Sunday, March 4, 2012

Red at Seattle Repertory Theater - A Theater Review

When Seattle Rep announced its 2011-2012 season, I assumed that Red by John Logan would be one of the pieces that I would skip this year. I hadn't read the play yet, but descriptions of it, a play about a famous artist, Mark Rothko, a two character play, taking place in Rothko's studio between the aging artist and his young apprentice, seemed to be one of those plays about "art" that is not only easily described to the potential audience but just as easily digestible to that audience. Everyone gets to feel that they have a glimpse into the creative process of a great artist, no one is really all that challenged, and everyone goes home feeling more cultured than before.

Additionally, in the New York production, the Rothko role was played by the great, but scenery chewing, Alfred Molina. The idea of watching Molina embody the unchecked ego of a great artist and rage and howl for 90 minutes, seemed like a safe, predictable and self-indulgent experience for both actor and audience. Its interesting how the premiere casting of a play can work on our perception and interpretation of it.

Denis Arndt as Mark Rothko
Fortunately for Seattle audiences, the Rep and director Richard E. T. White either ignored or purposely reacted against the Molina archetype in their casting of Mark Rothko. Indeed, it was the casting of Denis Arndt that convinced me to see the show. Arndt is one of the most fluid and effortless actors to watch on stage. His attention to the subtle details of his characters and his non-negotiable embodiment of them have delivered, over the years, some of the best performances I have seen on Seattle stages. His introspective, sometimes even delicate Rothko seductively lured the audience in from his first moments of silence on stage, bringing all the more drama and tension to scenes where his hard shell engulfed the character like a fist of pride, defensiveness, and self-loathing. Arndt is magnificent to watch and is a reason in itself to see this show.

A minimalistically elaborate set
Yet, this production is generous enough to offer more justifications that just this to recommend it. The design team here has done an outstanding job. Rothko's studio is both monumentally grounded and minimalistically elaborate. It is so texturally diverse you want to jump up there and touch it, yet also simple and utilitarian enough that its allows the focus to always shift as need between the actors and the art. The lighting (light is a huge topic and theme of the play) is so subtly effective that I am sure most audience members wouldn't even think of it as the artistry that it is.

Seagram Murals at the Tate Modern
The paintings themselves are a bit more hit or miss (what a huge challenge - to create credible equivalents of masterworks of abstract expressionism). The first couple we see in the studio tend to look a bit too much like the work of a stage painter. Yet they do progress as the play does and the final two horizontal pieces stand out and beg the audience to take them in and absorb the pulsing movement that Rothko has been describing the whole evening.

Connor Toms as Ken
While Rothko seems like the bigger casting decision, so much relies on the effectiveness of Ken, the young apprentice whose questions, comments and reactions are the catalyst that keeps the play moving. Connor Toms brings all the energetic, youthful and wide eyed naivete that you need from this part and makes for a perfect counterbalance to the often curmudgeonly Rothko. I wish, however, we saw him grow up a bit more. When  Rothko finally kicks him out at the end, I think we should also see a young man, and an artist, who has matured and possibly outgrown his role as apprentice. Toms plays him as still a bit green at this point, but it is a minor nuance in an otherwise solid performance.

Director White and his team here have created a richly layered experience here, one that allows the audience to slow down, reflect and gaze at the performance as much as follow its action. The contrast of light and dark, the pulsing and movement that Rothko talks about are all present here washing over the audience again and again, scene after scene like cascading waves on a beach that, when the stillness of the final scene arrives, delivers a unexpected surprise as to how far we have journeyed from the shore.

Red plays at Seattle Repertory Theater runs through March 24

There is a Mark Rothko exhibit currently at the Portland Art Museum on display through May 27.


I had some trouble with the play itself. The best things that can be said for it, is that it is light handed enough to allow artists like these to create such a fine evening of theater from it. The role of Ken is such a device to get Rothko talking that we almost loose his humanity (again hats off to Connor Toms), which is probably why we get the obligatory sad and tragic personal story about Tom's family that does little for the play except give the actor a nice juicy moment and introduce Ken's absence of a father figure.

That said there was one moment in the play that didn't quite live up to its potential in this production (spoiler coming, so please skip this paragraph if you don't want anything given away). In the final scene of the play it calls for Rothko to be "slumped awkwardly on the floor, gazing up at the central picture." When Ken enters and turns on some lights, Ken "stops - it is a shocking sight. Rothko's hands and arms are dripping with red. It is paint, but it looks just like blood." Ken thinks Rothko, who has alluded to suicide before, has slit his wrists. He freaks out for a moment and then realizes it is paint. In this production, Arndt is not slumped awkwardly, as one might be if they were loosing blood, or in this case had a had a few drinks. Nor is the paint that is used blood red but more clay colored and does not look for even a split second to the audience like Rothko has slit his wrists. Actually, the audience is confused at why Ken is freaking out. Its clearly paint, the same paint that has been used throughout the entire evening.  The real Rothko did end up committing suicide by slitting his wrists and clearly the playwright included this as a bit of foreshadowing. What a difference is they had delivered to the audience the same shock that Ken feels.

This is a surprising miss, but ultimately a very minor criticism in what is a wonderfully successful production.