison pen pal, has been released and is on his way to her small Maine town for a visit.  To reveal more than that would give away too many surprises, in a script that’s full of them.

Director Debbie Fuehrer has cast Annette Schuler as Wanda, with Pam Whitfield as her sister/landlord Betsy, Becca Messick as Betsy’s daughter Ivy, and Scott Stekel as Rocky.  Jim Hencinski and Scott Koon each portray a variety of characters from Wanda’s active imagination.

Schuler has a wonderfully deadpan way of delivering even the funniest or most outrageous lines, a trait that goes a long way toward making this play plausible. Whitfield’s Betsy is perpetually angry and impossible to please–but her heart is in the right place. Messick has fun as Ivy, a young woman searching for her own identity.

Also enjoyable is Stekel, whose Rocky manages to put on a convincing display of innocence. The prison inmate’s apparent expertise regarding rare flowers is one of the more ingenious aspects of this story. And it turns out his imagination and storytelling ability are as vivid as Wanda’s.

As for Koon and Hencinski, they respect no boundaries when it comes to getting a laugh. Set design is by Theo St. Mane, with costumes by Jenniefer Anderson.

Valdes, the playwright, traveled from his home in Boston to attend opening weekend at the Rep. His play has much to say about how we convince ourselves that change is often too hard to even attempt. Once the inertia is overcome, though, something better than fantasy becomes possible.

So, it’s not a Christmas play, as might be expected and hoped for, but the Rep’s “Wandaleria” is a satisfying gift of the season.

–Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin November 25, 2019

 

Rep’s ‘Wandaleria’ Mixes Fantasy and Reality

Scott Stekel, playing Rocky, hands flowers to Annette Schuler, playing Wanda Mae Pretty, while acting out a scene with Becca Messick, playing Ivy, and Pam Whitfield, playing Betsy, during a rehearsal for the play on Nov. 7, 2019 at Rochester Repertory Theatre. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

“Imagination is silly,” Frank Sinatra sang, “you go around willy-nilly.”

That’s the problem for Wanda in the play “Wandaleria,” which opens Nov. 22 at the Rochester Repertory Theatre.

Wanda adds spice to her dull life with an active imagination — but before long, reality shows up and being willy-nilly isn’t much silly fun anymore.

“She’s a slug,” Debbie Fuehrer, who is directing the show, said of Wanda. “She’s got a boring life, watches TV all day.”

The dreams make Wanda’s life more interesting. But dreams turn into reality when her prison pen pal shows up at her house looking for a place to stay.

Fuehrer said the play mixes fantasy and reality, as well as humor and sadness.

“It’s a little more light-hearted,” she said. “You have the humor, but in the second act you have that poignancy.”

Fuehrer has cast Annette Schuler as Wanda, with Scott Stekel as the pen pal, Pam Whitfield as Wanda’s no-nonsense roommate, Becca Messick as Wanda’s restless niece Ivy, and Scott Koon and Jim Hencinski playing a variety of fantasy characters.

Playwright David Valdes, who lives in Boston, will be at the Rep for the opening weekend of the show. Fuehrer was in a Valdes play, “Brave Navigator,” several years ago, and wanted to direct one of his shows this season at the Rep.

Many audience members will likely see themselves in the play, Fuehrer said.

“I hope they walk away feeling uplifted, and that someone understands what they’re going through,” she said. “A lot of people are living lives of quiet desperation.” People face a daily barrage of news reports, obligations, demands.

“If they walk away knowing if they can make a connection with another person, healing can take place,” Fuehrer said.

Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin, November 13, 2019

 

Delightful Casting Creates a Fun Rep Opener in ‘Miss Holmes’

Actors in the Rep Theatre production of “Miss Holmes” include (from left) Beth Regener as Dr. Watson, Rebecca Sands as Sherlock Holms, Lisa Modry as Lizzie Chapman, and Lauren Elias as Mrs. Hudson. (Ken Klotzbach/kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

If you think you’ve seen every possible permutation of the Sherlock Holmes legend, then you haven’t seen “Miss Holmes.”

The play, which opened Friday at the Rochester Repertory Theatre, is an imaginative take by playwright Christopher Walsh, in which Holmes and Watson are women.

Miss Sherlock Holmes is every bit as finicky and brilliant as her male counterpart. And Dr. Dorothy Watson is as bewildered by Holmes’s genius as Dr. John Watson is in the original stories.

It’s a clever take on what is known as the Holmes canon, and the Rep production benefits immensely from the delightful pairing of Rebecca Sands as Holmes and Beth Regener as Watson.

Sands, who continues to be one of the most interesting talents on local stages, portrays Holmes as haughty and headstrong, with nervous ticks and a devious look in her eyes. Regener, who always taps into an inner joy with her onstage roles, appears to savor bringing Watson to life.

They are joined by an all-star cast of local talent assembled by director Mary Pyfferoen: RJ Traff as Mycroft Holmes, Sean Lundberg as the menacing Thomas Chapman, Bill Schnell as a Scotland Yard inspector, Lisa Modry as the seemingly innocent Lizzie Chapman, John McDougall as superintendent of an asylum, Rich Dietman as Greener and Cheryl Frarck as ancient Eudora Featherstone.

Standing out among the several newcomers are Lucas Simonson, required to spit out sloppy German as Dr. Stamford, and Raquel Hellman as Dr. Anderson.

It’s meant to be fun, but there are also some well-placed messages about the strengths and abilities of women. Meanwhile, the costumes by Cara Edwards are outstanding.

We found the staccato nature of the play, with numerous short scenes, nearly all of them separated by movement of props and furniture, to be disruptive. The longer scenes, allowing the actors to settle into their characters, were better played. Along with that it was occasionally difficult to hear the lines spoken by voices that were either too quiet, rushed or muffled.

As for the plot, it seemed overly developed and too long, when all this play needs is a simple focus on the interplay between Holmes and Watson.

O.K., so “Miss Holmes” is not the best twist on Holmes. But it is creative, and in the hands of this cast, especially Sands and Regener, it’s a fun start to the Rep’s new season.

–Tom Weber, Post-Bulletin October 7, 2019