Primary color and abstract notions collide in Boise Contemporary Theater's 'Red'

‘Red’ brings actor Reggie Gowland home.

October 11, 2013 

  • ‘RED’

    8 p.m. Oct. 11-12 and Wednesdays-Saturdays through Nov. 2, and 2 p.m. Oct. 19, 26 and Nov. 2, 854 Fulton St. $30 Fridays-Saturdays, $25 Wednesdays and Thursdays, $15 matinees. All preview (Oct. 11) and student tickets are $15. 331-9224, bctheater.org.

Working at Boise Contemporary Theater is a dream come true for Reggie Gowland.

“It’s what I’ve wanted to do since I decided to become an actor,” Gowland says. “I’ve been watching plays there since I was very young. It’s where I discovered theater.”

Gowland, 28, now makes his home in New York City, where the acting thing is going pretty well. He understudied Amy Herzog’s “4000 Miles” at Lincoln Center Theater earlier this year. He was cast in its American Conservatory Theatre production in San Francisco on Herzog’s recommendation.

He’s in Boise this month to work with actor Arthur Glen Hughes in John Logan’s Tony Award-winning play “Red,” a two-character study about the painter Mark Rothko, an artist of great intellectual force.

“Glen is someone I’ve always wanted to work with,” Gowland says. “And it’s scary to be on stage with him — and I mean that in the best way. He gives you 100 percent all the time and that demands a lot in return. I have to match him.”

That’s a daunting task in this play as Hughes plays Rothko, whose emotional and intellectual force in real life was overwhelming. His opinions and conversation could be brutal, and the play stays true to that history.

“Red” is set in 1958 as Rothko works in his New York studio on a series of paintings commissioned for the then-new Four Seasons restaurant. That commission became a turning point for the artist. His new young studio assistant, Ken, played by Gowland, comes from a different perspective that clashes with Rothko’s.

Along with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Rothko is one of the most famous American artists of the 20th century.

He is associated with abstract expressionism, but he rejected that label. He’s most known for his large-scale canvases of colorful rectangles that seek to envelop and saturate the viewer.

The color red became a factor in Rothko’s palette after he saw Matisse’s “Red Studio” in 1949, which Rothko later said was a major influence.

As Rothko worked on the Four Seasons mural commission, his frustration drove him to darker reds, maroons, browns and blacks. That palette continued to darken through the remainder of his life, until his last paintings were mostly black. Rothko committed suicide in 1970.

“Red” hints at that darker future as Rothko’s troubled psyche is revealed.

The text of Logan’s play puts these two characters into conflict over their differing artistic sensibilities. They argue about philosophy — Nietzsche, Freud and Jung — and the history of Western painting.

“There’s definitely a culture clash at work,” Gowland says. “Rothko takes art seriously. He says ‘I’m here to stop your heart, not to paint pretty pictures.’ He doesn’t think artists of my generation are serious enough.”

Ken, who is a fictional character, represents the group who would become the pop artists: Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Rothko thinks they diminish art with their lack of substance.

“He’s offended that we like everything,” Gowland says.

Gowland is a true product of Boise’s theater community. He did his first bit of acting in an Idaho Theater for Youth class when he was in third grade.

“I always liked telling stories,” he says. “That gave me an opportunity to trap people in a room and make them listen.”

He continued taking classes at ITY and later at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s drama program as he grew up. Gowland was one of the founding members of the Foul Puppets Improv Troupe that performed at the now-defunct Funny Bone Comedy Club.

He was an ISF apprentice before graduating from Boise High and heading to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., to major in theater.

He moved to NYC five years ago, “and it’s funny, I’ve worked with a lot of Boise people there.”

Gowland did two film projects with fellow Boisean Tony Blahd. Gowland plays a cult member in Blahd’s “Rover,” a comedy about a misdirected cult leader.

Over the years and miles, he kept his connections to Boise strong, returning during the summers to help run ISF’s summer apprentice program. In 2011, he was part of ISF’s repertory company, playing Lucentio in the 1980s-flavored “The Taming of the Shrew.”

But this is his first time working at BCT.

“I’ve seen so many wonderful plays here,” Gowland says.

One in particular, Richard Greenberg’s “Three Days of Rain,” left a lasting impression.

“If there’s one show that’s the reason I’m an actor today, it’s that one,” Gowland says. “It was the first show I remember seeing where I had the vocabulary to understand what I was watching. And it was all about character — and that’s what I really love about acting.”

That’s why “Red” is so great, he says. Yes, it’s about art and high-minded arguments about aesthetics, but it’s also about these two men trying to communicate across a generation. That’s what makes it work, he says.

“Rothko is in his 50s and he doesn’t understand someone in their 20s,” Gowland says. “There’s a lot of universality about that. I think that exact relationship is happening right now, everywhere.”

In the theater lobby, check out the art auction of Rothko-inspired artwork by Boise artists Christine Raymond, Mike Landa, Michael Chambers, Anne Peterson Klahr, Troy Passey, Lisa Flowers Ross and Lauren T. Kistner. Proceeds will benefit the artists and BCT.

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