The Indy reviews Red and Prelude to a Kiss — a pair of plays with big topics and lofty goals 

Two for the show

They say theater is a dying art, but you wouldn't know it from our local stages. The Millibo Art Theatre is expanding into the Ivywild School complex, THEATREdART and the Star Bar Players have formed an exciting new partnership, and the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center's production of A Christmas Story set a box-office record, being their first show ever to fill over 7,000 seats.

If you haven't seen a play lately, now is a great time to go. And to help you decide what to see, I'll be bringing you my slant on the good and the not-so-good in Colorado Springs theater.


"What do you see?"

It's a simple question. But if the great abstract expressionist Mark Rothko asks it, and you're looking at one of his paintings, you'd better not give a simple answer.

That's the lesson learned by Ken, the fictional assistant in John Logan's riveting 2009 drama, Red.

Riveting may seem a strange word to describe a play in which nothing happens and the two characters spend the entire time arguing about art. But riveting is exactly what it is. Logan's dialogue bristles with conflict and passion, and in the TheatreWorks' production, director Joseph Discher makes every one of those arguments land like a punch to the gut.

The artist as tortured genius may be something of a cliché these days, but few artists ever tortured themselves as much as Mark Rothko, the Latvian-born painter who blazed a wide and contentious path through the American art scene of the 1950s and 1960s. Struggling with depression and alcoholism, Rothko constantly questioned his worth and turned down several lucrative opportunities to exhibit his works because he was certain no one would understand them.

But then came an offer even Rothko couldn't refuse: a $35,000 commission to paint several large murals for the new Four Seasons restaurant in New York City. At the time, it was the largest private art commission ever granted.

That's where Ken steps in. As the play begins, Rothko has just embarked on the series of paintings and he hires the wide-eyed young man to stretch the canvasses and mix the paints.

But Ken soon realizes he's got more than he bargained for. Not only is Rothko a tyrant incapable of the merest show of compassion, but the great man is obsessed with death, both physical and artistic.

"There is one thing I fear in life, my friend," Rothko says. "One day the black will swallow the red."

Joel Leffert portrays Rothko as a force of nature, filling every sinew of his character with a penetrating intelligence and a bully's caustic charm (he's played Rothko before). That's particularly impressive when you realize that Leffert, a sometime screen actor whom you may remember from the Woody Allen film Deconstructing Harry, took over the role just two days before opening night.

A young actor might let himself be outclassed by such a performance, but Jordan Coughtry, as Ken, meets the challenge and even ups the ante. From the moment Coughtry steps onto the stage, his performance is never less than compelling, and it's one of the great pleasures of this production to watch his character grow in maturity and self-assurance until he's able to give as good as he gets.

"I'm fired, aren't I?" Ken says after a particularly heated exchange.

"Fired?" Rothko responds. "This is the first time you even existed."

Jonathan Wentz's set is glorious, a great sprawling thing that seems to swallow the audience just as Rothko wanted his paintings to swallow the viewer. Wentz built it from photos of the former high school gymnasium where Rothko had his studio at the time.

But the real challenge was re-creating six of Rothko's monumental-sized paintings. Wentz had previously seen some of the originals at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, so he knew them well. But he had only a week to duplicate what had taken Rothko months to do. And he had to do it with latex rather than oil paint.

The results are impressive. Though slightly smaller than the originals, they still tower over the actors and the big blocks of color seem to pulsate with the same intensity.

To better display them, he made the rest of the set neutral in tone.

"I didn't want anything on the set to fight with what the colors and the painting are saying because that's so much of what the play is about," Wentz says.

Unfortunately, with so much talk about art, we never get to see the master create any. The closest we come is a scene in which teacher and apprentice work together to prime one of the massive canvasses. It's a breathtaking scene, beautiful in its power and athleticism, and it earned a spontaneous burst of applause the night I went.

But still, there's a big difference between a primed canvas and a finished painting.

And then it dawned on me. While I was waiting for Rothko to create art, he had actually been creating something else. An artist. And that, in the end, may be the greater achievement.

Prelude to a Kiss

Love. We want it to be eternal, unchangeable, immune to the ravages of time. Because it's what's inside that counts.

An inspiring message, and one that the 1988 body-switching comedy Prelude to a Kiss should have conveyed. But as shown in the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center production, that message can be lost, in part due to flaws in Craig Lucas' script.

The story begins benignly enough. Kyle Dean Steffen plays Peter, a dull but likable guy drifting through life until he meets a young woman named Rita. Having grown up an orphan, Peter's the one with the difficult childhood, yet it's Rita who harbors a negative outlook on life.

"The world is a really terrible place," she confesses. "It's too precarious."

Steffen and Cynthia Pohlson, here making her FAC debut, have a happy chemistry, so it doesn't surprise us when Peter convinces her to marry him. For once, it seems that Rita might find the joy that has always eluded her.

But then comes their wedding day, and in a vindication of Rita's beliefs, everything changes. A mysterious old man — played by an amiable Sol Chavez — wanders into the celebration. Although no one knows who he is, Rita grants his request for a kiss. Their lips meet, the world trembles, and just like that, the old man and the young bride swap skins.

It's not until the newlyweds head to Jamaica for their honeymoon that Peter begins to suspect something's wrong. Rita has changed. She's distant and irritable, and she seems to have forgotten some rather important details from her childhood.

Peter eventually figures it all out. He sets out to hunt for his "real" wife, which brings me to my first criticism. I question why Rita had to be tracked down — why she didn't go after Peter soon after finding herself sucked into the old man's body. She says that the old man's family keeps her on a very short leash, but I find that unconvincing. The Rita we know is a strong-willed girl, and she wouldn't let anything prevent her from reconnecting with the man who'd taught her to love and be loved.

Sure enough, Peter finds her, inside the old man's body, in the bar where they first met. Understandably, our protagonist is at first put off; the guy just married a beautiful young woman, and now finds himself instead with a doddering old man.

But even after they reconnect emotionally — presumably starting that journey to the play's "appearances don't matter" realization — Steffen and Chavez don't allow their characters to show any genuine affection for each other.

Prelude to a Kiss was made into a movie starring Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan in 1992. With its brisk pace and many brief scenes, this production, directed by newcomer Garrett Ayers, almost feels like a movie as well. Costume changes are made right before our eyes, and the giant set pieces disappear and re-emerge from the flyspace with an amazing fluidity.

And it wouldn't be a FAC production without some standout performances. Few actresses in town play scatterbrains as well as Jane Fromme, and she's truly in her element here as Rita's overbearing mother. Just as good is David Hastings, who as Rita's blathering father earns the lion's share of the laughs. I also liked Adam Blancas as Peter's wisecracking friend.

But this isn't enough to outweigh the weaknesses in the story. We know right where things are headed, and in a romantic comedy like this, that's to be expected. But when the resolution comes, it comes way too easily.

True love does conquer all. But it's much more satisfying if it has to put up a good fight first.



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