Riveting Art: RED

Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo — with Thomas Derrah and Karl Baker Olson.

Red by John Logan,  Speakeasy Stage, Virginia Wimberly Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, 1/6/12-2/4/14, http://www.speakeasystage.com/doc.php?section=showpage&page=red.

Reviewed by Craig Idlebrook

(Boston, MA) It’s one thing to pull off an entertaining melodrama, it’s quite another to stage a debate on art and make it captivating.  While the play Red may be too intellectual to be everyone’s cup of tea, it is engrossing, especially in this strong production staged by SpeakEasy.

The two-person play centers on renowned 20th century visual artist Mark Rothko (Thomas Derrah) and his first attempt to create a series of murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City.  In this fictionalized account, Rothko takes on a new assistant, Ken (Karl Baker Olson), who is ostensibly hired to do the menial tasks in Rothko’s studio, but is really there to be the artist’s intellectual punching bag.

Rothko is an intellectual bully and Ken, an aspiring artist, first seems more than willing to soak up what his employer is dishing out.  But Ken also is disconcerting to Rothko because he represents the next wave of art and raises the specter of the mortality of Rothko’s paintings.  Soon, this foot servant rises up to challenge the intellectual underpinnings of Rothko’s art.

In less capable hands, this subject matter would be a cure for insomnia, but playwright John Logan has created a script with impeccable dialogue.  Rothko holds center stage for much of the play and shares the difficulty of creating art amidst crippling self-doubt.  When Ken asks him how he knows when a canvas is complete, he replies, “You don’t.  There is tragedy in every brush stroke.”

Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo — with Karl Baker Olson.

It’s a difficult task to take such a self-important grump as Rothko and make him something that can hold an audience’s attention for a bit under two hours, without intermission.  But Derrah endows Rothko’s movements and speech with so many wonderful beats and levels that it can be impossible not to be riveted by the artist pacing and raging like a trapped tiger.  While Rothko’s lines cut deep into the heart of anyone who cares about art, it is his silence that is the most menacing and most revealing.  Olson also does a nice job growing Ken from a mild assistant into an artistic bomb-thrower.

The set, designed by Christina Todesco, is as textured and intricate as Derrah’s performance, complete with exposed pipes and grimy windows, weathered to perfection.  Much of the music also is warm and chewy, although occasionally the dramatic mood music between scenes crosses the line from intense to over-the-top.

If your theater experience needs a show-stopping tune and someone flying through the air on a harness, then you might want to skip Red.  But if you are in the mood for something enigmatic and deeply felt, then this play is for you.

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