By Beki Pineda
RED – Written by John Logan; Directed by Craig Bond. Presented by Vintage Theatre (1468 Dayton, Aurora) through January 7, 2018. Tickets available at 303-856-7830 or vintagetheatre.com.
John Logan, the playwright, has had a prolific and varied writing career. Starting with plays about the famed Leopold and Loeb case (NEVER THE SINNER) and the Lindbergh baby kidnapping (HAUPTMAN), he moved to screenwriting, penning such noted movies as GLADIATOR, THE AVIATOR, STAR TREK: NEMESIS, HUGO and a couple of James Bond scripts. Trading action for art, he returned to the stage and wrote RED which appeared on Broadway in 2010 featuring Alfred Molino as Mark Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as his assistant. Coincidentally, he also wrote the one-woman show Emma Messenger is bringing back for one night only to Vintage – I’LL EAT YOU LAST – on December 30th.
RED chronicles a specific period of noted painter Mark Rothko’s life during the late 1950s. He had been painting and teaching for over thirty years and had been commissioned to create a series of works for the Four Seasons Restaurant, which was being constructed in the new Seagram Building in New York. He has hired Ken, a new assistant, to do the prep work and keep the studio cleaned up. This character is probably a compilation of several of his assistants but serves the purpose of allowing Rothko to express his feelings about his paintings and his place in the art world. In his 50s by now, Rothko has begun to see the decline of his form of expressionism and the rise of a new (to him) more frivolous style called Pop Art. Even though he professes he is not Ken’s teacher, father or mentor, just his employer, he cannot help himself from attempting to broaden Ken’s perspective on life and art in general. As the two year span of the production progresses, an easy routine develops between them, most apparent as they work together on creating a base coat for a new painting…the most joy filled moments of the play.
Rothko’s paintings during the time were most often cubes of color juxtaposed against a darker base. While he enjoys the financial gains of popularity, he also decries the stigma of artistic commercialism, a hypocritical point that Ken makes later in the play. Rothko feared the day when the “black would overtake the color”, a symbolic remark on the loss of talent, sight, life. He felt the greatest tragedy would be to “grow superfluous” in your own lifetime. After taking a dramatic step with regards to this work, the play ends as it begins with a man standing in front of an empty canvas, contemplating.
A giant role undertaken by a gifted actor, Phil Luna embodies Rothko with an ego and humanity flowing from the same source of experience. Phil’s own life in art informs his portrayal of Rothko and gives it power. He finds the irony, the desperation, even the humor in Rothko’s state of mind. He does become a father/older brother/teacher to his student in this enterprise. J.W. Spina as Ken provides a listening sounding board and grows throughout the play from nervous novice to experienced critic who throws Rothko’s remarks back in his own face.
In most productions, the audience never sees Rothko’s style of art. In fact, it is not permitted by the terms of the license. However, for this production, the students in the Contemporary Art class at Denver Waldorf School (under the guidance of teacher Kimberly Martin) were given the experience of creating Rothko-like paintings to be used in the production. Images of these paintings were projected against the back wall of the small theatre giving the actors and audience alike a point of reference.
The art studio set has the familiar turpentine, oil based paint, old food look and smell about it. There is spilled paint on the floor and walls; the equipment for framing and providing base coats is there; the spacial dimensions are right for creating large canvasses. And yet, it is an intimate gathering space. The music provided for the time spent painting also emphasizes the differences between the two men. Ken likes the easy rhythms of jazz while Rothko’s music is heavy and dark like his color blocks.
An ambitious undertaking for Vintage Theatre that succeeds.
A WOW factor of 8.5