Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Instead of attempting to explain his work to critics, Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko famously said "Silence is so accurate." Uttered on it's own, or layered over one of Rothko's floating rectangular forms as a popular Internet meme, the phrase sounds rich with peaceful insight. But when those words fly from the mouth of actor David Volin, they are full of vitriolic rage, a stinging judgment, and a defensive dismissal. This is the power of John Logan's Tony Award winning Red, which breathes life into the historical figure of the artist and reveals the passion behind intellectual evaluations of his powerful paintings.
Redtakes place entirely in Mark Rothko's (born Markus Rotkovich) New York City studio in the late 1950s, a time when his signature style has already earned him fame, critical acclaim, and some financial success. Rothko has been commissioned to create a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant and he hires Ken, an intelligent young painter, to work in the studio as his personal assistant. As they mix paint and stretch canvas, Rothko abrasively lectures Ken about the importance of literature and poetry, the relationship between paintings and their viewers, and works that have shaped his personal aesthetic. Ken's confidence builds over time and the pair's discussions become more heated and personal. Ken and Rothko are the only characters who appear on stage, but the play is always as much about Rothko's relationship with his paintings as it is about his relationship with Ken.
The production is at its marvelous best when focused on the most visceral elements of Rothko's art form. An argument over the meaning of "red" is at once authentic and profound. Rothko's (played by David Volin) remembrance of Matisse's The Red Studio is seductive and disquieting. The priming of a large canvas excites like a frenzied dance. In these moments the audience feels as though they have truly entered the private world of the artist, getting a rare glimpse into the heart and mind of a genius. The more intellectual dialogue is loads of fun too, but ends up feeling a bit contrived. Discussions of Pollack and Nietzsche are structured more like very interesting academic essays rather than actual conversations.
The production is weakest in the scenes concerning the personal relationship between artist and assistant. Daniel Fredrick does an excellent job as Ken, starting out nervously deferential and becoming more confrontational as he gains confidence in his own ability and vision. The problem is that Volin and director Dan Olmstead have conjured a Rothko that is less ego-maniacal asshole and more doddering old man. Volin is appropriately vicious with Rothko's tirades, but those come too few and far between. For most of the play Volin seems pitiful, an isolated and paranoid intellectual who spends more time reminiscing about the old poetry than actually painting. Without a titanic sense of self-absorption to balance out his earnest artistic drive, Rothko's vulnerabilities dominate Volin's portrayal and leave Fredrick without a strong foil to work against.
Despite this issue, Red remains enjoyable and engaging throughout. There are a few moments (the opening scene and while constructing the frame for a canvas) where the stage seems awkwardly constrained, but set designer Roman Tatarowicz does an admirable job turning the very tight space into a studio large enough to hold the famously grand canvases of Mr. Rothko. It is a space where artists, art lovers, and historians will be particularly delighted to spend their time. Even those who have never set foot in a gallery will likely be inspired and moved when they see Red.
Red runs through March 20, 2016, at Walnut Street Theatre, Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut St., Philadelphia. Tickets are now available at 215-574-3550 or 215-336-1234 or online at walnutstreettheatre.org.