Red: Golden Theatre, 6/9/10

24 06 2010

Red was not at the top of my list of shows to see in NYC.  I have never intimately familiarized myself with Rothko’s art and generally dislike bio-dramas, which tend towards the factual rather than the creatively compelling. But with 7 Tony nominations, stunning reviews, and a soaring recommendation from my friend Heather, I couldn’t resist a $25 back-row ticket to this new John Logan play.  By the end of my NYC stay, I was raving and recommending Red to all my friends, above and beyond even my favorite musicals currently running in the city.  (And you know what a musical theater aficionado I am.) I was thrilled to read earlier this week that Red recouped its investment – a rare financial and artistic success for a new play on Broadway!

Refreshingly, John Logan defies several prevailing trends in bio-drama: to cover the artist’s lifetime and to revere the artist’s timeless “genius.”  Red focuses on a brief two years of “abstract expressionist” Mark Rothko’s creative life in the late 1950s, during which Rothko developed commissions for The Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building.  A condensed time frame and unity of space – Rothko’s nearly-windowless painter’s studio in the Bowery – opens up a beautiful contemplation on symbiosis and collaboration on multiple, overlapping levels:

(1) The arts and life. While never reducing Rothko’s life to his art (for instance, reading his impending suicide in his increasingly dark and abstract paintings), Logan’s poetic text explores the interrelationships among the arts – from literature to music to drama – and their overlapping impressions on Rothko’s work and life. Alfred Molina’s Rothko exults in operatic arias and rattles off Nietzsche with rigor, captivating the audience with his command of the stage.

(2) Rothko and his assistant. Rothko’s elitist bent comes head-to-head (in a rather Stoppardian fashion) with his young apprentice Ken, who is just as inspired by jazz as classical music and is ready to kill off the abstract expressionists to develop a new style for his generation.  In a two-man show, the tension between Rothko’s mastery and his dependence on (and perhaps even desire for) collaboration and connection is constantly palpable.  While Eddie Redmayne’s physicality and voice were rather too contemporary for me at first, I quickly fell captivate to his performance as Ken, a provocative push and pull against Molina’s Rothko.

(3) The creative team of Red. While Logan’s play is beautifully poetic in its own right, Red could not exist without the dynamic performances of Molina and Redmayne, nor the vibrant design and direction of the creative team behind this particular production.  Rothko’s art itself becomes a collaborator in the drama, taking center stage in the affectionately worn studio designed by Christopher Oram.  The paintings literally glow in the stunning lighting provided by Neil Austin.  And Grandage’s direction shines in a remarkably choreographed scene of priming the canvas; accompanied by classical music, Rothko and his assistant splash red across the blank page, holding the audience captive for a good minute before the actors collapse – and the audience bursts into applause, as if at the end of a musical number.

(4) The play and the audience. Rothko’s opening line is not a statement of his own mastery, but a question for his apprentice’s approbation: “What do you see?”  Just as Rothko requests Ken’s thoughts, this play demands the audience’s active collaboration.  What do you, as an audience member, see? “Captive” seems to have been the catchphrase of this review.  For me, Red‘s invigorating 90 minutes constituted an inspiring collaboration that constantly engaged and made intellectual demands of me as an audience member – all the while, renewing my hope that the commercial mandates of Broadway and artistry are not entirely incompatible.

In the end, Rothko’s struggles to maintain a balance between elitism and popularity are not a bad metaphor for Red on the Broadway stage.  The balance between artistry and commercialism is challenging to strike, but – remarkably enough – Red has achieved it. If you are in the NYC area, catch this production before its limited engagement ends on June 27.

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16 12 2010
A Year in Theater: 2010 « Sarah Taylor Ellis

[…] (Golden Theatre) – Review Sheer brilliance of writing, direction, acting, design … I was stunned by this production. Of the […]

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