Story: American artist Mark Rothko, whose body of work included surrealism, abstract expressionism and bold, innovative experiments in color, took a disciplined approach to his work. Ensconced since the early 1950s in a former YMCA gymnasium in the Bowery section of New York City, Rothko enlisted the aid of various assistants to help him in the construction of his massive paintings.
In 1959 he hires an aspiring young artist named Ken to provide much of the elbow grease required for a daunting assignment tackled by Rothko: Painting a series of murals for the ritzy Four Seasons restaurant in a building on Park Avenue designed for the Seagram beverage company by renowned architects Philip Johnson and Miles Van der Rohe
Working with a recognized artistic master, Ken learns as much about Rothko’s mercurial personality as about his revolutionary approach to art. The temperamental artist draws upon his own considerable wellspring of knowledge about literature, history, politics, mythology and other sources -- especially German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche -- to inspire his creations, even if his cynicism and bullying behavior accentuate his often misanthropic nature. His tormented assistant, though, proves his own mettle as he challenges Rothko’s ideas and behavior.
Highlights: Written by John Logan, Red won six Tony Awards in 2010, including Best Play. The two-man, one-act drama is a good choice for fledgling troupe Encore! Theater Group to tackle because of its small cast and Encore’s utilization of a working warehouse to represent Rothko’s imposing Bowery studio.
Within the cavernous interior of All Trades Supply, scenic artist Margie Williamson, lighting designer Effrem Grettenberger and properties designer Nellie Ognacevic offer a realistic look at the type of space where Rothko would go about his business-like approach to the “creation, maturation and cessation” of the creative process.
Although sight-lines from the makeshift seating area can be problematic further back from the performance, it’s a good locale to accentuate the mood of Logan’s perceptive piece. Director Jack Dryden keeps the focus of the action squarely on the two performers, augmented by an impressive scene when the two players completely cover a canvas in Rothko’s signature hue to the strains of the classical music selected by the senior painter.
As Rothko notes, “There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend: One day the black will swallow the red,” a reference to his ongoing pre-occupation with death. In the role of the renowned artist, Steve Callahan is at his best when Rothko is expounding his philosophical observations in an imperious fashion. Often, though, his delivery on opening night sounded tentative and somewhat flat-lined, a cadence that diluted the impact of the script, particularly in the Rothko’s conversations with his “employee.”
Pete Winfrey brings a charming and vulnerable naivete to the role of Ken. Anxious to learn from the master, Ken shares his own passion for the color red, along with a harrowing story about his own background, with Rothko. Winfrey is equal to the task of that delivery, offering a suitable contrast to the more clinically reserved, if caustic, Rothko as portrayed by Callahan.
Red is a challenging work but a richly rewarding one when thrillingly executed, as it was a couple of years ago at The Rep. There are plenty of positives, though, to be taken from this sincere effort by Encore! Theater Group. With future productions of Oleanna, Toyer and Dear Linda, Signed, Me scheduled, Encore! Theater Group is a welcome addition to the local theatrical scene.
Company: Encore! Theater Group
Venue: All Trades Supply, 10 Kirkham Industrial Drive
Dates: August 16, 17
Tickets: $15; contact 329-8998 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.