The "Aria" that launches Bach's Goldberg Variations is one of the most perfectly constructed and expressively sublime works of music. For many listeners, it represents something profoundly spiritual as well.
After Bach spins 30 ingenious variations on that material, he reprises the Aria, which cannot help but sound all the more fulfilling, having generated so many powerful intellectual and emotional responses.
It is no accident that this Aria provides the opening and closing sounds in the Arena Stage presentation of John Logan's "Red," a portrait of the brilliant, path-breaking painter Mark Rothko -- for many people, his work represents something profoundly spiritual, too. (The production originated at Chicago's Goodman Theatre.)
The intermission-less play is, essentially, a series of variations on complex, challenging themes of art and philosophy. It ends where it started, pondering an answer to the most difficult question of all: What do you see?
Talking about art can turn pretentious and tedious in no time. A play about talking about art could be even worse. Logan's remarkably feat here is to address a whole bunch of difficult issues in such a way that they become not just interesting and illuminating, but also downright entertaining.
The drama in the play is largely ignited by the commission Rothko received to paint murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York, an unlikely -- and, as it turned out, impossible -- place for his art. "Red" lets the artist to rant marvelously at the rich and oblivious who would be dining in front of his work.
Other great material involves Rothko discussing ...
This can all get a little heady -- we're not used to people in contemporary plays discussing the finer points of Nietzsche's theory of tragedy, for example -- but it is never applied too thickly.
The play takes place in Rothko's Bowery studio over a two-year period in the late-1950s. There are only two characters -- the artist (Edward Gero), whose ego is as large as the canvases he works on; and a new, young assistant named Ken (Patrick Andrews), who has much to learn and much to endure.
Some of their verbal flights and fights sound a little too lecture-y or poetic, but begin to feel natural before long as the play works its carefully plotted way toward insights into what made Rothko choose the paths he took.
Reproductions of several of the famous abstract paintings, with their complementing and contrasting masses of color, are part of Todd Rosenthal's note-perfect set. But you end up seeing even more of them in your imagination, thanks to the vividness of the language. When Rothko says, "The more you look at the works, the more they move," it is remarkably easy to sense that movement.
When, in an early scene, Rothko starts talking his way into the proper mood to paint, Gero makes the words thrilling. You can feel the adrenaline pumping, and you want the man to grab a brush more than anything.
The actor is even more impressive in the last section of the play, when Rothko's faith has been unexpectedly shattered by something Ken -- a mere assistant, after all -- points out.
Here, Gero deftly reveals the ground shifting beneath Rothko's feet, an unsettling that seems to point to the artist's eventual suicide (the play includes a startling visual foretaste of that unfortunate end).
Andrews makes an engaging foil as Ken. He vibrantly animates the interplay with Gero's imperious Rothko, the efforts to penetrate the artist's "titanic self-absorption" and challenge his "chromatic anthropomorphism." Andrews also persuasively handles revelations of the character's bleak back story (this aspect of the play feels contrived, but has its effective purposes).
The production, directed with considerable nuance by Robert Falls, offers many a startling image, from the sudden burst of light early on to the moving coda bathed, of course, in red (Keith Parham designed the superb lighting). The scene where Rothko and Ken vigorously prepare a canvas with quick brush strokes is a deliciously wry, complete with a cigarette afterward, and is executed here quite brilliantly.
Music, both Richard Woodbury's original work and classical and jazz selections, makes compelling appearances throughout.
"Red" does exactly what Rothko made each painting do -- it pulsates. And the play's impact reverberates long after the curtain calls.
PHOTOS BY LIZ LAUREN