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Duke Domingue marks 100th show as Rothko in 'Red'

Damian Duke Domingue/Photo by Willson Moss Damian Duke Domingue/Photo by Willson Moss

FLAT ROCK — Stage manager Andrea Berkey keeps busting Damian Duke Domingue about articles.

Definite articles and indefinite articles. He is dropping them, or adding them, and not getting the line exactly right. He has to get the line exactly right. Otherwise, the play doesn't work. The rhythm is off. If he gets the line right, it's easier to remember. When an actor has 52 minutes worth of lines, he needs every bit of help.
Domingue is rehearsing "Red," his biggest role ever.
The Flat Rock Playhouse has been staging plays on the great flat rock for 60 years, and Domingue has been there for the last third of that span. He is a survivor on a ship that was rocked by the shoals of a terrible economy, a ship that in recent seasons, some people think, has sailed wildly off course. More than a survivor and a witness, he is a steady and faithful deckhand, one of the last of the Vagabonds whose connection goes back to the family roots.
Looking at Domingue's body of work, and you do have to look at his body of work, for so much of it is visual, is to tour a panorama of the arts.
He has taught young actors.
He has written plays.
He writes music and plays standup bass.
He draws the icons that appear in the playbill and on banners in the 100 block of South Main Street at the downtown and in the woodsy parking lot in Flat Rock.
He acts. He's a ready voice from central casting, eccentric as you need.
He even has more than one name. He likes to be called Duke. But a lot of people call him Damian because it comes first.
Damian Duke Domingue's break as a fulltime actor came when Robin Farquhar, the son of Playhouse founder Robroy Farquhar, got in a jam.
"Robin constantly trusted me. The second role was the 'City of Angels,' and they had lost an actor. It was definitely a character part. It probably in the film version would have been played by Peter Lorre or somebody like that. I don't think they ever would have gone for an intern or an apprentice for the role because he needed a little more maturity, but at the same time they were up the creek.
"The apprentice director said, 'you know you might read Damian for it, he's really good at dialect.' So right after lunch one day Robin came up, and said, come on in, would you read it for me? It was the second day (of his second summer apprenticeship) I was just kind of 'on the rock.'"
The young actor read. Robin laughed and gave him the part.
"I wasn't seeking a career in theater," he said. "I had just met Dale Bartlett, so this was like 20 years ago. I said, I'll do one more apprenticeship. It just seemed like the most interesting job. It's only 10 weeks. Well, I never left."


Many roles
What followed was a long list of roles, some on stage, many not.
"I worked for YouTheatre. I ended up in the marketing department because I was doing graphics. Then they started calling me resident creative because I was writing plays for the YouTheatre, and a couple times for the main stage, and it just kept on growing and growing.
"And that was fun, that kept me there really because I can't imagine doing one thing all the time. I didn't set out to be an actor. I really don't know how it happened. I meet people who say, 'oh I was in "Cats" for like five years' and gun to my head I would never be able to do that. Really, doing the same show. It's not what I enjoy about doing theater. I really like the rehearsal process. I like thinking about it, I like talking through the details. I like figuring out the arc of a scene, a character, and how it helps to tell the story."
He had done so many plays, he had literally lost count.
"I guess several years ago, maybe 2008, someone asked me, how many shows have you done, and I hadn't really thought about it, so I went through the grand book of all the plays that we've done and started checking them out and at that point it was like, it's 74, that's pretty interesting.
"So every now and then I would put it in my bio, oh this is Damian Duke Domingue appearing in his 75th show, and then last year I realized, oh my gosh, this is my 98th show, Captain Hook, and I only have one more until I hit 100."
One hundred. It hit him. He could do any role they asked, would do any role the director cast him in.
"In the course of 100 shows here I have never turned down a role," he said. "You don't turn your nose up at a role, you're really a lowly actor if you do that. That whole 'star is a four-letter word' thing is something I've always believed."

