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Red — Walnut Independence Studio on 3

red -interior 2Just as Sweeney Todd instructs Anthony Hope about the various shades of blonde hair, the painter, Mark Rothko, lectures his assistant, named Ken but never addressed as such, about the multiple properties of the color red.

There’s crimson and scarlet and ruby. There’s blends towards orange such as rust and fire-engine red. There’s gradations towards purple like maroon and magenta. There’s darker reds like the one you see on barns and pale reds that fade into pink.

For Rothko, these differences are artistic life and death. Red, as a color and a concept, means something specific and symbolic philosophical even. Especially when used practically in a painting. For Rothko, producing the right red from the powered pigments he mixes, is as important as a writer finding the precise words to denote exactly what he or she wants to say. Red is not just what Crayola decides it is, or a chip on a Pantone scale. When seen on canvas, it registers with people more than the image they conceive when they casually think of red.

Hence, you see the basis for John Logan calling his engaging and thought-provoking play about Rothko and his intellectual approach to art, “Red.”

In “Red,” Rothko will explain and pontificate and philosophize and opine about purposes and nuances of painting more than he takes brush to large canvas. Ken, the assistant who doesn’t know at any instant the mood or attitude the artist will take, in his primary audience. It is to Logan’s credit that he keeps the tension between the mercurial Rothko and the passive Ken strong and affecting as regards Ken. It makes long discussions of the tension Rothko wants to put into his paintings palatable, human, and interesting. We, the theater audience, can take in Rothko’s thoughts, as Ken does, while responding emotionally, in a way Ken cannot, when Rothko, suddenly and unpredictably miffed, berates or disparages or rants at Ken over concepts that are big but matters that are petty.

In spite of successes at London’s Donmar Warehouse and on Broadway, where it received the Tony for Best Play in 2010, “Red” cannot be taken for granted as a piece. It needs careful timing and intensity so Rothko’s theories and pronouncements don’t get to deep and Ken doesn’t get lost in the wood planks he’s constantly hammering into large square canvases that await Rothko’s inspiration.

Dan Olmsted finds that balance in his absorbing production of “Red” at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio on 3. David Volin, as Rothko, is commanding enough so that we are driven to pay attention to him as Ken does. Logan helps by making all Rothko has to say interesting from an aesthetic and intellectual point of view. You may not agree with all the artist has to say and worry that his ego at times skews his perception and conclusions, but you listen and react. Volin never bores. You don’t have the inclination to tune out until one more lecture or tirade has ended.

One of the reasons Volin’s outbursts as Rothko are acceptable and entertaining is the stance Daniel Fredrick, as Ken, takes towards his boss,

Though it’s clear Rothko thinks of Ken only as a lackey to do his bidding whether priming canvases, heading out for cigarettes, or pouring scotch from a handy bottle into crusty mugs, Fredrick endows him with great presence. Rothko can ignore or degrade Ken. We can’t. Fredrick is as poised to listen and respond as much as Volin’s Rothko is. He just as to take a different tone and pick his moments to engage his employer in discussion.

Fredrick is never a sheepish Ken. He realizes he is an assistant and his job is do Rothko’s bidding and endure his maunderings, but thanks to Fredrick, you always know how Ken is reacting to Rothko’s declarations and behaviors.

Fredrick’s Ken is like a student, willing to put up with a professor’s idiosyncrasies, and Rothko’s are legion, to consider what the famous, successful artist is saying. He might not agree. He might regard some of Rothko’s ideas as harsh or antiquated or so much horse manure. He may glean that Rothko is depressive and self-pitying. He certainly knows Rothko’s world revolves around Rothko now that the painter is wealthy enough not to need much from the outside world. The glory is Fredrick doesn’t move to one side and leave the stage to Volin. The two actors create a counterpoint. Olmstead’s production remains lively and incisive even when Rothko is off on one of his multi-pronged tangents or going into a maudlin reflection upon death.

Logan is smart. He gives Ken opportunity to challenge Rothko, and there is give and take. Ken’s epiphany scene is a tad sentimental, but it fills in blanks you have been curious about but Rothko never has the interest or curiosity to ask about.

Played this well, “Red” provides an excellent view of how one artist regards his profession and how personal philosophy and intention can inform art. Logan has Rothko explain how his geometric patterns, in their carefully fixed positions and carefully chosen colors, even when monochromatic, even when all red, tell stories and trigger inner tension. He also lets Rothko wax on the history of art, especially in the time from the impressions to his era, and Jackson Pollock’s. He says the job of the contemporary artists, of any period, is to obliterate the art of the preceding years. He, Rothko says, is out to kill Picasso and the cubists with his more expressionistic, even less representational forms.

As I write about it, you might think this all becomes arcane, intellectual bushwa, but no. Thanks to Logan, Olmstead, and Volin, Rothko’s words resonate and fascinate. They provide insight into an aesthetic, a movement, and even a psychological desire that I, like Ken, cannot buy into. (I believe art is cumulative and that one era’s art should not replace or “kill” another’s but add to a grand definition of what art can be, each period’s work as legitimate and worthwhile as any other’s. I like “ands” instead of “ors.” I don’t have to choose between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Or between Pablo Picasso and Mark Rothko. I can like both of them and think discrimination should be saved for judgments of “good” and “bad” or “schmaltz” and “rubbish,” even then the verdict being in the eye of the beholder. Genre, style, and period don’t matter except to describe and classify more precisely.)

