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Wanted: actor to play Andy Warhol. Puffy hair required. Must also paint like him

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Derek Chariton has become very good at painting photos of tomatoes.

During every performance of Vince Melocchi & # 39; s play & # 39; Andy Warhol’s Tomato & # 39; a real-time painting in which he is the artist at the age of 18.

Each tomato is removed from the set to make room for the next one. Tomato paintings pile up behind the scenes at the Pacific Resident Theater – a legacy of Chariton's evolution as a tomato artist since the show opened in August.

The director of the play, Dana Jackson, points to a vague rectangular red blur with turbulent brush strokes. "This was one of the first to do Derek," she says. "It took a while. So I suggested that he be busy with painting every day. So that when he comes up there, at least he does it fluently."

Ultimately, through practice and consultation with the designers, Chariton opted for a style: a plump, heart-shaped fruit, economically and capriciously executed.

Despite the title and the amazing amount of tomato images it has generated, "Andy Warhol & # 39; s tomato" is really not about tomatoes.

Playwright Melocchi grew up in Pittsburgh, also the home town of Warhol. There is a lot of local knowledge about places where the teenager Warhol was hanging around and artworks that he might have left behind. (It was said he scribbled on napkins while drinking Coca-Cola.) From these legends, Melocchi dreamed a story about an unlikely friendship between Warhol – an art student at what was then called Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) – and a bartender from middle-aged, Bones (played by Keith Stevenson). Thrown by destiny in the basement of Bones & # 39; bar, they discover a shared passion for beauty in ordinary, overlooked things. Like tomatoes.

While Melochhi was developing the piece, Chariton and Stevenson took part in staged lectures such as Warhol and Bones. (All three are members of the Pacific Resident.) At first, they had interwoven only a few scenes in a larger plot about the gentrification of workers' neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. Everyone wanted more from the Warhol-Bones dynamic, which eventually stunned everything else. A drama for eight became two-handed.

A bar owner (Keith Stevenson) has reservations about the unconventional signage presented by a young Andy Warhol (Derek Chariton) in "Andy Warhol & # 39; s Tomato" at Pacific Resident Theater.

(Teak Piegdon-Brainin)

Then it really became a challenge, Chariton recalls. One issue was purely cosmetic: he had shaved his head for a role (in "Sweat" at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts), and it was not clear that the "Tomato" opening would have enough hair to approximate Warhol & # 39; s 40s coiffure – swollen at the top, brushed back at the sides. He took vitamin supplements. Although the prospect of a wig was floating, his hair finally came through.

The real difficulty lay deeper: "It's hard to be someone else," Chariton admits.

"I mean, playing a character is fun," he continues. "But to be someone who has lived is like … I want to do them justice, but I cannot judge them either. And he was such a mysterious person, and people worship him, and I have let so many people come and say, "I knew Andy Warhol." But so much of that is Andy Warhol, the great pop artist from the 60s, and this is not the issue. & # 39;

Chariton, who graduated from UCLA in 2013, had yet to be born when Warhol died in 1987. He had of course heard of Warhol. "I had seen the Marilyns," he says.

For more information, he turned to Audible. He listened to Warhol's autobiography. He watched interviews and documentaries on YouTube.

He struggled to decide how much of Warhol & # 39; s distinctive personality was to be incorporated into his performance. For example: "Every time someone would ask Andy a question in an interview, he would go:" Uhhhh … Oh. Ahhhh … "and I was like:" I can't. That will be a three-hour show. And there are many uhhs written in the script, so I had to say, "I'll make them human uhhs and not Andy uhhs."

Derek Chariton

"I have had so many people come and say," I knew Andy Warhol, "says actor Derek Chariton.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

He did not feel that he had reached the right balance until the middle of the run. "Initially I only did Andy," he says. “I even did a different voice. And at this point I am in my own voice. His body and my voice. & # 39;

Yet it is live theater, so things keep evolving. "It's a different Andy every week," he says.

The run was recently extended until November 24, so there will be at least a few other Andys.

And of course tomatoes.

& # 39; Andy Warhol & # 39; s Tomato & # 39;

True: Pacific Resident Theater, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through 24 November

Tickets: $ 25- $ 34

info: (310) 822-8392 or pacificresidenttheatre.com

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

You can always find our latest theater news and reviews at latimes.com/theater.

Support for The Times & # 39; s coverage of local theater. Consider a digital membership.

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