I always hope that a theater production will thrill me, or any work of art, for that matter. I’ve seen paintings that have. Years ago I saw the Rothko works which Harvard was about to shut away forever to stop the colors from deteriorating. Faded or no, they thrilled.
Now SpeakEasy Stage Company has thrilled me with their remarkable production of the celebrated Mark Rothko play called RED (@ BCA through Feb. 4th). John Logan’s Tony Award winning drama finds Rothko in the late 1950s struggling with the famous Seagram commission. (Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson imagined their ground breaking building with a sumptuous restaurant ringed in Rothko murals.) Is he selling out? Improving on the architecture? Educating the rich who will be its only diners? Or can he teach them a sardonic lesson by making the paintings uncomfortable to view?
While Rothko wrestles with the morality of the commission, he wrestles with a young painter whom he hires as his assistant, a young man who represents the death (or at least the eclipse) of abstract expressionism. Rothko isn’t pleased that the likes of Frank Stella and Andy Warhol have overshadowed him (although in my opinion Stella is far closer to Rothko than to the pop/op superstars Logan lumps all together).
Logan’s research is breathtaking: He uses Rothko’s own words (which were prolific) to teach his upstart employee about art history. Rothko was not silent about his work…or his detractors. Logan captures “the tragedy in every brush stroke” with depth and dialogue. Thomas Derrah captures the man with every breath, every step. He charges like a rhino, whose legs are too close to the ground to evade predators. He uses his arms and hands like the rhino uses his horn, forcing people out of his way. He slaps his assistant’s chest and thumps his head as if to knock in “thinking,” viewing the entire world with disdain.
Karl Baker Olson gives an extraordinary performance as the “employee,” moving from toady to surrogate son to future rebel. The chemistry between the two is palpable. Derrah’s tour de force erupts from within. His Rothko is a bully and a genius and he lets us see the torture behind the tough defenses, the fear that one day “Black will swallow red.”
Rothko was prescient about light. He painted in dim spaces without natural light. “Light hurts [the paintings], he tells his assistant metaphorically. He didn’t know then that sunlight would literally decay the commercial (house) paint he preferred to artist’s pigment. Logan’s play resonates in even more ways. He’s writing about creation – and in a coup like no other I’ve seen, he allows us in when we watch the two men prime a canvas. It’s a spectacular moment. Do not miss the fire and crackle director David R. Gammons and company ignite with RED.