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Renegade actors stretch their skills in arty roles

Paul LaNave (left) and Jody Kujawa star as Mark Rothko’s assistant and the abstract artist, respectively, in Renegade Theater Company’s production of “Red,” which opens today at Teatro Zuccone. (Photo by Andy Miller)

Becoming a visual artist can call for special skills: Grinding chalk and sifting eggs to add the yolks to paint, stretching canvases and building frames.

Then, there is the cardio choreography required for a famous quick-tempered abstract artist and his assistant to prime a 6-by-6-foot square as fast as is humanly possible — which actors Jody Kujawa and Paul LaNave have cut down to a 45-second burst of brushes and color.

Kujawa and LaNave star in Renegade Theater Company’s production of “Red,” by John Logan and directed by Anika Thompson, which opens today at Teatro Zuccone.

The biographical play is the story of artist Mark Rothko and set in the 1950s when he was commissioned to create a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City. It’s set in Rothko’s Bowery studio and includes heated conversations about the big How’s and Why’s of art.

Developing the role meant developing skills that would give the actors a look of familiarity with painting.

“You’d think an artist has some proficiency in all the arts,” Kujawa said. “I have no skill whatsoever with those things.”

One scene finds LaNave’s character, Ken, pounding together the frame and stretching the canvas. This builds to a sort of mid-play apex that includes the actors working together to cover the canvas with red primer set to music by Gluck from the opera “Iphigenie en Tauride.”

“It’s a grueling 45 seconds,” LaNave said.

Until a week ago, the pair had skipped over the specifics of the scene. They hadn’t yet incorporated the props, so they just played at painting.

“We’d be wiping our hands through the air like an absurd Monty Python sketch about people who are painting but aren’t really painting,” LaNave said.

This had Kujawa a little nervous, he said.

“I can sit at home and learn my lines all day long if I want to,” he said. But practicing painting was going to require more. “Am I only going to get five shots at this? Am I going to be good at it?”

Turns out he had no reason to worry.

“It wasn’t as difficult as eating and saying my lines — which I have to do in another scene and which seems to be giving me a harder time,” he said.

In the pivotal scene, LaNave said the actors start painting at opposite corners before switching sides.

“I’m ducking over him, and he’s moving over me,” he said.

The key is to make it look like it isn’t rehearsed and that they just work in synch. Still, with paint comes hazards.

“I’m looking at my arms right now,” LaNave said via phone. “I’ve taken a shower today, and I washed them last night, and there are still streaks of red lining my skin. It’s kind of messy and kind of frantic and kind of epic and beautiful all at the same time. It’s just a really cool moment.”

While they might not have the same genre of art in common, Kujawa said he has been able to find common ground with Rothko.

“He deals with what every artist deals with,” he said. “My work is appreciated, but is it good enough? Is it appreciated for the right reasons? If I put it out there, will the right people see it? If someone views it in the wrong way, does it make it worth less to me?”