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By John Quinn
“What do you see?”
So goes the opening exchange between the characters in John Logan’s “Red,” a short but wide-ranging reflection on the meaning of art and of the creative process in general. It won six Tony Awards in the 2010 season, including Best Play. It’s as saturated with emotion as its protagonist’s canvases are with color. Topher Alan Payne directs “Red” as Southgate’s Open Book Theatre’s second outing of its inaugural season.
The above-mentioned protagonist is the Russian-born but thoroughly American artist, Mark Rothko. Generally considered one of the great leaders of the post-war Abstract Expressionist, he and compatriots like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning defined the New American Painting movement. His legacy is intact: His 1955 painting, “Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange)” sold at auction this year for $36.5 million. That’s a nice price for painted rectangles.
But what rectangles they are! Stand close to a Rothko. “Get close. Let it pulsate. Let it work on you … Let it wrap its arms around you; let it embrace you…” Ask yourself, “What do you see?” You see that the artistic element derives not from use of form, but from use of color. Translucent and transparent layers of paint, in contrasting but complementary colors, have been painstakingly overlaid. The only word to describe the effect is “vibrant.” The colors flicker, they “pulse” as if alive. Like great drama evokes catharsis, Rothko’s evoke a strong, life-affirming emotional purge. “Red” observes the artist’s “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
The scene is Rothko’s Bowery studio in Manhattan. It’s 1958, and at the height of his career, Rothko has accepted a commission for his first installation of murals. His works would ring the dining room of The Four Seasons restaurant in the new, modernist Seagram’s Building. He hires an assistant – a fictitious one, but Logan knows what he’s doing. Ken is an aspiring artist and is delighted to be working with a master. Taskmaster, though, might be a better description. Rothko is pompous, overbearing, dismissive and unappreciative. He is, in fact, a bully. Ken begins to push back. Rothko’s proud statement that he and his gang had “stomped to death” the Cubists is met by Ken’s challenge that he and his fellow pop artists are “stomping” on Expressionism. While never bringing up Oedipus, Logan makes clear that progress depends on the son supplanting the father.
Does all this sound a little tedious, esoteric and philosophical?
Director Payne never forgets that this is a theatrical experience, not an art history lecture. The show stars Dennis Kleinsmith as Rothko and Richard Payton as Ken. The duo are in tight sync for this production, and are particularly notable for playing the gradual evolution of the characters. There is change: Rothko’s is resisted, Ken’s is inevitable.
Harley Miah has an artistic achievement of his own. Not only does his lighting design complement the peculiarities of Penelope’s Venue, Open Book’s performance space, but it complements a major motif of the script. In describing the contrast between the light and dark of the human spirit, and of life and death, Rothko refers to Caravaggio’s painting, “The Conversion of Saul.” The figure of the unhorsed apostle-to-be seems to glow with an inner light. So too do the actors under Miah’s warm washes. The figures pop off the black backdrop, producing compositions as pretty as a picture.
Note must be made of Kat Walsh’s work with “movement,” although it can legitimately be called choreography. Rothko and Ken prime a canvas in a tinted base color – red, of course; billowing cloth represents the paint. The grunt work becomes a ballet, accompanied by yet another of Brandy Joe Plambeck’s subtle, sensitive sound designs. It’s dramatic, it’s kinetic – it’s art!
“What do you see?”
Those are also the closing lines of the play. We come full circle, finding that “Red” is a swirl of emotion splashed across the canvas of creative process. While of natural appeal to any artist, it’s an intellectually stimulating experience for the perceptive patron.
Open Book Theatre Company
at Penelope’s Venue
12219 Dix Toledo Road, Southgate
8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 11
8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 12
8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 13
1 hour, 40 minutes; no intermission