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Theater Review: “Red,” a character study of Mark Rothko, shines at Vintage Theatre
“What do you see?” asks Mark Rothko (Phil Luna), standing before a giant red canvas at the start of the play. “Let it work on you… let it embrace you,” he instructs his assistant Ken (J.W. Spina).
What the famous painter wants his assistant to see in the red painting is a living, breathing, pulsating thing, a lifetime of stories, endless layers and “tragedy in every brush stroke.” In his brusque manner, the moody master berates and belittles the young man and loads him with heavy reading, Nietzsche to Freud, Schopenhauer to Yates. But teacher will ultimately learn something from student about art and artistry.
What the playwright wants the audience to see in “Red” is that pulsating life and then some. If we let it work on us, the play opens us to new ways of thinking about the power of art and artists.
“Red,” through Jan. 7 at Vintage, is a “thinky, talky” piece, as the Rothko character says of himself. It is not a full biography or even necessarily a factual account of a slice of the artist’s life. It is a 90-minute whirlwind complete with paint spatters.
Luna, playing the middle-aged Russian Jew with an accent, drives show. He seems to engage the very cerebral piece straight from his guts. Spina, all nervous energy as the willing assistant, eventually dares to express himself as someone with artistic aspirations. He has a more limited role but shows a range, handling his agonizing standout monologue with grace.
The action takes place in Rothko’s studio — a terrific set ringed with paintings in the bold abstract expressionist style. There the two debate lofty mythological influences, explore their preoccupation with death, discuss the meaning of colors and Rothko’s resentment of Pop Art, and eventually break through to emotional pain.
This intense one-act by John Logan, winner of the 2010 Tony for Best Play, gets a thoughtful as well as physically impressive rendering at Vintage. Director Craig Bond keeps the show taut and the experience of creation visceral. (Theatergoers are advised that the use of real paints may be irritating to those with sensitivities to certain chemicals.)
Rothko’s large, colorful paintings have long been dismissed by the clueless as something “a kindergartner could do.” The complexity and intent behind the work gets a thorough review here, as the artist explains his Color Field technique. “Think more!” he exhorts his assistant — and you can feel yourself taking heed.
Rothko’s dilemma: In 1958, he was commissioned to do murals for the new Four Seasons restaurant on New York’s Park Avenue, in the Seagram’s building designed by architects Mies Van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Rothko was appalled at himself for accepting. How could he deliver his art to be used as mere decoration in a temple of expense account dining? He later confided that he wanted the effect of his work to “ruin the appetite of (everyone) who ever eats in that room…”
More character study and thinking exercise than plot-driven drama, “Red” is an intellectual exploration that ends up finding its heart.
“Red” (3 1/2 stars)
BY JOANNE OSTROW. Staff Writer.