Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Red is set in Rothko's New York City studio in the late 1950s right after he has been commissioned to create a series of murals to hang on the walls of the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York's Seagram Building. Ken, a young artist in his 20s, has come to work as Rothko's assistant. Over the two-year period that Logan's play covers, Rothko and Ken will work together on the Four Seasons commission as Rothko often preaches his self-centered views to Ken while also belittling and bulling him until the demons in their pasts are revealed.
This is a play of many layers. On one hand it is the story of a teacher and a student, on another level it is the story of a man trying to hold on to what he believes art is and how no one truly sees it the way he does, let alone the up and coming crop of "pop" artists like Andy Warhol or other famous artists of the time period of the play, like Jackson Pollock. On another level it shows the shifting balance between the young and the old as the uneducated youth becomes just as knowledgeable as the older teacher. And it is also the tale of a man with many demons who talks about his eventual suicide as if that is the only way his life could possibly end. Interestingly, Rothko was a painter of layers, with thin layers of paint layered on top of other thin layers in other colors, so the colors would sometimes show through the top layers. Logan has expertly created a play in line with the way Rothko created his art.
Rothko is portrayed by Michael Fleck, a powerful force of nature in the role delivering a thoughtful, nuanced and fully fleshed out performance. Fleck expertly gets across how Rothko is a moody, agitated, pompous, egotistical and pretentious man, full of himself, self-centered, self-absorbed, and set in his ways but truly afraid of the new crop of younger artists that are now on the art scene. Sure, he might toss off these individuals with contempt and as having nothing in common with himself, but through Fleck's excellent portrayal, we see over the course of the play that there is also a fear of what's "hot" and trendy in Rothko's, which makes him despise these new artists. At the time of the play, Rothko is at the point in his life when he thinks that basically no one except himself is worthy of viewing, let alone owning, one of his paintings. He believes everyone simply views his paintings as a commodity and that no one truly sees either the tragedy and the beauty in his work. Fleck is riveting in the role.
Ken, played by Quinn Johnson, is at first apprehensive and in awe of Rothko, but over the course of the 90-minute, one act play, and the two-year period the play covers, he begins to question Rothko's ideas of what a painter is and what paintings stand for, and he eventually strikes back at Rothko verbally in an emotional monologue toward the end of the play. That speech, handled expertly by Johnson, shows Rothko how wrong his views are as well as how the younger up and coming artists might actually know more than he does. It is at the end of this moment when Rothko truly sees Ken as a person and not just a nameless assistant. Johnson's ability to show the vast changes his character makes and the strength he finds is incredibly well done.
With only one small quibble, Carol MacLeod's direction is excellent. She makes effective use of the realistic art studio set by Deborah Boehm, with the movement of Fleck and Johnson adding a natural sense of these two men who pace and prance around the set almost as if they are a hunter and his prey. MacLeod's direction ensures that both actors' performances are infused with passion, not only in the way they inhibit the characters but also in the one well-choreographed scene where they are collectively painting the base layer on a large canvas. And while Fleck's performance of Rothko is layered, it is really Johnson whose character grows the most over the play. Quiet, apprehensive, and unsure of himself in the beginning he grows into someone of self-assurance and confidence.
Since the play is set over two years, it requires costume changes for each character at each of the four scene changes. Unfortunately, the lighting design by Stacey Walston, which is excellent during the scenes themselves, and direction of these scene changes by MacLeod could be better. There is much talk about light in the play, so having most of the scenes end with both men walking off the stage in almost full light and not having the scenes end with black outs seems a bit strange. If you didn't know the scene had ended you might think the two had simply stepped off stage for a brief moment.
With just that one small shortcoming, Red at Theatre Artists Studio is still incredibly rewarding. MacLeod, Fleck and Johnson are to be commended for providing a thrilling production of Logan's excellent play.
Red, through March 25, 2018, at Theatre Artists Studio, at 4848 East Cactus Road in Scottsdale CA. Tickets are on sale at www.TheStudioPHX.org or by calling 602-765-0120.
Director: Carol MacLeod