TheaterWorks has audiences seeing RED

Jacques Lamarre

Three stars

After the Second World War, the art scene in the United States became a battlefield of its own. Abstract Expressionism, an emotionally-charged, nihilistic movement swept previously heralded forms of Cubism, Dadaism and Modernism aside. Eschewing Europeans like Picasso, Dali and Matisse, Abstract Expressionism was centered in New York, championed by the likes of Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollack. Among the revolutionaries seeking to overthrow Old World forms, Mark Rothko and his bold paintings of color fields were at the vanguard.

Set in 1958, shortly after Rothko had been commissioned to create a series of paintings to complement the Four Seasons dining room at the new Seagrams Building, John Logan's two-hander Red catches the vitriolic artist as he prepares dozens of new canvases. The action of the play is contained in the painter's studio, with a giant, rolling easel, slop sink, cramped office and stacked canvases. Scenic Designer Donald Eastman reimagines TheaterWorks' intimate playing space by stripping out the decking altogether and placing the action on the theatre's tiled floor. The back wall and columns are exposed while lighting designer Stephen Quandt's variations on artificial lighting suit Rothko's abolition of natural light (and naturalism, for that matter).

Like the Abstract Expressionists, Logan's script is highly emotional and confrontational, demanding much of the audience. As Rothko, the character, keeps referring to art pulsating at the viewer, the barrage of words, concepts and fury fly in this highly intelligent play. The inevitabilities of changing tastes in art and mortality confront the painter and audience as the tension between Rothko, his insular studio, the outside world, and his assistant Ken all come into conflict.

As the Russian Jewish immigrant Marcus Rothkowitz (later renamed to remove the impediment of WASP-y, anti-Semitic art buyers), Jonathan Epstein gives one of the finest performances seen this year on a Connecticut stage. Aggressive, belligerent and self-absorbed, he plumbs the full ferocity of the part. When confronted by Ken's assessment that Rothko's fate will be the same as “the dinosaurs” who were dismissed by the arrival of Abstract Expressionists, you see Epstein completely hollow out and stare into the abyss of irrelevancy. It is an operatic part, highlighted by operatic music, and the actor masterfully handles every aria. A steady hand directing opera himself, Tazewell Thompson stages the production with muscularity and fluidity, befitting the heightened emotions of the piece. Thompson paints Epstein's chain-smoking and arrogant Rothko as a caged lion -- pacing, roaring, growling and snapping at Ken.

Playwright Logan has constructed a sturdy variation on the conflict between a genius and an upstart adversary. Amadeus and Master Class both contraposed Mozart and Callas with Salieri and Julliard students, respectively. Red places Ken, a fresh-faced art student with a tragic past, into the lion's den. The production's one weak link, and it is a substantial one, is the performance of Thomas Leverton as Ken. Whereas Epstein is flawless in playing the highs and lows of a tormented artist, Leverton is out-matched. His acting choices feel like just that -- acting. He does not inhabit his role fully. Although Ken is mainly a construct of the playwright, the character has unusual dimension and should be a more capable foil. Ken has arias of his own and, compared to Epstein, Leverton hits many wrong notes.

The sound design by J Hagenbuckle manages to embody the clashing forms of the time period: classical music with dissonant, clanging jazz. Harry Nadal's costumes seem a bit off as Rothko should be a bit more encrusted in paint knowing how deeply committed he is to his art. Ken's shirt and pants look like they could be contemporary off-the-rack fashions, not necessarily grounded in the late 50s-early 60s art world. Perhaps this is a conscious choice as the themes that Rothko and playwright Logan tackle are still as fresh and urgent now as they were half-a-century ago. Audiences looking for an emotional, taut and thoughtful evening of theater should be seeing Red.

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