Ken mostly lets Rothko ramble, Fredrick aiding Olmstead’s production by remaining a palpable presence during these sequences. “Red” becomes more fun when Ken gets bold and feisty, such as when he lauds Lichtenstein, Johns, Warhol, and Rauschenberg, the painters who, by Rothko’s logic, must be out to obliterate him.

Logan is canny about planting biographical details is passages, so we know more about Rothko, and eventually Ken, without having to endure a large lump of exposition. The author also finds a way to bring an sense of elegy to Rothko’s talk about death. “Red” takes place in its present, circa 1958, so Rothko’s ideas, and fears, of death, neatly make you think about Rothko’s suicide in 1970 without, of course, mentioning or alluding to it.

The Rothko we see is quite robust, putting great physical energy into the painting he does when he’s not sitting in his artificially lit studio staring at a canvas to divine exactly what a specific painting needs. He is also culturally vibrant and broadly informed. Classic musical plays constantly, and sounds wonderful in Christopher Colucci’s sound design, and Rothko advises Ken a painter must know the great works of all art, music, literature, and dance as well as painting and sculpture, if he is or she is going to be a first-class artist.

Logan gives you a sense of the business of art, and how aesthetics and marketing co-exist even in high temples of culture, as the artist discusses his commission to create eight works for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram building. Rothko likens his work hanging there to a Philistine customers coming to his gallery with a swatch of their sofa fabric to make sure the colors in a painting match the palette of their room.

Again, all Logan includes comes out entertainingly in Olmstead’s production. The byplay between Volin and Fredrick, even in scenes with little dialogue, is authentic in feel. You get a sure sense you are at a workplace where business is being done, or art created, and glean the difference between the boss and the wage earner. This is because Olmstead, Volin, and Fredrick are so adroit at maintaining a constant frisson of tension. You feel conflict even when none in actively taking place. It even makes for Ken’s sporadic outbursts being both dramatic and a relief because it is natural when friction foments some spark.

A mood of anger and hostility prevails on the “Red” set. Even when all is peaceful, you know there’s no equality and a lot of anticipation of temperamental outburst.

“Red” includes some amazing scenes, and Olmstead and company make the most of them.

The most passionate, oddly enough, involves priming a canvas by mixing the desired shade of red, in this case and deep maroon leading more toward brown than purple, and smearing it liberally on the porous, absorbing material until it is completely slathered with a thick coat.

This is a great scene of energy and release, and Volin and Frederick play it well (although I did not understand how they could emerge from the labor and gusto they put into this sequence without a speck of visible paint landing on their T-shirts.

It’s the effort that matters in this scene. It’s seeing how strenuous and particular painting can be. It also gives the artist and his assistance a chance to vent a lot of energy and anxiety. The audience watches in fascination and hopes it doesn’t get sloshed. Olmstead makes the correct decision of having the canvas faced the audience so we can see the color engulfing every bit of space and enjoy the haphazard zeal with which the paint is applied before savoring Fredrick’s finishing strokes that smooth it.

Another fine moment Is when Ken, tired of Rothko’s indulgence and egged on by his anger at Rothko’s disdain for Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, lashes out at Rothko’s lack of interest and points out the artist doesn’t where he lives, whether he’s married or not, what kind of painting he does, or whether he’s making headway in his career. (Ken has brought paintings for Rothko to see, but they’ve remained unwrapped because no good time presents itself for Ken to show them to the master, who he believes will hate his work anyhow.)

Rothko’s response is just as good and dramatic as Ken’s plea for attention. He tells his assistant his studio is about him and his work, that he’s there to help and please Rothko in whatever way he’s told, and that they have a business relationship not a friendship.

Craft is abundant in the Walnut production. Logan’s work is seen and enjoyed it all of its facets. Olmstead keeps this taut, tense, and human. Volin and Fredrick embody their characters with dimension that us curious about them and how they’ll interact for “Red’s” duration.

Roman Tatarowicz’s set gives the impression of a busy studio that, beyond its helter-skelter appearance, is well organized, so that paint, canvas, individual works, and scotch are easily reachable. The spattered look of the studio is particularly authentic.

Rothko makes a point of saying how much he likes artificial lighting, and J. Dominic Chacon does an excellent job shifting light as Rothko moves around and turns on the giant lamps that give him the desired illumination. Chacon shows his artistry in a sequence in which Ken raises a shade Rothko insists stay drawn. The pattern of light is diffused and uneven in a strikingly natural way.

Jillian Keys didn’t have to worry about a variety of costumes, but the outfits she chose for Ken and the suits for Rothko seem right for the time and the character.

“Red” runs through Sunday, March 20 at the Independence Studio on 3 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $35 to $30 and can be obtained by calling 215-574-3550 or by visiting www.walnutstreettheatre.org. Grade: A

 

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