By PAM HARBAUGH
Riverside Theatre, so very well known for its sumptuous, professional mainstage productions, proves it has the dramatic stuff as well with its artful, smart and sophisticated second-stage production of John Logan’s brilliant play, “Red.”
This Tony Award winning drama revolves around painter Mark Rothko, known for his works in a subset of abstract expressionism called “color field theory.” Even if you don’t know the name Rothko, you know his works. On the surface, they appear like simple wide, rectangular blocks of color painted on a canvas. But, oh, just like this play and indeed the production, so very, very much more lies beneath that surface.
The story begins in 1958 in the artist’s studio in downtown New York City. Rothko has just accepted his famed commission for the Seagram’s Murals, to be installed in the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City. He has hired Ken, a young art student, to help him stretch canvases, mix paint, prepare the surfaces, clean brushes and run for coffee.
As the lights come up, Rothko sits down center, facing the audience. He ponders. On upstage walls hang six huge canvases of his work. A large table sporting buckets, paint brushes and bottle of scotch and more stands at one side. Other brushes and cubby holes for storage line one wall. A huge framework hugs another wall. This is a place for work, not relaxation. And much of that work, as Rothko says, begins with intellectual observational.
As Ken walks in for his first day, Rothko asks him “What do you see? Ken says he sees red, which kick-starts a tirade from Rothko. What kind of red – blood red? Pomegranate? Sunrise? Santa Claus? Satan? Rothko argues for clear, intelligent discourse. You can’t be an artist, he says, unless you are versed in Shakespeare, Jung, Freud, Nietzsche and more.
Indeed, life and death, light and dark, art and drek, older man and younger man, Dionysian hedonism and Apollonian rationality…the dialogue between these contrasting elements illuminate the way in Logan’s play as well as Rothko’s art.
Performed in 90 minutes without intermission, “Red” evokes thought and emotion as it bathes in contrapuntal issues. Simplistically put, it advances how Rothko distilled his work into a dialogue between colors on the canvas. The black isn’t just black. Perhaps it’s a gaping mouth, a scream of terror over the diminishing of the light, an emotion accelerated by the juxtaposition of life-giving blood red.
Yet while Rothko remains intellectually tortured, it is Ken who has been emotionally traumatized by a terrible childhood incident. There, Logan’s complex “Red” reveals yet another layer.
As Rothko, Graham Smith finds both the visceral and intellectual. Mr. Smith shows us a man fiercely, powerfully driven and one with an ego bigger than life. As Ken, Michael Satow brings the human balance to the story, discovering a satisfying arc to his character. (Watch for the significant point when Ken delights in using Rothko’s own whiskey glass.)
As directed (and designed) by Allen D. Cornell, the Riverside production moves like a well-tuned and well-timed symphony. Throughout, Mr. Cornell uses classical music to transition from one movement (scene) of the play to the next. The thrilling and engaging second movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony heightens the excitement and stage fury while Rothko and Ken apply to a large canvas a base coat of blood red.
Of course, using music from the 9th Symphony has a deeper mortal implication. Composers have often regarded the “curse of the ninth” symphony to signal death. Certainly, it does here, whether by intention or serendipity. For Logan’s Rothko is a man imprisoned by his own intelligence; and the tortured soul will take his own life 12 years later.
Kudos also to lighting designer Rob Siler who paints the stage with evocative mood and Marc Dodson whose costume design adds to the stage realism.
This is a rare opportunity to see a truly powerful play. You will hang onto every word in it. If you love theater and/or art, especially 20th century art, you really have to see this production. Or…if you just need some intellectual stimulation, then hoof it to Riverside to see “Red.”
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Red” runs through Feb. 3 in the Waxlax Second Stage venue at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Park Drive, Vero Beach. Curtain is 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. general, student. Call 772-231-6990 or visit www.riversidetheatre.com.