note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
It isn’t often that attending a play leaves one breathless with every word, every scene, but with actor Thomas Derrah, it’s becoming commonplace. Derrah, you’ll remember, astounded theatergoers last year in January with his solo performance as “Bucky” Fuller in D.W. Jacobs’ “R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe,” at American Repertory Theater. His entire being channeled the late, brilliant scientist. In a sillier vein, Derrah drew belly laughs last May in SpeakEasy Theatre Company’s brilliant production of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” when he portrayed lothario Adolpho, an unctuous, pseudo Latin lover.
There’s no type-casting or corraling Derrah. He’s ubiquitous. He’s Everyman. Even his looks and voice change with every role. Now, as he portrays famous artist Mark Rothko, under the marvelous direction of David R. Gammons, in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of “Red,” Derrah mesmerizes audiences again. He doesn’t merely portray Rothko. He captures his soul, his essence, Rothko’s tempestuous, pulsating view of life and his art credo. Watching Derrah, we’re convinced blood didn’t run through Rothko’s veins. Paint did, spilling furiously onto canvases, creating masterpieces of light and dark, form, color, and emotion.
In this New England premiere of John Logan’s one-act, 90-minute multi-award winning play, Logan concentrates on Rothko’s later period, specifically 1958, when Rothko was affected by Matisse’s Red period and incorporated shades of red, brown, maroon and black on his large canvases.
Besides winning the Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critic Circle and Drama League awards for “Red,” Logan is a celebrated playwright who also penned screenplays for hit movies, “Gladiator,” “The Aviator,” “Sweeney Todd,” “the Last Samurai,” “Hugo,” and others. The prolific writer is currently working on a James Bond movie, “Skyfall”.
In “Red,” Logan disregards Rothko’s private life - the fact that Rothko was married twice and had two children. He concentrates on that one period of Rothko’s career, creates an eager, fictitious assistant named Ken (admirably portrayed by Karl Baker Olson), and injects some of Rothko’s famous quotes to further define the artist’s fiery commitment to his paintings. A passionate artist whose fame skyrocketed as an abstract expressionist, Rothko was commissioned to paint 35-40 large murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York City’s Seagram Building. In “Red,” Logan underscores Rothko’s unimaginable return of his large commission, because Rothko imagined people of elite cultural values would appreciate his works as they dine - pay homage to their brilliance; but after working for two years on the project, he realized his murals would merely be wall decorations, nothing more.
As Rothko battles the demons of modern art that embrace commercialism - think Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg- along with young, new artists who lack his vision and commitment to his art form, he teaches Ken to feel, see, and share the fire in his belly. In one powerful scene of this fictional theatrical portrait, the two slap brown paint on a huge canvas, in unison, at a furious pace, synchronized to a stirring classical music record Rothko’s playing.
Cristina Todesco’s fantastic set is a recreation of Rothko’s rude studio in the Bowery. Aided by Jeff Adelberg’s lighting, a large opaque screen is suspended in center stage, revealing the silhouette of the man studying it, thinking, then creatively attacking it, with fervor. Sound designer Bill Barclay pipes in appropriate mood music for each scene, befitting Rothko’s creative mood swings and stinging exchanges between the artist and his mild-mannered go-fer.
Even after Ken confides hideous details of his life with Rothko, the famous artist has no sympathy. Olson is superb as he becomes incensed and defends Ken’s feelings and artistic philosophy.
We see Rothko as a man self-possessed, totally consumed by his art. His canvases, paint brushes and pails are extensions of his body, crying for creation, not understanding; self-satisfaction, not adoration.
We can imagine but not predict that Rothko, who was depressed, committed suicide at age 66, in April 1970.
Like Rothko, Logan has created a masterpiece, balletic and symbolic in nature, searing with realism.
BOX INFO: One-act, two-man, 90-minute play, written by John Logan, appearing through Feb. 4 with SpeakEasy Stage Company in the Virginia Wimberly Theatre,Stanford Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., South End, Boston.Performances are Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4,8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m.; also Tuesday, Jan. 31, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $50; seniors, $45; weekends, $55/$50; under age 25, $25; student rush, $14 with valid college ID at the Box Office an hour ahead of curtain, if available. Call 617-933-8600 or visit www.BostonTheatreScene.com.