Beyond 'crazy German bug scientist'
And yet, the 100th was different.
"I wanted it to be something that I cared about and was excited about doing," he said. He was, he knew, not a romantic lead, not the one who was cast as the top bill in the big mid-summer musical.
"There have been very few occasions I've walked on the stage where I'm not some crazy German bug scientist, or the Russian ballet teacher," he said. "I've got a dialect and a wig and monocle, and that's all fun, that's part of being an actor but I can count on one hand the number of what I would say were real roles."
So he did something he had done only once before through two decades and 99 shows.
"I asked Vincent can I have a shot at something that's worthwhile and really valuable," he said, speaking of Vincent Marini, the producing director of the Playhouse.
There is a lot about Domingue and "RED" that made for the right intersection of time and place. The play is about an artist — and Domingue is one — a man in his late 40s, Domingue is 44 — who is more or less a pompous ass — and that's where the acting comes in.
He read the play and decided, "I would love to try to act the hell out of this." Everything else seemed right, too. He loves working with the director, Angie Flynn McIver, "an actor's director." The supporting player, Andrew Livingstone, is a young actor who Domingue taught in YouTheatre. Domingue loves him, too.
"He came into rehearsal knowing every bit of this play," Domingue said. "He hasn't picked up a script. As a matter of fact he can cue me."
Domingue plays Mark Rothko, the abstract impressionist painter of enormous talent and fierce conflict with the public, his fellow artists, the people who granted him what was then one of the most lucrative art commissions in history — painting murals for the exclusive Four Seasons restaurant in New York City.
"What he did a lot of was thinking," Domingue said. "Ten percent is putting paint on the canvas and 90 percent is thinking. You see him approaching inspiration and then losing it. You see him priming a canvas, which is really an exciting part of the play where you see the labor that goes into it."

A small canvas
If Rothko's canvas was very large, Domingue's is thumbnail size.
He is the graphic artist responsible for what is now — here comes another centennial — more than 200 iCons, as he calls them. He draws one for every play. He made one representing Board of Trustees (a 1x4 board), the Playhouse (the Vagabond weathervane), the apprentices (a ladder), YouTheatre (puzzle pieces that sort of fit), donors (a wishing well), and so on.
To make the icons, Domingue does a lot of thinking too, though not as darkly as Rothko. The images have to work on many levels — as a dime-sized thumbnail to a 54-inch banner on Main Street. In this year's regional competition for advertising, he won three gold Addies, including one for brand identity that has never been given before, and the people's choice award, selected by his peers.
"I won a gold for advertising for the arts and sciences," he said. "A lot of offers of work came to me. I really could have skipped off to an agency and made three times what I make. That was fantastic for my ego, makes me feel like Mark Rothko, who has a huge ego." Smacking down temptation, he went on to play Rothko instead of live like Rothko.
What does he do when someone slaps a script on his desk for something like, "The Spitfire Grill."
"That's one of the hardest things, is jumping in and saying, what's going to print" as a workable image, he said. "With the icons I start out with a very immediate sense. 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' I can put a cat on a roof and make the roof look hot. Oh, that roof is made of tin, and it's hot."
Others are more abstract.
For "The Fox on the Fairway," he made a woman's spike heel double as a golf tee and the dimpled golf ball morph into a heel in fishnet stocking. "It's kind of a Gestalt," he said.
It takes a lot of imagination to create something that must at a glance convey the core of a story or musical. He uses 19 different criteria.
"It's all me, no one even knows what these things are," he said. "There's an immediacy, there's geometry, there's color, I take into consideration the whole season." It's not enough that each image work by itself. They must all create harmony together. "I'll say oh my God I've got too much green here," he said. "Takes a long-ass time to get those 20 icons."
So that is the end, right?
Well, no there's Domingue's favorite thing.
"People ask me what my biggest gift is, I'd probably have to say carving pumpkins," he said. He is not kidding. "I do pumpkin portraits of people (usually out of foam). In fact six years ago, Steve Martin hired me to carve pumpkins. He asked me to do six portraits, of Diane Sawyer, Mike Nichols, Martin Short. He gave them as Christmas presents."
He is doing one now for David Patraeus, the retired general who is now director of the CIA. The sister of Dale Bartlett, Domingue's longtime partner, is an Army officer who served as the general's speechwriter.
. . . .

His one-hour dinner break over, Domingue had to climb back up on stage at Bo Thomas Auditorium. "Red" would open in just six days. Duke had to go back to work.