Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Red"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Larry Stark


by John Logan

Directed by David R. Gammons

Scenic Design by Christina Todesco
Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley
Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg
Sound Design by Bill Barclay
Technical Director Lane Clare Black
Rothko reproduction Painter Abigail Neuhoff
Properties Master James Wilkinson
Scene Shop Wooden Kiwi
Company Manager Dawn Saglio
Production Stage Manager Katie Allinger

Mark Rothko..Thomas Derrah
Ken..........Karl Baker Olson

All art is metaphor; start there.
Put centerstage a great, historic creative talent at the height of a long career.
Inject into the work-space an eager young student --- actually an audience-surrogate --- who can ask dumb questions, fill in background , listen to often outrageously eloquent dogmatic pronouncements about life in general and the particular art in question, and who, eventually, can grow brave enough to question and even to criticze the mentor.
Then send that student (and the audience) back out into the real world with new eyes, new insights, renewed and invigorated minds.
And it helps when everyone connected with the exercise is a theatrical master eager to --- in the final words of John Logan's magnificent play --- "Make something new!"

That is how SpeakEasy Stage makes "Red".

Before the play begins, there is no curtain. Instead, suspended before the audience hangs a large, stretched white canvas, turned with its back to the house. As all lights go out, a larger than life shadow is thrown on that screen --- a round, powerful man who lights a cigarette and stands contemplating that empty square, seeing perhaps what will be there.

When the canvas disappears and lights come up, they reveal a huge, cluttered studio, with high banks of smudged glass shutting out sunlight. Two huge paintings hang on either side --- subdued, misty color-abstractions with the unmistakeable stamp of Mark Rothko's vision. Jackson Pollock's abstractions were about paint, what paint does when thrown or splashed or dribbled. Rothko's huge, many-layered, shimmering canvases are about light, about color, about fields of color balancing against one another.

And the round, bald little man who makes them --- played to perfection by Thomas Derrah --- is a vesuvius of pugnacious energy. He demands his student stand and breathe in a painting, living with it, communicating with its subtleties and implications. His pictures aren't "of" something, they are, in themselves something: the summation of everything he's thought and lived up till now. And he explains that near the end of that life he has embarked on a series of thirty mural-sized abstractions that could live and breathe and reverberate against one another: a commission (35,000 dollars) to "decorate" the new Four-Seasons restaurant in New York.

Playwright John Logan builds this character largely out of direct quotes, from all sorts of contexts, from the painter himself. In one he says "When we came up together, what united us was the conviction that Painting Mattered!" And perhaps, as a subtext to his powerful performance, Tom Derrah believes theater matters too.

And taller, leaner, younger Karl Baker Olson is the perfect foil, growing in awe, in admiration, and finally in question and criticism of an art so ethereal it leaves the humanity of the beholder out of the equation. On the one hand he enters with gusto his mentor's world, leaping with enthusiasm as the two together furiously slather a virgin canvas with an initial layer of uniform color.

But as their dialogues turn slowly to argument, this young man turns from the brink of abstraction's abyss back to the possibility of portraits or landscapes or still-lifes. Those younger painters ("who are out to murder me!" Rothko fumes) also have a vision, a world-view; and they too are making something new.

This is an exciting, breakneck journey, and its easy to think the two men slugging it out on stage are creating it out of themselves alone. That is because Christina Todesco's magnificently detailed set, Bill Barclay's deft sound design, Jeff Adelberg's lights, and even Properties Master James Wilkinson's sea of ordered, scruffy clutter let's these very real human beings live. And, holding all these together, Director David R. Gammons has made a masterpiece.

( a k a larry stark )

"Red" (6 January - 4 February)
@ Boston Center for The Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide