It's 1958. Painter Mark Rothko is at the height of his fame, and has accepted one of the most ambitious commissions of the 20th century: to create a series of large canvases for the prestigious Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building designed by iconic architect Philip Johnson. Should he do it? The money's great, yes, but do his contemplative abstracts belong in such a consumerist and commercial venue? Putting them there, do they simply become big versions of "over mantels," decorative pieces secondary to the function of the room, designed, effectively, to match the couch? What is art for? This is the dilemma at the heart of RED, the 2010-Tony-Award-winning play by John Logan, currently in a terrific production at TheaterWorks.
The play is profoundly a dialogue with the audience — the first and regularly repeated line is "What do you see?" — as much as between Rothko and his assistant about the nature of meaning. With all this heady talk about the purposes of art you'd be forgiven for fearing the show might be bloodless or tedious. There's no danger of that, though, with actor Jonathan Epstein as Rothko. From his first entrance, he fills the space with a combination of virile arrogance and searching intelligence. He threads a maternal protectiveness toward his paintings into the bravado of the part. Epstein has long been one of the leading actors at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., where he's played more than 50 roles and mastered the connection between volatile emotion and clear delivery of language that is at the core of the aesthetic there. He's also got national and international credits, and he brings emotional size, rich vocal gifts, and commanding physicality to each moment. His volatility is both fascinating and dangerous: you want and need to keep an eye on him at all times.
In this, the audience's avatar is Ken, the young assistant, a painter himself, who has to do Rothko's bidding and respond to his provocations. Young actor Thomas Everton holds his own against the lion with whom he's caged, growing spine over the two-year span of time the play encompasses. He's got his own depths, born of trauma. As an art school grad, he can challenge Rothko's assertions about other painters. At first, he's blindsided by Rothko's references to Nietzsche, Freud, and Jung but he does his homework and that allows playwright Logan to explore theories of meaning in a way that is character driven. You'll enjoy this show more if you know something about the Apollonian and Dionysian divide, and about Jackson Pollock and leading abstract expressionists, and Warhol and other pop artists who superseded them, but the play works even if you don't.
Both characters are changed by the time they spend together, and though the end of the play is a tad pat, the overall experience is exhilarating. There's a special and deserved credit in the program to Andria Alex, the charge scenic artist, who taught the actors to paint like rock stars — which they absolutely do.
As entertaining as it is smart, this show unrolls in 90 unbroken minutes and will hold the attention of a broad audience from older teens up. If you're someone who cares about art and art making, don't miss it.
Through May 6, $13-$50, TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, (860) 527-7838, theaterworkshartford.org
Post Your Comment BelowCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun