My good friend, veteran actor Adam Crowe, fills in for me as guest reviewer for a second time while I continue at Beef and Boards:
For some reason, it often seems that the academic topics which I now find interesting didn’t seem to tempt me when the opportunity for study presented itself. One of those subjects is visual art. Lack of any formal education has left me to be one of those “I know what I like” kind of art appreciators. I suppose there are a lot of casual theater-goers that feel the same way about plays. And like me, such audiences might be daunted by the thought of a stage play about a famous American 20 century painter. Have no fear – the play in question does not require an art history degree or even intimate familiarity with the painter’s legacy.
The winner for the 2010 Tony Award for Best New Play, John Logan’s Red (now playing at The Indiana Repertory Theatre through November 9th) is a fascinating and engaging rumination on the nature of “art” and the artists who make it. The play’s protagonist is Mark Rothko, one of America’s most famous post-war painters. Along with Willem DeKooning and Jackson Pollack – Rothko set the standard for American Abstract Expressionists. Logan’s play incorporates some real world events – Rothko was commissioned to create a series of paintings for New York City’s soon-to-open Four Seasons Restaurant. At the same time, Logan also creates a fictional foil for Rothko – a young artist named Ken – whom Rothko has hired to assist him in his studio. Over roughly 90 minutes, Rothko and his young assistant argue, debate, discuss, and even paint. The audience is challenged to decide if Rothko’s acceptance of the commission is an act of “selling out”, or if he has simply become a victim of his own fame and need for adulation. Or, as the artist would later claim, did Rothko really hope that wealthy Four Seasons guests would . . . “feel that they are trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so that all they can do is butt their heads forever against the wall . . .”?
Frequent IRT guest artist Henry Woronicz gives full life to Rothko: a massively talented and equally flawed human being, with little time for discussions or thoughts that don’t center on him. As his young “employee”, Chicago’s Zach Kenney slowly unwinds an absorbing portrait of a young artist with his own ambitions and secrets. Both actors are terrific and play off of one another brilliantly. Credit also goes to IRT Playwright-In-Residence James Still, who’s understated direction allows these two performances to ebb and flow, packing a lot of thought into their brief story. Guy Clark’s costumes are perfect, as is Ann Sheffield’s set design and Jesse Klug’s lighting. Aside from art, one of the many topics Rothko and Ken discuss is music, and Todd Mack Reischman’s sound design seamlessly integrates the musical styles as yet another layer of art.
Red is performed on IRT’s Upperstage – and is just the sort of small and thoughtful play that IRT does so very well in that space. Bringing together a perfect blend of theatrical artists to tell the story of this complicated visual artist, IRT’s production soars. Like many of you, I may not be an expert on Abstract Expressionism, but I know what I like – and Woronicz and Kenney are creating it nightly in downtown Indianapolis.
Red continues its run through November 9th. You can find out more about the schedule and reserve tickets by calling the Box Office at (317) 635-5252, or by going to the website at http://www.irtlive.com.
* – Photos by Zach Rosing
* – Banner artwork by Kyle Ragsdale