From left: Steven Wolf and Zack Roundy in RED at the Henegar Center. Photo by Pam Harbaugh.
By JOAN TADDIE
Brevard Culture Theater Critic
“What do you see?” is a question that Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko asks his young assistant throughout playwright John Logan’s astute, powerful, and moving drama, “Red,” currently playing in the intimate upstairs black box Studio Theatre at the Henegar Center For the Arts.
Director Pam Harbaugh, together with her creative team, transforms the small acting space into Rothko’s New York studio in the late 50’s where he creates a series of murals commissioned to be hung in the exclusive Four Seasons restaurant in the new Park Avenue Seagram Building. It is there that the audience sees the artist’s workshop, watches the agony of the creative process, and listens to Rothko’s theories regarding color and his disdain for Jackson Pollock and the emerging pop artists; especially Andy Warhol and his soup cans.
“Red” opened in London in 2009 and transferred to Broadway in 2010 for a limited engagement. Although the production only had a short run on Broadway, it won multiple awards, including the 2010 Tony for Best Play.
Steven J. Wolf embraces the character of Mark Rothko with a zealous intensity that defines his personal and artistic worlds. Zack Roundy, who plays the young, fictional assistant, Ken, transforms convincingly from a nervous new employee to an impressive fiery combatant who argues with Rothko persuasively that “pop art has banished abstract expressionism.”
Wolf and Roundy on stage together is theatre at its best; even during the many scenes in the play that are performed without a word. A phrase that Rothko delivers on stage and verbalized in real-life is “Silence is so accurate.” Both actors shine in these powerful, wordless segments guided by Harbaugh’s superb direction and attention to the smallest detail.
A highlight of the play is the iconic scene when Rothko and his assistant prime a large blank canvas with blood-red paint. Rothko surrounds himself with classical music when he works in his studio, and Harbaugh teamed with Spencer Crosswell to meticulously match the music of Mozart and Beethoven to help establish the required moods. For this scene, Beethoven’s 2nd movement of his 9th Symphony plays as the two men slap on the paint to the rhythm of the dramatic music with an intensity that leaves them exhausted when the task is completed.
Another impressive collaboration that Harbaugh coordinated was the gathering of six local award-winning artists, Nellie Brannan, Steven Costner, Joan Crutcher, Nancy Dillen, Grace Leal, and Susan Lorraine Martin to paint Rothko-esque murals to use as important set pieces that reflected Rothko’s later work.
Luke Atkison designed an intriguing functional set that uses not only the minimal stage area, but also the walls on either side of the audience. Combined with his stunning, outstanding lighting design, the audience feels an intimate connection to the actors and an appreciation of Rothko’s insistence on having low light in his studio so that his murals with their layered rectangles can glow and pulsate. The audience is shocked when Ken unexpectedly turns on the overhead fluorescent lights to experience the flattening of the canvases.
Jennifer Wolf does an impressive job of gathering the vast number of props necessary for the artists to work, eat, and clean the paint that drips or splatters throughout the set. Her efforts allow the actors to acquire whatever they need from a large, crowded and messy table essential to the action of the play. Kudos also to Nathan Dobson for running all the technical aspects necessary for a successful show.
Rothko ends the performance of “Red” by asking Ken the same question he asked him at the beginning of the show, “What do you see?” Don’t miss the opportunity to experience this extraordinary play where you too will ponder in the powerful silence, “What do you see?”
SIDE O’ GRITS: “RED” runs through April 28 at the Henegar Center, 625 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne, FL. Tickets are $26 and $29. Call 321-723-8698 or visit Henegar.org.