Never before has such a simply complex color blossomed to thrilling exuberant life upon the stage than in the Tony Award-winning play Red, which is now heating up the Kreeger at Arena Stage. This production is in association with The Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where it played in September and October 2011.
Written by John Logan and directed by Robert Falls, the show centers around painter Mark Rothko and his abstract impressionism approach to art – in particular the paintings he is commissioned to paint for The Four Seasons restaurant in New York City. The struggle of his art’s integrity is the central focus as Rothko treats his assistant like a sounding board for all that is trapped inside his head.
The setting is simple – Rothko’s studio in the 1950s. Designer Todd Rosenthal creates a loft space filled with art supplies and lighting appropriate for an artist’s work space. The set is incredibly realistic contrasting to Rothko’s abstract art; almost as brightly as the red contrasts the black in his paintings. Keith Parham, the lighting designer, takes on challenges of showcasing these pieces as they shift throughout the show. Parham creates harsh fluorescent lighting to present the paintings as ‘destroyed and naked’ vulnerable without the proper ambience to allow them to pulsate. Together Parham and Rosenthal develop a space that contains the show while still allowing it to bleed into the audience as colors bleed into one another on a canvas.
There is something entirely artistic about the choice to set the scene changes to classical music and have each one revolve around the shifting of one large artwork canvas to the next. It radiates a sense of beauty and fulfillment to the audience in these subtle moments; the paintings are changing therefore the characters are changing, all underscored by rich classical tones; moments worth mentioning.
Like paintings – the performances of these actors live or die in the sensitive eye of the viewer and audiences will come to their feet with lively applause at the close of this show. Rothko (Helen Hayes Award-winner Edward Gero) is the epitome of hypocrisy and denial wrapped into a frustrated old man. Ken (Patrick Andrews) is the naïve youth that has escaped Rothko, filled with budding questions; acting as the blank canvas that a painter first starts with. Andrews’s performance is exceptional considering the flat sounding board his character is created to be for the duration of the show. He does, however, create subtle nuances to keep his character engaging until his final explosion late in the show. Andrews holds his own against Gero in a frightening battle of words as they dissect the color red and everything it stands for. This scene like many others builds and builds with layers of tension like layers of paint until they explode in one luminescent masterpiece. The tension that builds between Gero and Andrews is almost like that of lovers; fighting and scorning one another; one in control the other challenging it. So much so that when they finally reach the scene where they prime the canvas it bursts into a frantic frenzy of motion almost like finishing a fight with passionate sex; brushes flying, paint flying, splattering everywhere on all surfaces: clothing, floors, their skin and faces. It is an astonishing moment and when the canvas is covered they both collapse exhausted onto the stage to thunderous applause.
Gero is completely saturated in the artistic madness of his character. He is torn and conflicted, frustrated and confounded; all of these red emotions radiating from him like a glowing ball of fire. Gero has one moment where he struck with inspiration; facing the audience as he bubbles on the verge of artistic discovery; growing anxious and eager with each passing moment; every titillating thought pressed clear on his face. And in one second it is snatched from him and he erupts like a volcano whirling a storm of fury upon Andrews for disrupting the creative process; a frightening but compelling moment that defines his character’s absorption of madness. It is perhaps ironic that Gero’s defining moment of his character’s clarity comes when he is drunk; prattling on about the discovery of his hypocrisy and how he sold out his integrity. In this moment Gero is lost in his own speech so far away from the stage that he almost isn’t there; yet it is delivered with such harrowing power that again the audience is reeled in and frightened.
A masterpiece not to be missed – Red is a jewel of art come to life on stage is a superb production show to see. Simply, it’s the ‘Must See’ of the season!
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes no intermission